Fellow Since 1992
Law Education for Community
This profile was prepared when Thongbai Thongpao was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
The New Idea
Thongbai believes that the law should serve and protect individuals and communities, rather than be the tool through which they are controlled by those in power. As democracy has spread in Thailand, Thongbai has shifted increasing attention to carrying out and encouraging legal education so that the poor and powerless can take better advantage of their rights and of democracy. Thongbai represents the poor who cannot defend themselves in court, especially if they are the subject of politically inspired persecution. Recent clients include primary school teachers and university students accused of "lese majeste". The lawyers working with him, assisted by a number of young volunteer lawyers, carry this load day in and day out. For the benefit of secondary school students, Thongbai prepares and distributes materials on, as well as conducts training courses regarding, their basic rights. He pays particular attention to educating young people about their rights as workers in factories. On the weekends, he and his team deliver legal basic education to the villages, concerning such vital issues as land, forestry, and family law. Again, the team focuses much of their efforts on teaching about labor laws, an understanding of which will be so critical for those who leave the villages to work in the burgeoning urban factories. Over the next several years, Thongbai hopes to spread a network of human rights legal assistance offices across Thailand's northeastern provinces. He feels that this is probably the area of the country where the largest number of violations take place given the large number of tribal and other immigrant workers. The area's low level of literacy and high levels of poverty as well as the traditional strong hand of the police and military signal a need for human rights legal protection. Furthermore, he and his wife have taken on a special project to make sure that parents, elementary school teachers, administrators, journalists, and others know of the new United Nations Declaration of Rights for Children. They are also spreading knowledge of the companion Thai laws governing children's rights in civil, commercial, and criminal law, including, the laws regarding the rape of children. Finally, Thongbai is seeking a number of specific changes in the laws. He is particularly anxious to repeal the laws enacted under various coup regimes that are easily misused for political persecution. He similarly wants to abolish a number of the laws that allow government to control the press. His third major legislative objective is to ensure maternity leave for workers.