The 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service
CITATION for Jon Ungphakorn
Ramon Magsaysay Award Presentation Ceremonies
31 August 2005, Manila, Philippines
For much of the twentieth century, Thailand was led by military men as governments shifted coup after coup. Even so, democracy slowly took hold. A new constitution in 1997 enshrined civilian governance and popular representation through elections. The kingdoms democratic transition now seems complete. Yet today, democracy and "money politics" have created a new power matrix in Thailand. "We have never had a government with such authority and power," says Senator Jon Ungphakorn, noting that the voices of many Thai citizens remain unheard. As a member of Thailands upper house, he is raising those voices.
Born in London in 1947, Ungphakorn trained as an engineer in England but made his life in Thailand, where his father, Puey Ungphakorn, was an enlightened architect of the modern Thai state and an early Magsaysay Awardee. Jon began his own career as a lecturer at Mahidol University but, in the politically turbulent 1970s, turned his attention to social issues. In 1980 he founded the Thai Volunteer Service to expose privileged university graduates to the countrys rural poor and to the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were working among them. Ungphakorn helped the new NGOs to manage and fund their projects and, as he did so, played a key role in knitting Thailands nascent civil society together.
Responding early to the presence of HIV/AIDS in Thailand, in 1991 Ungphakorn founded the AIDS-Access Foundation. He pioneered in providing confidential counseling for people with HIV/AIDS and their families, in fighting the public stigma of AIDS, and in asserting the rights of everyone to effective and affordable treatment. As chair of the NGO Coalition on AIDS, he fostered collaboration and helped build an effective network for advocacy.
When Thailands new constitution opened the Senate to election in 2000, Ungphakorn mobilized supporters from the NGO and HIV/AIDS communities and won a seat. He says frankly that "No one listens to NGOs, but if you are elected senator . . . everyone is interested."
The Thai Senate does not initiate legislation but plays an important role in monitoring government and shaping the countrys laws. As a member of the Health Committee and the Social Development and Human Security Committee, Ungphakorn used his position to advance the concerns of Thailands marginalized citizens, making shrewd use of the press to publicize critical committee findings that might otherwise have been shelved or buried in the slow-moving legislative process. As he did so, Ungphakorn prioritized Thailands HIV/AIDS communityby working to include HIV/AIDS patients in the countrys new "30-baht-per-visit" national health scheme; by supporting the lawsuit against Bristol-Myers Squibb that opened the door for Thailand to produce a critical anti-HIV drug at half the cost; and by prevailing upon the government to ban a food supplement being callously advertised as an AIDS miracle drug.
But Ungphakorn has also used his senatorial authority to expose the brutal hand of the government toward Muslim communities in southern Thailand, and to uphold the rights of rural folk whose livelihoods are threatened by property speculators and scandal-ridden dams, power plants, and mines. He has inveighed against the death penalty, against intellectual-property-rights agreements that disadvantage poor Thais, and against a national press that has failed, he says, to report "violence perpetrated by the state apparatus [and] the violation of human rights."
Ungphakorn is not alone in pressing these concerns. But he and his like-minded senators are in a minority. Most senators bow to the government, he says. But Ungphakorn knows that his constituency and his heart lie elsewhere. "I was elected by NGOs and the HIV/AIDS community," he says. "They set the agenda. I give them support."
In electing Jon Ungphakorn to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his impassioned insistence as a senator that Thailand respect the rights and attend humanely to the needs of its least advantaged citizens.
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