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A champion for the underprivileged

Vanida Tantiwittayapitak's struggle for justice for the poor was based on exercising sanctioned citizen's rights

Published on December 12, 2007

Social and political activists, workers with non-government organisations, rural villagers, unionists and members of civil society groups will bid a final farewell today to Vanida Tantiwittayapitak, co-founder of the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) and anti-Pak Moon Dam activist. Her remains will be cremated this afternoon at Wat Wachiratham Satit in Bangkok.While there is likely to continue to be a strong pool of altruistic people wanting and willing to fight for social justice and the betterment of Thai society, Vanida's character and the determination she showed in her various causes deserves to be remembered. Her example should be passed on to the younger generation of social activists. Indeed, there seems to be pressing need today for social activists to do more to help close the expanding social and economic divides.

Unlike some campaigners today, Vanida never resorted to social work or a "dole-out" type of activism. She treated the rural poor with dignity and respect, which was tempered by her deeply held belief in people's ability to look after themselves and achieve self-improvement. Meetings of villagers opposed to the Pak Moon Dam and, later, of the Assembly of the Poor, exemplified this belief. These organisations were greatly influenced by Vanida's insistence on equal participation and egalitarianism in the decision-making process.

Villagers learned to work on an equal footing with activists who were mostly from middle-class backgrounds like Vanida, and this became a crucial factor that contributed to the strength of the Assembly of the Poor and the Pak Moon Dam protesters.

Such working relationships, based more on equality than superiority, are needed among the younger generation of activists, as some in the older generation have "taken short-cuts" and aligned themselves to politicians and the military junta.

Unlike many social and political activists of her generation, Vanida never sought to take a short-cut in her struggle for justice, by allying herself and her groups to the powers-that-be. Vanida operated only within the bounds of constitutionally sanctioned citizen's rights.

In this regard Vanida stood out as a beacon of hope in the struggle for self-reliance and self-emancipation.

Nowadays, the mass media has the power to turn many activists into household names and popular personalities. As a result, some of them have lost their way, simply through becoming famous. Vanida's low-profile approach will continue to act as a reminder that no genuine social change is possible without the readiness to work with the poor and deprived, and to trust them as equals.

Vanida believed that poverty was part of the structural problems caused by exploitation, abuse and a lack of opportunity. She also believed that there need not be suffering, if there was justice. Vanida remained uncowed by injustice, and she always sought cooperation with members of the middle class as well as the media, believing that better understanding of the poor would lead to a better society.

"Governments don't hear the voice of the poor, [but] governments hear your [middle-class and media] voice. If the poor get your backing, governments will turn to them," said Vanida to members of the middle class at one of her public lectures, entitled "Why do we have to help the poor?" at Thammasat University in 1997. At that event, the Komol Kheemthong Foundation selected her as its "Honorary Person of the Year".

"I want to address the question, why do we have to help the poor? I simply pray that the struggle of the poor will bear some fruit because the surrounding crises have become worse day by day. What will happen if tens or hundreds of thousands of families become landless? If tens or hundreds of thousands of people have nothing to feed their children? What will happen?" she asked.

Vanida's impassioned support of the poor has ended; let's hope that her legacy as their champion will live on. Family and friends are setting up a "Vanida Fund" in order to carry on her work.

The fund will help the Pak Moon villagers' in their campaign to open the dam's sluice gates; members of the Assembly of the Poor in seeking economic justice; and to promote the rights of the poor in all parts of the country.

For that alone, Thailand has much to thank Vanida for.

The Nation

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