International -- The Stars of Asia -- Opinion Shapers
Prateep Ungsongtham Hata (int'l edition)
Senator -- Thailand
As the newly elected Senate representative from Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum, Prateep Ungsongtham Hata has a legitimate claim as a champion of the poor. Prateep had to abandon her education at age 11 and take a job to support her family. Her first job, in 1964, was packaging firecrackers for just 35 cents a day. After five years of other menial labor, including paint-chipping and cargo-vessel cleaning, she saved enough to attend night school and complete her education.
Prateep, 47, has spent much of her life campaigning to improve the lot of the poor. But last year, she felt she could be even more effective by being part of public policymaking. So she ran for Senate and was elected in March. "My new status will help the people's movement in the slums and rural areas," she explains. Prateep represents a new breed of grassroots hopefuls untainted by traditional Thai money politics. She is active in promoting women in politics. But her first concerns are children's rights and solving the rampant problems caused by drugs and HIV among the poor.
Prateep has seen it all first-hand. At age 16, she began a day care center. It grew into a school, charging 5 cents per day for slum children who could not attend government schools because their homes were not officially registered. Dubbed "Angel of the Slums" decades ago, she won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service in 1978. With more than 300 slums in greater Bangkok alone, Prateep faces her biggest challenge yet.Return to top
A Chat with Prateep Ungsongtham Hata
Prateep Ungsongtham Hata was born in Bangkok's slums and has spent her life fighting for the poor. She was elected senator in March and spoke recently with Asia Correspondent Frederik Balfour. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:Q: You started working at the age of 11, what happened?
A: After finishing four years of education, I had no opportunity to go to secondary school, so I had to work at a fireworks factory. During the rainy season there was no job, and [my family] needed money, so I worked at the harbor cleaning ships of rust and repainting. At age 14, I started thinking about continuing my studies. I tried to find some way to continue at nighttime adult school.Q: And you eventually earned a teaching certificate?
A: Yes, but it took many years.Q: At 16 you and your sister started a school?
A: Well, at the beginning [we] had no idea what was good for the kids. We didn't have much water in the slums. We tried to look after kids, clean them, give them medical care. We tried to teach them how to bathe properly. [Our charge of] one baht [five cents] per day was a lot for poor people. It evolved into basic education, reading and writing. The charge for regular school per semester was about 100 to 200 times more.Q: But the school became well known?
A: Ten years later the school become well known because we were fighting eviction. We protested and some media came. My school...was for kids with no birth certificate or house registration [most slum residents had neither]. This made people realize the problem of the poor people. We sent a letter to the king, who sent a mediator, who helped us look for another place. Since then it has grown to 500 students from about seven or eight kids. It was illegal, but finally after nine years, in 1977, they accepted my school, called it the Community School, and I became a civil servant.Q: You have continued to be active promoting the rights of the poor since?
A: In 1992 after the coup d'etat...I was appointed as a leader for protesting the army and was almost arrested.Q: What made you decide to finally enter politics?
A: It's getting harder and harder for me to work for social welfare. So many poor people suffer, so if I continued to work as a social worker, I'm not touching on policy and decision making It [couldn't] change anything about the situation! So I chose on behalf of poor people to address the problem.
As a senator, at least I could address the problems of poor people. Some activities need to be done in parliament. My status change would help the people in the slum area and rural area. I think I should represent the poor people suffering during the economic crisis. Every time, the poor people at the bottom are most affected. I also want to try to follow up, or ratify, the monitoring of the drug problem. It's a failure.Q: What about the sex industry?
A: I still don't pay much attention. When people have no job, some of the housewives go to work like that.Return to top