Life after the Senate

For Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, former slum activist and now former senator, the campaign for a better life for the poor continues

Brian Kent

Prateep Ungsongtham Hata began campaigning for the poor when she opened her first kindergarten as a teenager near her home in the dockside slum of Klong Toey.

As a champion of slum children and their families, her work over the following 30 years has received international recognition, and it continued while she was a member of Thailand's first elected Senate.

You've just completed your term as a senator. What did you learn from the experience?

A lot! One of the first things was that class can play a role at every level of society. We were all elected senators. Every one of us had the trust of the people who voted for us. Our duty was to serve the people of the country, monitoring government policy and legislation and selecting the right people for independent organisations. But 60 per cent of the senators were former civil servants and they have a certain way of looking at things.

It was a disappointment to see that the only bill from the Lower House that affected poor people was so weakened by Senate amendments that when it went back to the Lower House it was rejected. That was the Community Forest Bill.

What was the positive side of being a member of the Senate?

The authority that the Senate gave me. With that, I could be much more effective. To work for the poor when you have no real power is very hard, as I found out in the early days. But in these six years I have been able to get so much more done. The work I was able to do would have taken me at least 20 years to achieve in the past.

Would you stand for election again in the future? I certainly wish to go on working for the poor as long as I am needed, and I would want to work for an independent organisation that would give me the same kind of support and freedom to act. But it really is too early to say now. In six years time I might be too old!

What was the work you were doing as a senator?

I was chairperson of the Social Development and Human Security Commission involved with 14 slum communities. 
I was able to help more than 50,000 people in poor communities. When they are faced with eviction because they're living on land that the owners want to develop, alternative land can be set aside for them to rebuild their homes, but they have to find the money to pay for it.

If their homes are destroyed by fire, they will receive compensation to help them rebuild. That's the theory, but in both those cases, it often doesn't work out, and the people are left homeless and without help. I was able to find out what had gone wrong and see that the people received the compensation or the land due to them, and were not thrown out of their homes.

Are slums still a problem for Thailand?

Look around and you'll see. Poor country people have not stopped coming into the city to find work and they still need shelter. But the real problem is poverty. Slums are just one expression of the vast gap between haves and have-nots in the town and in the countryside.

Aren't things better now than when you started?

In many ways, they are, and one would hope so, too. In the 1970s when I was growing up in Klong Toey, no one wanted to think about the slums. They were an eyesore, a shame to the country and the people who lived there had no real existence in Thai society. 
Everything about them was illegal. My first school was, even though many children were denied access to education because of poverty. Now there are more schools and more children going to school. Their families must still find the cost of uniforms and shoes and so on, though, and that's why the Duang Prateep Foundation and other NGOs must continue to have educational sponsorship schemes. But in terms of quantity - we are better off.

How about quality, though?

Well, you know what our education system is like. There are children who've been in school for six years but who can't read or write well. We have elite schools with good teachers, and a few families can send their children abroad to study, but we're talking about a tiny fraction of the population.

What's to be done about it?

We need to attract better teachers with better incentives. Teaching is a low-paid job involving a lot of hard work if it's done properly. Why should teachers' pay lag so much behind the pay of other professions? We should change that.

Is that the answer? Better pay for teachers?

Not on its own. Motivation isn't just about money. One problem for teachers is that they don't enjoy the same respect they once had in our society. They aren't celebrities, they're not looked at with admiration, and yet they are doing incredibly important work. Think of it: they are responsible for a large part of the development of our young people, especially now when both parents are likely be away from home working.

In the task of building people, the Ministry of Education needs to look outside the usual channels to create a dynamic of education. 
They should look at the volunteer sector where there are many motivated teachers with a knowledge of child-centred methods that are not dependent on memorising text-books.

Will you return to teaching now that your Senate term has ended?

I think it is the thread that has run all through my life, from the time when I looked after pre-school children in Klong Toey so their mothers could go to work. But I am thinking more about training a new generation in community development. This will have nothing to do with party politics, but everything to do with people having a voice in their own development. Because their voice must be heard when governments are making their policies.

You are now back at the helm of the foundation you started with the prize money from international community service awards in 1978. Is it still on course today?

Absolutely. We run nearly 30 projects for poor children and their families. We have a staff of 110, and since the tsunami, 23 in Phang Nga.

Do you see signs of progress for Thailand's poor?

The 30-baht health insurance has been an important innovation, and the village loan scheme, too, if it is sustainable. We've been monitoring it since it started, and after the first two years it began to show genuine results.

There is now a government department to look after housing for the poor in Bangkok and the rural areas. It has clear-cut objectives and guidelines for upgrading and relocation, but it's early days yet and there is still a long way to go. That is why there are so many cases to deal with in the Senate.

What about the drug problem in Klong Toey?

It was huge, and it was always a threat. We started our grassroots anti-drugs campaign more than 20 years ago and it worked in a small, local way with volunteers and some police help. But now the problem is down to 20 percent of what it used to be. I cannot feel comfortable about everything that happened, and before you ask me, yes, I think the Caretaker Prime Minister must go. But I would be wrong to ignore what many poor people have said to me: This is the first government that made us feel they were willing to help us.

What are some future measures you would like to see introduced?

I would like to see the Senate made stronger by being more accountable, with transparent voting on all issues. I also think we would do better in the future if we were to have an Ethical Commission as well as a Counter Corruption Commission. Laws have loopholes. Clever people can find ways through them and can get away with unethical behaviour by claiming what they've done is within the law. But if what they do is morally and ethically wrong, that should be against the law, too.

You have two young sons and your life has always been busy. Has that been a problem in any way?

I can't say that it has, really. I've always managed to find ways to be there for them. When they were babies I used to take them along to meetings in their cradles. Now they're both teenagers, and it has been wonderful growing up with them. I think part of my motivation is that I want to see a better life for them.

In what way better?

Let me put it this way: the Buddhist virtues are there in our daily life. They are part of us, but we know that once they come in conflict with the profit motive and at times of high emotion, they can be forgotten.

Better by far to remember them, and not to forget that we are all Thais under the same King. We should not let emotion lead us, but our own wisdom.

That will be better for our lives and for our country.

The above article appeared in the Bangkok Post of 31st March 2006. The article is the copyright of the Bangkok Post and may not be reproduced or used in any form without the permission of the Bangkok Post.

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