Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Surachai Trongngam was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Surachai Trongngam is reinforcing existing legal environmental laws and standards in order to protect the rights, livelihoods and health of local communities affected by pollution. By using precedent-setting cases and empowering victims to restructure the environmental legal framework, Surachai Trongngam is opening a new field for public law in Thailand.
The New Idea
In the past two decades, rapid industrialization in Thailand has precipitated a decline in the environmental health of the country. While enforcing and raising awareness of Thailand’s environmental laws, Surachai is paving the way for an interdisciplinary public law approach to environmental court cases whereby groups of victims file class action suits utilizing and reinforcing existing legal standards. By advocating for the help of medical and environmental experts, by establishing a network of lawyers, environmental activists and victims, and by using successful precedent-setting verdicts, Surachai addresses not only the intricate legal processes, the current environmental issues and health effects but also the ways in which to enforce legal mechanisms and ensure full compensation for future economic and health damages.
In 1992, Thailand passed the Enhancement and Conservation of the Natural Environmental Quality Act—legislation heralded as the dawn of environmental awareness in the country. In accordance with this act, the 1997 Constitution states that any project or activity which may seriously affect the quality of the environment shall not be permitted, unless its impacts on the quality of the environment have been studied and evaluated by experts (Art.56). Six years later, a series of serious cases of health degradations endangered the lives of over 2,000 people. In February 2000, garbage scavengers opened a Cobalt-60 cylinder, exposing local communities to dangerous levels of radioactivity. In 2004, the International Water Management Institute released a report revealing that cadmium contamination in the Mae Tao river basin was 94 times the international safety standard. Despite the existing comprehensive framework for the protection of Thailand’s environment and inhabitants, the government and private companies continue to be negligent or non-compliant.The 1992 Act requires the government to conduct public hearings and consult with local communities before it embarks on development projects with possible environmental impacts. The act also provides for the right to state compensation arising from environmental damage and the right to complain against environmental offenders respectively. However, both of these provisions are curtailed. The right to information is subject to an exception crafted for officially classified information pertaining to privacy and property rights of individuals, and the right to complain is dependent on the discretion of government officials to act upon the complaint. Citizen organizations, lawyers and the general public can only obtain information that government officials are prepared to provide.Part of the problem lies in the division of competencies, a lack of coordination among judicial bodies and the separate laws administered in Thailand. As such, decision-making is influenced considerably by the vested interests of industrialists, political parties, corporations and local authorities. Officials responsible for implementation are often confused by inconsistencies in policy directives emanating from politicians and bureaucrats. Trial judges, unfamiliar with environmental legal principles and law routinely dismiss cases or narrowly interpret Thai law in favor of defendants. As a result, there is no effective floor for environmental law enforcement. By emphasizing pollution control as its main focus, the 1992 Act attempted to pursue environmental protection from a more inclusive and coordinated approach. Among the difficulties of ordinary citizens with environmental damages, is to receive legal protection and the denial of responsibility for polluting the environment by all concerned; including state agencies. Rather than settling environmental disputes under the arbitration laws and procedures currently in place, Thai culture has long preferred non-litigious means of settlement. In this respect, many environmental disputes are settled out-of-court through mediation efforts. These ad hoc efforts are not adequate—they provide no clear evidence that the injured parties have had meaningful participation or compensation. More detailed regulations are needed to handle specific environmental issues, with more effective enforcement and implementation of existing laws and stronger community participation is needed to achieve responsible environmental management from all parties concerned.
Surachai empowers communities with legal knowledge and the capacity to implement initiatives to advocate for the revision of legal frameworks. Surachai begins by increasing environmental legal knowledge and enforcing the Polluters Pay Principle, whereby the costs of environmental damage are born by the party at cause; ensuring that state agencies are enforcing laws. He proceeds through partnership with public offices whose duties entail controlling and overseeing upcoming industrial projects and with independent organizations established to monitor and ensure the government’s legal compliance. Surachai launched the Environmental Law Centre, Enlaw, a registered citizen organization in 2001 after quitting his work at the Lawyers Association of Thailand. Surachai saw the need to focus on selective advocacy cases, winning precedent-setting verdicts to empower communities and individuals to fight for their own rights. Scrutinizing each case, Surachai has been able to address both current and future economic and health issues. Environmental cases are particularly difficult as the effects of harmful substances may not be evident for years. In the Cobalt-60 case, the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace was requested to pay 5.2 million baht in compensation to 12 radiation victims and the Ministry of Public Health organized a committee to monitor the impact on the affected persons for ten years. For the first time in Thailand, medical and scientific experts participated in the lawsuit to explain the ways in which the toxic substance might affect a number of different vital organs and body parts. With the Cadmium contamination case, Surachai’s interdisciplinary approach has been successful in setting up a fund to help those affected by any hazardous substances in the environment receive immediate treatment; waiving court fees for environmental disaster victims who want to file a court case; instating environmental compensation rulings that consider future damages and in beginning the procedure to make class-action suits more prevalent in Thailand. As environmental cases typically involve a larger number of damaged parties than civil cases, Surachai hopes such cases will soon be handled as class action suits with an interdisciplinary approach to assess all relevant fields. While dealing with precedent-setting cases, the role of Enlaw has expanded to involve the prevention of potentially dangerous projects. Through public hearings, workshops with local citizen organizations and discussions with government officials, Surachai has provided lessons from his landmark cases that have either denied the implementation of these projects or helped to design environmentally safe projects in all-state and private agencies. Surachai is collaborating with the Thai Volunteer Services, Chiang Mai University, University of Khon Kaen, and Thammasat University to provide training for graduating law students interested in environmental issues. He has received 20 to 30 trainees per year who are encouraged to work for law firms concerned with social issues and applying practical work in the field. After this year, trainees are eligible for their license. Within universities, Surachai has also promoted establishing pro bono community legal services that cater to community needs—an integrated model more and more schools are using.Surachai hopes to see the development of a special environment court in Thailand. Until then, with support from the National Human Rights Commission, Enlaw will continue to pursue landmark cases and become a center providing pro bono environmental legal advice to the citizen sector. He is developing a website and database that will provide all public, governmental and private agencies, as well as individuals, with legal information and prior cases. In addition to his center, Surachai would like to launch an organization to represent victims of environmental cases—following-up on the delivery of a court’s verdict. While amending and reinforcing current legal mechanisms, Surachai wants class action suits to facilitate the process.
Born and raised in a poor family in Thonburi, Surachai spent hours as a young boy browsing in old bookstores around the district of Bangkok and observing political demonstrations. Political tensions reached a climax on the evening of October 5, 1976, when Surachai witnessed the murder of student activists on the campus of Thammasat University, where 2,000 students held a sit-in. Fighting between students and police ended the phase of Thailand's intermittent experimentation with democracy. While earning his law degree, Surachai worked for a citizen organization advocating for the development of democracy in Northern Thailand. As part of a Community Research Project Team, he was responsible for explaining the new Tambon (sub-district) Council—a decentralized local administration emerging in Thailand. With the economic boom during the mid 1990s, disagreements between local communities and government offices surfaced as the government promoted the development of mega economic projects, impacting the poor’s access to land and agricultural resources. Surachai received his Certificate in Public Law in 2000. After a year of working for an independent law firm he joined The Friends of Women Foundation and then the Labor Law Education Program—a labor organization headed by Ashoka Fellow Charit Meesit. His experiences, along with the venue of the 1997 reformed Constitution and the growing number of illegitimate environmental situations, convinced Surachai of the need to found Enlaw.