‘The belief in love, social justice and generosity runs deep in my life’- Interview with Chalida Tajaroensuk, Executive Director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF)
10 May 2017 3:57 pm
For this month’s e-newsletter we interviewed Chalida Tajaroensuk. Pi Chalida is the Executive Director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), based in Thailand. She started her human rights activism when she was a student. She worked for many years for various human rights organisations, including FORUM-ASIA. Pi Chalida has been an integral part of FORUM-ASIA, as staff, as member and as Executive Committee member.
In this interview we talk to her about her background, her ideas about human rights, her experiences and much more.
How did you become involved with the human rights movement?
Human rights are part of everything in life. I was taught to love and believe in justice for as long as I can remember. Those beliefs stay with you, since childhood is very important in developing your personality.
The belief in love, justice and generosity runs deep in my family. I lived with my grandmother, she taught me many good things. My grandmother always brought me to the temple. I was practically raised there, and it is where I absorbed all sorts of kindness. I witnessed the sacrifices and generosity of people, who were volunteering at this sacred place. I used to help lonely elderly people, who did not have a family. I got a lot of love from them in return. It helped me feel love and respect for all human beings.
Both my parents were civil servants. My mother was a teacher, which gave me an opportunity to be more educated. My father was an honest man who always fought for justice. He worked at the Revenue Department. There he saw a lot of corruption, and my dad would always be upset about it. A feeling that he shared with his family, and with me.
When I was studying, I was also doing volunteer work in the slums. On 6 October 1976 – the day of the Thammasat University massacre in Bangkok – I joined the student movement. This grew into me being involved in the struggle against the Government in the jungle. Once I left that period behind me, I started work with non-governmental organisations, including the Women’s Emergency House and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.
When FORUM-ASIA was founded, the first office was hosted by the Union of Civil Liberty (UCL) in Bangkok. Later, I would also be board member of the UCL. I became the first officer working for FORUM-ASIA. The first three months without pay though. Still, I stayed for 17 years.
Why did you stay so long with FORUM-ASIA? And even now, you continue to be involved with FORUM-ASIA, how come?
FORUM-ASIA is the only regional human rights, member-based organisation, where all members are the leading human rights organisations in their respective countries. That is what makes FORUM-ASIA different. What sets it apart from other human rights initiatives. To me, that is crucial to build up the human rights movement in the region.
Have your ideas about human rights changed over the years?
My attitude towards human rights has changed. At first, it was mostly about volunteering, as an aid worker. After joining FORUM-ASIA, I was trained, gained more knowledge about human rights standards, about human rights protection mechanisms.
As I did more fieldworks with grass-roots communities, my attitude changed even further. As I gained more knowledge and experience, it helped me understand that the people, the communities on the grass-roots level are the agents of change. The movement of the people will make society change, not that of the non-governmental organisations, so the activities by and for communities are the most important.
Now, as the promotion and protection of human rights are going backwards, my beliefs are changing once again. There are many dictatorial regimes in Asia that are creating political tension and are limiting civic space for civil society organisations to do their work. We should find a way to deal with this. No Government can deny the power of the people.
What have been memorable moments? Or experiences that made you excited about the possibility of change?
There are so many experiences.
When Aung San Su Kyi was rallying for democracy in Burma/Myanmar, and we worked with her, it was a very exciting period for me. I led different campaigns to support democracy in Burma/Myanmar, and the broader movement for change in the country. I was blacklisted for 20 years by the Government. Since then many changes have taken place, some that were cause for further excitement. However, right now, it is fairly disappointing to see what is happening in the country.
When the Burmese Embassy was raided by Burmese student here in Bangkok, I was one of the people that gave input to Thai authorities on how to solve the problem. Eventually the Government managed to deal with the situation in a positive way, which might have saved the lives of some of the people there.
I was also involved in the peacebuilding process in Aceh, Indonesia. For example, by evacuating activists during the Military Operation Area period or Daerah Operasi Militer (DOM), by supporting underground activities in Aceh, by establishing the Acehnese Task Force for Society after the tsunami, and by calling for peace talks, including the message that without peace there can be no sustainable development.
I was also a member of the Asia-Pacific Coalition for East Timor (APCET), which campaigned for the right to self-determination of the people of East Timor, when they were still under Indonesian occupation. During the time we were struggling for their independence, we were arrested and deported from Malaysia. It was an exciting period.
Much was also done to protect human rights defenders from Cambodia and related to the protection of refugees along the border. Many stories, and many exciting moments. But too much to tell this time.
What have been obstacles, difficulties to overcome in all your years of working for human rights?
The most serious obstacles arise when we have to work under a junta government or a dictator. That is the same in every country that has experienced such a regime. It is very hard, but we have to find a way to communicate or engage with them. We need to use strong networks with authorities and good faith to keep channels open to work with them.
For example, when it comes to National Human Rights Commissions. They should protect human rights, but some Commissioners do not understand what human rights are, let alone how protect them. That is the most difficult thing. When there is no hope because there are no human rights protection mechanism. So the knowledge of human rights in the country never increases, and they become pseudo human rights.
If you could talk to the new generation of human rights defenders, what would you tell them?
The new generation is important, but nowadays it gone. They do not understand human rights anymore, because of the changes in the way of living. There are only few young human rights defender.
I want to see young people that work on the ground with grass-roots people. That will make them understand more about life and our society. They should play some role in creating social change. That is the kind of young people we need, not more youth that just want to become part of the elite.