Champion of the poor

 

 

Bangkok Post   09/09/07

 

 

                       

 

 

Mrs Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, affectionately called the 'Slum Angel' by the public and the

 

 

media, is hopeful about philanthropic work in Thailand

 

 

                        

 

 

Born and raised in Klongtoey slum of Bangkok, Prateep Ungsongtham Hata always wanted to

 

 

help the poor. She had to do odd jobs to help the family when she was still very young.

 

 

 

 

''I made money selling sweets, chipping rust from the sides of ships and packing fireworks,'' she

 

 

recalls. ''But it wasn't too hard, and I still found time to study.''

 

 

 

 

After four years of primary education, she attended evening classes under the informal education

 

 

programme. Seeing that slum children were left alone when their parents went to work, she set

 

 

up a makeshift classroom to teach pre-school children to read and write. Each family was charged

 

 

one baht a day, and her little classroom became known as the ''One-Baht School''. Prateep used

 

 

the small income to support her higher education.

 

 

 

 

Today, a still-studious Prateep, 55, is also still a champion of the poor, but the task she carries is

 

 

much heavier than teaching slum children. As secretary-general of the Duang Prateep Foundation

 

 

(DPF), which she set up in 1978, Mrs Prateep has to take care of numerous projects that include

 

 

kindergarten education for slum children, campaigns against drugs and community development.

 

 

 

 

''Drug addiction is a big problem in slums,'' she said. ''In Klong Toey, we used to have about 1,000

 

 

addicts. I could see young people taking drugs almost every day.''

 

 

 

 

She credited the previous Thaksin government for paying serious attention to the drug problem.

 

 

In Klong Toey, the number of addicts went down by 80 percent during the so-called ''war on

 

 

drugs'' that saw 10 drug dealers killed. Now the number of drug addicts has gone up.

 

 

 

 

''Suppression alone will not solve the problem; it must be done alongside demand reduction

 

 

programmes that tackle the root causes of social problems, such as poverty, lack of education and

 

 

broken families,'' said Mrs Prateep.

 

 

 

 

In Klong Toey slum, 40 percent of the children come from broken families, with single parents

 

 

or even grandparents taking care of their children and grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

''Now we have a new problem with teenage mothers, some of them as young as 15 or 16. We are

 

 

helping these young mothers and at the same time organising programmes to teach young people

 

 

about family planning and proper parenthood,'' said Mrs Prateep.

 

 

 

 

The DPF still runs a kindergarten school on its premises. It used to run primary and secondary

 

 

schools, but they have now all been transferred to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. Mrs

 

 

Prateep is still as busy as ever, however. On a regular day, when there are no prior engagements,

 

 

she can be seen welcoming visitors and donors, many from foreign countries.

 

 

 

 

''She is famous around the world for her philanthropic work. Everyone speaks highly about her,''

 

 

said DPF assistant secretary-general Supphawut Manochantr.

 

 

 

 

''Hundreds of foreigners have volunteered to work at the foundation over the past several years

 

 

and this has helped create goodwill for the foundation and the country,'' he added. ''One Japanese

 

 

volunteer has been with us for 17 years now. She can speak Thai fluently and we regard her as

 

 

a family member.''

 

 

 

 

In fact, a large number of DPF supporters are in Japan, where Mrs Prateep visits regularly to brief

 

 

donors about the progress of her projects. Her husband, Tatsuya Hata, is chief executive director

 

 

of the Shanti Volunteer Association in Japan and a lecturer on social development at Kinki

 

 

University in Osaka .

 

 

 

 

Tatsuya came to Thailand in the early 1970s with a group of Japanese volunteers to help

 

 

Cambodian refugees near the Thai-Cambodian border. He heard about Prateep and came to visit

 

 

her in Klong Toey during a sojourn to Bangkok. Their marriage in 1987 made front-page

 

 

headlines in the Thai press.

 

 

 

 

Mrs Prateep admits she has yet to master the Japanese language, so her morning rituals include

 

 

listening to the tapes provided by her language instructor.

 

 

 

 

Political turn

 

 

 

 

Nobody was surprised when Mrs Prateep was elected to the Senate in 2000, representing Bangkok. The ''Slum Angel'', as she is affectionately called by the public and the media, has spent the past 40 years of her life to better the lot of the poor. She knows that political support is important to get things done.

 

 

 

 

When Mr Bhichit Rattakul ran for Bangkok governor in 1996, he came to canvass for votes

 

 

among the 100,000 residents of Klong Toey slum. Mrs Prateep managed to get him to make a

 

 

written promise to the slum-dwellers, which he kept after winning the election.

 

 

 

 

''Poverty is the result of poor or failed public policy. That's why we have to get politicians

 

 

involved in solving the problems of the poor,'' said Mrs Prateep.

 

 

 

 

But it's not easy to make people understand this point of view. A number of donors called and

 

 

said they could not support the foundation anymore when they learned that she had become a

 

 

member of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), which is now

 

 

campaigning for the lifting of martial law in 35 provinces.

 

 

 

 

As a voter, she wants to see a free and fair election that will bring back democracy to the country.

 

 

 

 

''I won't join any political party,'' she emphasised. ''My heart is in the poor children now under

 

 

the care of my foundation. I want them to have a good education and a good life.''

 

 

 

 

She enjoyed being in the previous Senate, which was the first fully elected Upper House in Thai

 

 

political history. Without political affiliation, the Senate can work more effectively as a

 

 

check-and-balance mechanism.

 

 

 

 

But the next Senate will not be fully elected. This is one issue that Mrs Prateep strongly disagrees

 

 

with, among a few other contentious articles in the new constitution that was approved in the

 

 

Aug 19 referendum.

 

 

 

 

While acknowledging it will take time for democracy to take roots here in Thailand, Mrs Prateep

 

 

is encouraged by the growing number of individual and corporate donors who support

 

 

philanthropic work here Thailand.

 

 

 

 

Visitors to the Duang Prateep Foundation during June and August included top administrators

 

 

of foreign corporations in Bangkok and their staff, Thai entertainment stars who organised games

 

 

for the kindergarten students, and 11 high school students from the United States on a three-week

 

 

programme of activities.

 

 

 

 

''This kind of support keeps me going,'' said Mrs Prateep. ''When I see the smiles on the faces of

 

 

these visitors and my students, I know there is hope for a brighter future.''

 

 

 

 

 BioDATA

 

 

 

 

     Mrs Prateep Ungsongtham Hata was born on 9 August 1952 in Klongtoey, Bangkok .

 

 

     She obtained a diploma in Education from Suan Dusit Teachers College in 1974 and a

 

 

Bachelor's degree in Education from Ban Somdej Chaopraya Teachers College in 1982.

 

 

     She received a Master's in Political Science from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open

 

 

University in 2005.

 

 

     Mrs. Prateep set up the One-Baht-AQ-Day School for slum children in Klongtoey in

 

 

1968. She set up another school there in 1974 and worked as a teacher there until she founded

 

 

the Duang Prateep Foundation in 1978.

 

 

     She was elected a senator for Bangkok in 2000 and served on several government

 

 

committees on education for the poor and urban policy.

 

 

     She has received several awards and honours including the Ramon Magsaysay Award

 

 

for Public Service in 1978, the World Children's Prize and the Global Friends Award from

 

 

Sweden in 2004.

 

 

     She is now on the UN Board of Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

 

 

     Mrs. Prateep is married to Tatsuya Hata. They have two sons aged 19 and 15.



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