HIGHLIGHTS

  • As a member of Thailand’s upper house, Senator UNGPHAKORN raised the voices of many Thai citizens. In 1991, UNGPHAKORN founded the AIDS-Access Foundation which pioneered in fighting the stigma of the disease. As chair of the NGO Coalition on AIDS, he fostered collaboration and helped build an effective network for advocacy.
  • When Thailand’s new constitution opened the Senate to election in 2000, he mobilized supporters from the NGO and HIV/AIDS communities and won a seat. As a member of the Health Committee and the Social Development and Human Security Committee, Ungphakorn used his position to advance the concerns of Thailand’s marginalized citizens.
  • UNGPHAKORN has also used his senatorial authority to expose the brutal hand of the government toward Muslim communities in southern Thailand, and to uphold the rights of rural folk whose livelihoods were threatened by property speculators and scandal-ridden dams, power plants, and mines.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his impassioned insistence as a senator that Thailand respect the rights and attend humanely to the needs of its least advantaged citizens.”

 CITATION

For much of the twentieth century, Thailand was led by military men as governments shifted coup after coup. Even so, democracy slowly took hold. A new constitution in 1997 enshrined civilian governance and popular representation through elections. The kingdom’s democratic transition now seems complete. Yet today, democracy and “money politics” have created a new power matrix in Thailand. “We have never had a government with such authority and power,” says Senator Jon UNGPHAKORN, noting that the voices of many Thai citizens remain unheard. As a member of Thailand’s upper house, he is raising those voices.

Born in London in 1947, UNGPHAKORN trained as an engineer in England but made his life in Thailand, where his father, Puey Ungphakorn, was an enlightened architect of the modern Thai state and an early Magsaysay Awardee. Jon began his own career as a lecturer at Mahidol University but, in the politically turbulent 1970s, turned his attention to social issues. In 1980 he founded the Thai Volunteer Service to expose privileged university graduates to the country’s rural poor and to the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were working among them. UNGPHAKORN helped the new NGOs to manage and fund their projects and, as he did so, played a key role in knitting Thailand’s nascent civil society together.

Responding early to the presence of HIV/AIDS in Thailand, in 1991 UNGPHAKORN founded the AIDS-Access Foundation. He pioneered in providing confidential counseling for people with HIV/AIDS and their families, in fighting the public stigma of AIDS, and in asserting the rights of everyone to effective and affordable treatment. As chair of the NGO Coalition on AIDS, he fostered collaboration and helped build an effective network for advocacy.

When Thailand’s new constitution opened the Senate to election in 2000, Ungphakorn mobilized supporters from the NGO and HIV/AIDS communities and won a seat. He says frankly that “No one listens to NGOs, but if you are elected senator . . . everyone is interested.”

The Thai Senate does not initiate legislation but plays an important role in monitoring government and shaping the country’s laws. As a member of the Health Committee and the Social Development and Human Security Committee, UNGPHAKORN used his position to advance the concerns of Thailand’s marginalized citizens, making shrewd use of the press to publicize critical committee findings that might otherwise have been shelved or buried in the slow-moving legislative process. As he did so, Ungphakorn prioritized Thailand’s HIV/AIDS community—by working to include HIV/AIDS patients in the country’s new “30-baht-per-visit” national health scheme; by supporting the lawsuit against Bristol-Myers Squibb that opened the door for Thailand to produce a critical anti-HIV drug at half the cost; and by prevailing upon the government to ban a food supplement being callously advertised as an AIDS miracle drug.

But UNGPHAKORN has also used his senatorial authority to expose the brutal hand of the government toward Muslim communities in southern Thailand, and to uphold the rights of rural folk whose livelihoods are threatened by property speculators and scandal-ridden dams, power plants, and mines. He has inveighed against the death penalty, against intellectual-property-rights agreements that disadvantage poor Thais, and against a national press that has failed, he says, to report “violence perpetrated by the state apparatus [and] the violation of human rights.”

UNGPKHAKORN is not alone in pressing these concerns. But he and his like-minded senators are in a minority. Most senators bow to the government, he says. But UNGPHAKORN knows that his constituency and his heart lie elsewhere. “I was elected by NGOs and the HIV/AIDS community,” he says. “They set the agenda. I give them support.”

In electing JON UNGPHAKORN to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his impassioned insistence as a senator that Thailand respect the rights and attend humanely to the needs of its least advantaged citizens.

 RESPONSE

The honorable Chief Justice Davide, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.

Forty years ago today, in his response to receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, my father, Dr. Puey Ungphakorn, referred to my youngest brother Giles, then aged 12 and a stamp collector. Giles had quoted to my father a part of Ramon Magsaysay’s Credo which he had learned from a commemorative postage stamp the part which translates into English as “I believe that he who has less in life should have more in law”.

Today, I also have a story to tell about Giles, now a university lecturer and political activist. I learned very recently that when Giles was approached for information about me during the nomination process, he asked whether it would be possible not to nominate me, but to nominate Somchai Nilapaijit instead. I could not agree with him more.

Somchai was President of the Thai Muslim Lawyers Association and a civil rights lawyer who made great sacrifices to provide the best legal services for Muslim defendants, often people whom Ramon Magsaysay would have described as having less in life. He paid the ultimate sacrifice on March 12th 2004 when he was abducted from his car in Bangkok, never to be seen or heard of again. This occurred soon after he started a signature campaign calling for martial law to be lifted from three southern provinces, and just after he petitioned a Senate committee to investigate allegations that five people whom he was defending had been tortured by police in order to obtain false confessions. Five policemen were later arrested on charges relating to his abduction and are presently on trial, but it is unlikely that those who gave the orders for his demise will be uncovered in the near future.

Unfortunately, the regulations of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation do not allow for posthumous nominations, and so here I am now, receiving this great honor which I dedicate first and foremost to lawyer Somchai and his family.

The present Constitution of my country, Thailand, guarantees the civil rights and democratic freedoms of individuals and communities on a par with the most democratic countries of the world. Yet since its promulgation eight years ago, Thailand has seen some of the worst human rights and civil rights abuses in recent history. The disappearance of lawyer Somchai is just one example.

Our Constitution guarantees the rights of communities to participate in the management and conservation of their own natural resources and environment, and to receive a fair hearing regarding any development projects which might adversely affect them. Yet not only have these community rights been widely ignored and natural resources such as land, forest, and water been grabbed away from communities, but at least 15 community leaders from all regions of the country have been assassinated since 2001 for trying to protect their communities against environmental destruction by outsiders with vested interests. They received little protection or recognition from the state for serving the interests of their communities and of society as a whole, and in most cases the perpetrators of their deaths have remained unpunished. It is therefore important that I should dedicate my award to all of them for their courage and sacrifice.

Since January 2004, violence in the southernmost provinces of Thailand has escalated out of control. Brutal killings of innocent people by terrorists believed to be members of separatist groups have become an everyday occurrence. At the same time, numerous reports of unlawful practices by police and military units against Muslims in these provinces including allegations of abductions, torture, and killings, have caused widespread resentment and distrust of security forces among the local population. The unclear circumstances surrounding the deaths of 19 members of the Sabayoi youth football team in April 2004 and the deaths, while in military custody, of 78 demonstrators arrested at Tak Bai six months later are extremely disturbing events to all who respect the values that form the foundations of our Constitution.

I would therefore like to additionally dedicate my award to all those who are working for peace and justice in the southern provinces, including members of the National Reconciliation Commission headed by Magsaysay Awardee, Anand Panyarachun.

I also dedicate my award to all civil society activists, whether from NGOs or peoples’ organizations, who are working under difficult circumstances for social justice, respect for human rights, empowerment of the powerless, and equitable management of natural resources; including all my friends and colleagues in the Thai Volunteer Service network, the Thai NGO Coalition on AIDS and the national and regional networks of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Furthermore, I would like to dedicate this award to all those struggling for media and press freedom in Thailand in accordance with Articles 39 and 41 of our Constitution. This includes those journalists and media people who have managed to maintain the ethical standards of their profession by reporting news in a straightforward manner and not giving in to various forms of intimidation. It also includes those-such as the ITV news staff, several radio news commentators, and some newspaper journalists-who have been victimized for their integrity, as well as Supinya Klangnarong of the Campaign for Media Reform who is being sued for damages of well over 1,000 times her annual income together with the Thai Post Newspaper.

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to dedicate my award to all fellow members of the Thai Senate who have performed their duties in strict accordance with their oath of office; that is to say, with honesty, for the benefit of the people, and by adhering to the principles of our Constitution.

Finally, it only remains for me to express my gratitude to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for giving me the opportunity to accept this award on behalf of so many people striving to make Thailand a better place to live for all.

 BIOGRAPHY

His is a remarkable family. This is where so much of what he would become begins. His father, Puey Ungphakorn (1916–1999), the son of a Chinese fish merchant in Bangkok, had a storied career as a government scholar in England, a war hero, and a brilliant economist and educator widely esteemed for his integrity and dedication to public service. In 1946, while pursuing his war-interrupted doctoral studies at the London School of Economics (LSE), Puey married Margaret Smith, who was a sociology student in his undergraduate class at LSE. An Englishwoman with a strong Quaker background, Margaret shared her husband’s interest in social reform. Together, they raised three sons, Jon, Peter Mytri, and Giles Ji, who would enact in their own lives, in distinctively individual ways, the same zeal for social welfare.

THE eldest son, Jon Ungphakorn was born in London on September 19, 1947. When he was one, the family moved to Thailand where his father entered government service as an economist in the comptroller general’s department of the Ministry of Finance. Puey then became technical assistant to the Permanent Undersecretary of Finance at the same time that he lectured in economics at Thammasat and Chulalongkorn universities. As his talent was increasingly recognized, he was appointed in 1953 as deputy governor of the Bank of Thailand, the central banking institution, and member of the board of directors of the National Economic Council. In these positions, he played a key role in the postwar economic rehabilitation of Thailand.

(For his exemplary work in government service, Puey Ungphakorn was honored with a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1965.) Despite his father’s prominence, the family lived simply. They lived in a one-storey wooden house in a large property, in what was then the rural outskirts of Bangkok, which Puey bought on installment from a cousin. Puey was an unprepossessing man, a government official who avoided the trappings of high office, shied away from publicity, and—something quite rare—always insisted he should not be overpaid.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)