Recently Scott Murray had a chance to sit down and discuss the Duang Prateep Foundation with its founder Khun Prateep Unsongtham Hata. Married to a Japanese social worker Tatsuya Hata, Khun Prateep, aged 47, is a recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay and Rockefeller Awards, and she has two boys - Isara (meaning "freedom") aged eleven and Mingboon aged seven.
Can you tell us a little about your background, and how and why you have become so involved in social welfare?
When I look back I wonder how we have been able to accomplish all the things we have done at the Foundation. I never thought that I would be able to help poor people the way that I have.
In the beginning I just wanted to improve my own education. When I was young I wanted to go to school, but my family was so poor, that my parents couldn't afford to send all us to school. My elder brother and sister attended a higher level of schooling than me, but unfortunately I couldn't go on. My mother worked as a cook for about Bt300 a month (this was about 3 decades ago).
After school I had to go work in a factory wrapping firecrackers. Everyday on the way to and from school I saw my other friends who did not live in the slums wearing school uniforms, and playing, and I guess I wondered why I was so unlucky, and why I didn't have the chance to further my education, and why I had to work at such an early age, and why I didn't have nice things.
When I entered the factory I was so surprised to see so many children of my own age all around ten, eleven, or twelve years old. It wasn't fair to see many kids working so hard at such a young age when they should have been outside just having fun being kids.
What about your family?
My father came from China, and my mother from Samut Songkran here in Thailand. My father was a traditional basketweaver who had fled China during the fighting between the Kuomingtang and Mao-Tse Tung's forces. He worked in Samut Songkran as a fisherman, which is where he met my mother, but a number of typhoons caused him to become seriously in debt so he had to come to Bangkok. He worked at a lot of jobs including raising pigs and chickens, and we moved many times, until he once again started working as a traditional basketweaver.
I have three brothers and three sisters. When I was born I was number six in the family, but as one of my brothers died I am now number five. One of older sisters, Khong Prakhong, runs our "New Life Project." It takes care of the children who become drug addicts and it is a very difficult program to administer.
What about your goals and aims?
I just try my best. Poor people cannot afford to look too far into the future. I am not a good planner but I have always had a dream. I have always wanted to give education to poor children, and I want to give them a better society to live in, so I have to find ways to make this dream come true, and I also want to try and make people be kinder to each other.
Although education is supposed to be free in this country it is still very expensive for poor people who have to buy all their children's books, uniforms etc. This is something that many of them cannot do.
The Foundation's aims are to provide further education, development, and welfare support for poor people as well as to try and change the government's policy towards poor people. The government structure and political systems are not sympathetic to the plight of the poor, and that is something I want to change.
We have come along way with educating children in the slums though. The government now gives poor children an education even if they do have a birth certificate or house registration, which they previously didn't do.
One major short-term plan is for more people in the slum to participate in the credit union and for them to become financially self-reliant. It is important that people here have their own financial plans for their community.
It is also important for us to improve the quality of housing for people in Klong Toey, so that we can improve the quality of their lives as well. People should take care of themselves and their community. It is important that people not just think of themselves, but their community at large.
Who or what have been your biggest influences?
My parents obviously were a tremendous influence, and Khun Udom Yenladee, a trustee of the Foundation, and Khun Nongyao Noolamit have also been very big influences for me. I also read many books, and of course my staff has always been very supportive, caring and understanding.
you comment on your relationship with the Port Authority?
The Port Authority is a power on to itself, and it really ignores the government. They think that we here at the Foundation are turning the people against them. I am a target because I have always sided with the poor people who have been continually taken advantage of for years and years. When we try to change things to help the poor people some say we are not asking for much, while others say we are asking for too much.
People think you just work with the poor in Klong Toey but you are also do a lot of work with people upcountry, is that correct?
Yes, although we work with about 100,000 in and around the Klong Toey slum we also help about 10,000 people in villages in Chumpon, Kanchanaburi, Korat and other village areas with our "New Life Project."
We work in the villages where I have observed the viscous cycle of poverty that poor people are trapped in. In the villages people have very little chance to get ahead. Poor people do not own their land, they have to rent it - they have to rent everything really. They also have no control over the prices of their products as manufacturers do who can write off labor costs, material costs, advertising costs etc. The farmer cannot tell the buyer that they want x amount of baht for their produce.
Schools for children are also very basic in the poor areas, and water usually has to be dragged a long distance to people's homes, and very few of the homes have electricity.
The farmers should be more self-reliant and taught which fertilizers and pesticides to use, and which not to use. They also need to learn about crop rotation, and the government should encourage zoning, and guarantee crop prices as well. It is important that the farmers are taught to reduce their costs, and taught to maybe start looking for another source of income, so that they are not just dependent on the crops if they have a bad yield.
Can you tell us some of the people that you admire?
Well, of course everyone knows Khun Anand Panyarachun, and respects and admires him. Khun Chodchoy is another. She is very rich and she doesn't have to do all the good work she does. I also admire Khunyings Jantanee Santaboot and Jintana Yodsoonthon. I admire Ajarn Sulak, the social critic, because his criticism is very good for Thai society. I also respect the labor leader Somsak Kosias, and Dr Sant Hatthirat, and Dr Weng Tojirakarn for their good works.
What are some of your major concerns right now?
I worry about the future of society. There are so many broken families where children are not receiving the proper care and love that they need. Forty percent of the children in our center do not live with their real parents. Unless they get the proper love they require we will have a real mess on our hands when they get older. It is very important that Thai families get stronger. It is also essential that the government provide assistance to families in need i.e when one of the family members becomes handicapped.
Looking back now what were your thoughts on winning the Magsaysay Award?
Surprisingly, I had mixed feelings about the award as some people were jealous and I didn't want to make enemies at that time. I just wanted to work, and I didn't want to make anyone unhappy. The money was nice though (US$20,000). Back then I could have bought four townhouses if I had wanted to.
What about the claims that some of your funding has been channeled into helping political parties or candidates you support?
It's not true, and anyone is welcome to come and check examine our records.
Would you please sum up the purpose of the Duang Prateep Foundation?
We work for poor children, and to try give poor people a better life in both the urban and rural areas.
What about you?
I have done so many things. I am satisfied with my life because I have done enough. I am not as concerned about what people say about me anymore. (As Khun Prateep is so approachable the press tend to zero in on her at public gatherings and she tends to inadvertently be thrust into the role of a political spokesperson).
Ed note:Khun Prateep is now a Thai Senator, a remarkable accomplishment considering this is a position usually accessible only to the rich and privileged.
Ed Note: Khun Prateep was a recepient of this year's World Children's Prize for the Rights of Children (WCPCR), which is sponsored by Swedish Queen Silvia, Sweden PM Goran Persson, Nelson Mandela and East Timor Presient Xanana Gusmao.
more information contact the DUANG PRATEEP FOUNDATION at:
DUANG PRATEEP FOUNDATION
Lock 6, Klong Toey Slum,
Bangkok, Thailand 10110
TEL: (02) 249-3553, 249-7561, 249-8842, 671-4045(8)
FAX: (02) 249-5254