Thailand is not alone
in experiencing a proliferation of slums especially around Bangkok with its approximately
five million inhabitants out of the total Thai population of about 45 million. Population
pressure, low farm income and unemployment in the countryside have combined with hunger
for better opportunities to speed migration into the cities. The influx burdens public and
social services such as water, sewage, health, education and housing, and imposes immense
pressures upon available tax revenues and administrative capabilities.
PRATEEP UNGSONGTHAM was born 26 years ago in Klong Toey, the largest of some 300 slums
around Bangkok which together house over 800,000 persons, of whom about half are children.
Smells of the underlying swamp are pervasive and there are no septic tanks or sewers and
little garbage collection. During the monsoon water rises to the ground floor of makeshift
dwellings. Both the Bangkok Municipal Administration and the Port Authority, as landowner,
are reluctant to provide normal services that might confirm squatters' rights to remain in
an area scheduled for port expansion.
Yet Klong Toey is a humanly vital community despite the fact that roughly one-half of the
some 42,000 residents live in one-room shacks with 25 square meters of floor space for six
PRATEEP'S father, a Chinese immigrant who after two decades of struggle as a fisherman had
in the 1940s sought a better living in the capital city, supported his family of three
children and four step-children by basket weaving. Like many women and children in Klong
Toey eking pittances from small side businesses, the mother bought shrimp paste at her
home village which she sold in Bangkok markets; PRATEEP at the age of six began to buy
candies in the market and sell them in the slum. Her mother had registered their house and
secured for PRATEEP the birth certificate most slum children did not have but which was
required for entrance to government school. When she still was not admitted for lack of
space her mother paid for her to attend an inexpensive private school for four years. At
age 11 PRATEEP went to work for the daily equivalent of from 35 to 70 U.S. cents packaging
firecrackers, chipping paint and rust and cleaning the bilge of cargo vessels, and
polishing handles in an aluminum factory. Within four years she saved enough to return to
night school and eventually earned the teaching diploma she determined upon in order to
help neighbor children denied government schooling.
PRATEEP had found her vocation in 1968 when she watched over two children of working
parents and soon had 28 charges she kept occupied with songs and games for five U`S. cents
each per day. Within two months she had the limit of 60 children who could be packed into
the largest room of her family's jerry-built house and could maintain discipline only by
instituting regular instruction in reading, writing and counting. Later teenage slum
assistants helped teach nutrition and preventive health to her students whose families
often gleaned part of their food from waste of nearby slaughter houses.
As her efforts won public recognition, private contributions, and support from the Bangkok
Municipal Administration, PRATEEP began, with help in-kind from neighbors, to construct
the now seven building Pattana Village Community School. For the 694 children enrolled in
grades one through six, a kindergarten and rudimentary vocational school, there are 25
teachers and a small clinic staffed on weekends by volunteer doctors and nurses from city
hospitals, all showing the people of Klong Toey where there is a will there is a way.
In electing PRATEEP UNGSONGTHAM to receive the 1978 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public
Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her bringing learning, better health and hope to
impoverished children otherwise denied services in the portside slum of Klong Toey.