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Songseang Supanya: A rising voice of empowerment for the slums of Bangkok

By Siyoree Thaitrakulpanich

Photography by Luke Duggleby

Until the second grade, Songseang Supanya did not see a problem with commuting to school in a saleng, a three-wheeled cart her parents used for scavenging in the streets of Bangkok. Then, in third grade, she switched to a school van, supervised every morning by teachers.

“One day, I overheard a teacher talk about picking me up from home. ‘She lives in a slum!’ she said. I felt terrible. I questioned whether living in a slum meant I was not a [good] student,” Songeang recalls. “From then on, I told my parents I had car sickness and took public buses to school.” 

Things got worse as she got older and invited friends to play at her house. With walls and the roof made out of corrugated iron and floors of old wood, the structure was typical of most slum dwellings. There were only two rooms, the front one serving as a small kitchen and the back as a bedroom for Songseang and her parents. 

Her friends’ parents did not even make it inside the first room. They stood outside, shocked at the slum surroundings.

“Many of my friends’ parents told them never to come visit me ever again, and to even stop being my friend. Of course, there were also people who encouraged me, but many decided to cut me off because of my social standing.”

From then on, Songseang understood that as a “slum kid,” urban Thai society looked down on her. 

Turning shame into pride

Today, Songseang, 30, is a leading community activist with the Four Regions Slum Network (FRSN), a Thai non-profit organisation advocating for the rights of the urban poor. 

Founded in 1998, FRSN brings together representatives from affected urban communities nationwide and students interested in these issues. Many of them volunteer as mentors and help empower and educate communities on their rights.

FRSN holds regular meetings to discuss community’s issues and raises funds for renting and buying land and community-building. The network’s representatives also negotiate with government agencies, like the Ministry of Transport (MOT) or the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), about various housing and land use issues. 

Currently, Songseng is a mentor for the organisation. But she has not always been keen to take on such a role.

“I started going to youth groups on poor people’s rights when I was ten. At first, it was boring, but after I met other youth who shared stories about how they had been affected by poverty, it started to be fun. I started to enjoy helping other people.”

Another reason that pushed Songseang to become a community rights defender was her mother, Umporn Jampathong, an ex-president of the FRSN. Songsaeng grew up seeing her mother and other women fight for their community’s rights. Most activists in the FRSN happen to be women, as men have to work day jobs. So the young Songseang tagged along to make protest signs and connect with other affected youths.

Umporn herself became an activist when her community was drawn into a land rights conflict. Later, as a leader of the Southern Line Railway Network (SLRN), she defended the land rights of communities living along the southern line railway tracks. The network then joined the FRSN, and she eventually became its leader. 

“At first, I didn’t understand. I asked my mother why she had to sacrifice so much of her time. My mom replied, ‘if I don’t do it, who will?'”

“Now, I feel that what my mum did was super cool. She was able to turn trespassed land into homes for people,” says Songseang, a hint of awe still in her voice.

“I started going to youth groups on poor people’s rights when I was ten. At first, it was boring, but after I met other youth who shared stories about how they had been affected by poverty, it started to be fun. I started to enjoy helping other people.”

Fighting for land rights

In Thailand’s capital, East Asia’s ninth-largest city by population, reaching ten million in 2010 according to the World Bank, land rights issues are common among poor urban communities. Malls, high-rise condos and other real-estate projects have mushroomed up across the city, contributing to housing insecurity and forced evictions of people living in informal settlements. 

According to a 2019 study by Thammasat University, Bangkok’s slums have poor access to public infrastructures. They are located far from public transportation routes, educational institutions, and market and career options. As of 2018, 23 percent of the city’s population live in slums, such as in the well-known Klong Toei slum, which houses an estimated 80,000 residents.

To defend their right to land, slum communities have joined the FRSN, often protesting in front of government buildings, holding signs and submitting draft proposals and policies. 

Once, Songseang and her community camped out in front of the Ministry of Transport for three days. Protesters set up makeshift tents. All the children were there. Then, it rained. 

Because the ministry had closed its doors, people climbed into the building to hide from the rain. After three days, the group finally got a chance to talk to the government. As a result, they won the right to rent land in the Rangsit area in northern Bangkok.

Through memorable events like these, Songseang grew to truly appreciate her mother’s efforts. For their own previous home at Lak Hok train station, Umporn spent seven years fighting with the SRT. 

“I’d only seen my mom as a mom. [But] when I saw her go on stage, talking directly to ministers, I understood that I had rights and a role to call for my survival.” 

Today, Songseang continues her mother’s legacy. She is mentoring a new group, the Community Network of Urban People Affected by Trains (CNUPAT), on methods to negotiate land issues with the SRT and the MOT.

“Most recently, we’ve reached a satisfactory settlement. But before we received very slow responses. Throughout the protests, community members continued to be slapped with court orders for trespassing,” Songseang says. 

Court orders are commonplace for the people fighting for the rights of slum communities. Of the thirteen communities involved in this case, four received court orders. Fortunately, the settlement now allows the community members to legally rent land. 

Songseang herself never received a court order before, but she was ordered to clear the land within fifteen days. Thankfully, she successfully negotiated for her stay in that incident.

Adamant about their right to stay

Camping out in the rain, training to negotiate, and risking court orders– Songseang and the FRSN are adamant about defending the right to land. 

As people in slum communities work as hawkers, maids, security guards, scrap collectors, and construction workers, relocating outside the city is not a viable option. Moving far out would mean they would have to pay more to travel into the city to work. Also, as Songseang explains, there are not as many jobs outside urban areas.

“Sometimes, the government chases us outside the city without any consideration for our livelihoods. Elderly people are given a high-up flat, where they can’t easily get up. Food sellers are not given places to park their carts,” says Songseang’s mother, Umporn.

The current president of the FRSN, Nutchanat Tanthong, believes that housing provided by the National Housing Authority of Thailand (NHA) often does not meet the urban poor’s needs. 

Established in 1973, the NHA’s job is to resolve housing shortages nationwide. This includes acquiring land to build homes, providing financial assistance, and demolishing or relocating slums so that people can live in better conditions. 

Nutchanat explains that many residences provided by the NHA are not for free – they must be rented or bought. As a result, poor people without formal employment cannot access such flats, as contracts to rent or buy require company payslips.

Even after land plots are won over for housing, people often struggle to obtain basic living necessities. Songsaeng describes the conditions of her community after they were allowed to live in the Lak Hok Train station area.

“There was no running water, as pipes can’t be built on SRT land. We complained about this, so the Rangsit City Municipality brought water to us weekly in a fire truck. People had to find containers for the water. We also didn’t have electricity, so they gave us temporary construction lights.”

Bearing the brunt of COVID-19

The plight of people living in slums has only gotten worse since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Songseang, this means she had to close down her bakery, which sells baked goods for FRSN meetings, for the last two years. 

The government implemented lockdowns and limits on gatherings of more than five people since the start of the pandemic. With no FRSN meetings, Songseang has been forced to help her partner and mother collect scraps to sell. Driving around different neighbourhoods, they scavenge for old newspapers, cardboard, and plastic bottles. This trash is then sold to middlemen who provide the materials to recycling companies.

Other community members also face similar struggles. Malls and fitness centres have closed down, laying off their employees and leaving slum residents without income. 

For Umporn and Nutchanat, the government’s measures to soften the economic blow of the pandemic were overly bureaucratic and mostly ineffective in supporting those stuck at the bottom economic rung. 

“The government has programs to give out money but it’s like the money isn’t for everyone,” says Umporn. “Many poor people don’t have mobile phones to register to get the money, or elderly people don’t know how to register.”

“There are just too many conditions for people to access social services,” Nutchanat adds. 

But Songseang, Umporn, and Nutchanat are not passively accepting their fates during these trying times. On the contrary, without the government’s help, they are still fighting for the betterment of their community.

Last month, the FRSN joined hands with the Rural Doctor Society, an NGO, to set up COVID-19 checkup stations in slum and labour communities all over the Bangkok Metropolitan Region. FRSN also set up nine accommodation centres for COVID-19 patients and held orientations teaching community members about preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Fighting for a respectable community

People like Songseang, Umporn, and Nutchanat continue to retain a spirit of resilience as they fight to improve other areas of their lives. Connected to the issues of land rights and job losses is the lack of access to education and public amenities.

“Because some people live on ‘trespassed land,’ they don’t have house registrations, and schools require this. So, some kids don’t get to go to school,’ says Songseang. “Some older kids also need to earn money [to support their families] instead of studying.”

Some communities lack basic public amenities such as footpaths because the city administration does not consider proper ‘communities’. According to Nutchanat, a community needs at least one hundred households to be eligible to receive footpaths, bridges and other amenities. 

Despite all their gains, winning land, getting water and electricity, and sending their children to school, people in slum communities face one constant obstacle – Thai society’s negative perception of them.

But Songseang, Umporn and Nutchanat believe they are in charge of their own destiny, convinced that their efforts will eventually change people’s perception of the urban poor.

Songseang happily reports that since moving into a proper house in 2011, society has been viewing her in a more positive light. In addition, having a formal house registration means she can advocate for the community with more clout. 

“In the past, other urbanites viewed us in the worst way possible – a den of criminals full of drug addicts. But we want Thai society to change their minds about us. We are an important part of Bangkok’s economy, providing much-needed services,” Nutchanat says.

Community initiatives of the FRSN include growing vegetables and raising frogs, fish, and chicken. A community fund gives out cheap loans enabling people to start businesses or send their children to school. Volunteers teach children to read and help them with their homework in the evenings. Youth groups lead children in productive activities, such as making and selling t-shirts and other craftworks.

“When we stay in a place, we keep it clean so that society sees that just because we’re living here doesn’t mean it has to look bad,” Umporn says.  “We plant trees so that people waiting at the stations for the trains will see that our community is a good one to live in.”

 

Edited by Fabian Drahmoune.

 

Siyoree Thaitrakulpanich is a book editor and freelance writer. She holds a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford.

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based freelance photojournalist originally from the UK, who has worked as a photographer in Asia for almost two decades.

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