Gothom Arya, 46, got his first taste of activism as a PhD student in the streets of Paris during the fiery protests against then-President Charles de Gaulle in 1968. "I have been an activist pretty much my whole life," declares Gothom, who speaks English with a mixture of Parisian and Thai accents. For the next 28 years, while teaching electrical engineering at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, he used his off hours to campaign for human rights and democracy. He was a pioneer of election monitoring, serving with Bangkok-based PollWatch, which sent him to Cambodia, Indonesia, and India to observe their elections in the 1990s.
Those experiences serve Gothom well in his current role. He is one of Thailand's five Election Commissioners, appointed under the new constitution to clean up notoriously dirty Thai politics. He knows what makes free and fair elections, and he's trying to make them happen in Thailand. "I spent my life in education, and this job is more or less about educating," he says.
The most outspoken of the commissioners, Gothom is emblematic of the change that is sweeping through Thailand's electoral system. After elections in March, the commissioners barred an unprecedented 78 of 200 parliamentarians from taking office because of suspected vote-buying and then ordered new polls. When not investigating electoral abuse, Gothom now visits rural villages, preaching against the evils of vote-buying.