rights poses one of the key tests for every country. The state must insure its survival
against threats from right and left, from political opportunists and even terrorists. Yet
the rationale for governments is first and always to protect the rights and well-being of
When codified legal systems and courts emerged they curbed the whims of rulers and sought
to provide legal equality and justice for all. However those who could afford to pay for
the services of able lawyers continued to enjoy an advantage. Their wealth and status
often influenced the courts before which they appeared. Yearning of the poor for prompt
administration of legal justice is universal, but attorneys who have responded faithfully
to this need constitute only a small, but special, fraternity.
THONGBAI THONGPAO learned the hard way that life often is unfair. Born 58 years ago into
the family of a poor farmer in northeastern Thailand, he was educated through primary
school in a temple. He was orphaned by age nine and worked for two years in the family
rice fields before attending secondary school. Living in a Bangkok temple, working at
various jobs, and with modest help from his siblings, he completed Suan Kularb College and
graduated in law from Thammasat University in 1951. For the next seven years he worked as
a reporter and political commentator for several Thai newspapers.
THONGBAI found his mission when his own rights were ground down by the wheels of
authority. In 1958 he and a group of writers and journalists visited the People's Republic
of China,with which Thailand had no diplomatic relations. Upon their return Marshal Sarit
Thanarat, who had seized power in a coup, ordered the travelers arrested as communist
suspects. Detained without trial for eight years in Laad Yao prison, THONGBAI finally was
acquitted by a military court in mid-1966 after Sarit had been posthumously discredited.
During those prison years, as he wrote a book of the experience of his group, he
determined to become the legal champion of the oppressed. Of the many, often obsolete,
laws he has found on the books that can be employed to abuse the underprivileged, he has
taken particular issue with those denying the right of the poor to remain on land they
occupy. His other cases have ranged from defending men and women accused of crimes they
had not committed but who could afford neither bail nor legal help, to activists arrested
on false charges of ties to the Communist Party of Thailand.
THONGBAI lives simply above his office, and he and his seven young volunteer lawyers
sometimes use their modest fees to pay expenses for the accused they defend. Taking cases
other lawyers shun, he has successfully defended against libel a newspaper whose reporters
exposed the corruption of the Lord Mayor of Bangkok in the purchase of several hundred
acres of land for a housing project. After the October 1976 coup a committee of lawyers
joined him in securing the release of 18 students whom they proved were wrongly arrested.
Even Thais abroad have elicited his concern, including four workers in Kuwait who were
sentenced to death for allegedly robbing and murdering a moneychanger. He is now
challenging Thailand's proposed new Press Bill on grounds that it accords undue power to
the director of police.
Despite his own struggles and his uphill battles for the rights of the needy, THONGBAI
remains a warm, gregarious individual, devoted to his wife who works as a nurse, and their
three children. In the finest tradition of the legal profession he maintains a strict care
for accuracy and impartiality that compels respect even from many who may appear against
him in court.
In electing THONGBAI THONGPAO to receive the 1984 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public
Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his effective and fair use of his legal skills
and pen to defend those who have "less in life and thus need more in law."