The controversial chairman of the National Human Rights Commission explains why he is right for the job
Appointed by the coup-installed legislative assembly in a country that’s under the extraordinary rule of a coup maker, the new National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has understandably been met with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Add to that the commissioner’s background as a high-ranking government official and the scepticism goes up another notch. Just how much of a “rights advocate” can the new commissioner be?
Such questions, says NHRC’s chief What Tingsmith, do him a grave injustice.
“Why would I not fit here?” he asks. “I have a long history working in the judicial sphere. My last position before taking the human rights commission’s chair was as a senior judge in the Supreme Court, which when compared to the executive branch, puts me at the same level as ministers. The last salary I earned at the Court was the same as the PM’s,” the rights commission chair says firmly, determined to counter the criticism of his suitability.
To the critics who say high-profile government officials just do not understand the daily hardships faced by ordinary people and thus cannot possibly protect their rights, the 65-year-old veteran judge says, “In the courts, everything is about protecting the people’s rights. We protect life and keep people from illegal imprisonment. If those are not human rights, I don’t know what are.”
What, who was born and raised in a rural area of Na Bon, Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, earned his law degree from the prestigious Chulalongkorn University then worked for the Ministry of Labour and the Bank of Thailand when he was in his early 20s. Despite a low-level education that saw him receive high-school certification from a non-formal education institution, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study for his Masters of Law at the Southern Methodist University in the United States just two years into his career. On his return he quickly climbed the career ladder and was appointed to the bench not long after its 30th birthday.
What is however quick to point out that these outstanding achievements were not in themselves sufficient to propel him into the position as the NHRC’s chair.
“I worked hard for this. This isn’t about luck or coincidence. I started preparing in 2007, almost 10 years before I won the appointment,” he says.
That was the year when he realised that being a senior judge in the high court with a recognised expertise in intellectual property law was simply not enough. And so he returned to law school, Thammasat University this time, to study public law.
“There are more than 100 Supreme Court judges across the country. That is more than enough for the judicial branch. I wanted to specialise in a more limited field, somewhere I could be more useful. A position in one of the independent agencies was my aim.”
The veteran lawyer reached his goal last year when he was appointed by the National Legislative Assembly to chair the NHRC for a term of six years.
“Actually, any position in one of the independent agencies would have met my ambitions. Maybe the Constitutional Court, but the NHRC is fine, too. There are only seven of us, which is far fewer than the Supreme Court.”
While the panel was selected under the coup-installed extraordinary rule where human rights violations are rampant, What is quick to brush off suggestions that strings were pulled to give him the top position.
“I followed the correct procedures throughout, submitting my application to the NHRC office then sharing my visions and proving my credentials with the selecting committee.
“I did everything on my own. In addition to taking classes at Thammasat, I also have written academic papers relevant to this job. And I made it,” he says proudly. “I made it even to the chairmanship.”
Independent agencies are frequently slammed by observers and scholars for damaging the checks and balance system.
The human rights commission, however, is an exception and is both respected and relied upon in the fight against the state.
The last two commissioners were highly respected “rights fighters”’ with an excellent reputation in civil society and among activists as well as ordinary people.
What admits that the NHRC has presented a professional challenge, saying that at the beginning of his mandate, he was affronted that he knew no more about human rights than most NGO workers.
Last month, he came under fierce attack after refusing to allow activists to read a statement on human rights during an event in Thailand’s troubled South. The group demanded that he resign from his post and be replaced by someone more familiar with rights issues such as an NGO worker or activist.
“Why do NGO workers have to be more appropriate than government officials? I bet they don’t know half of what I know yet they are so judgmental,” he says. “I’m telling you, if I didn’t have what it takes, I wouldn’t be here.”
After several months of hard work, What feels his acceptance has grown. “Some of my critics have already apologised to me,” he says.
He also dismisses the scepticism, pointing out that he has made sacrifices in terms of both convenience and money to work at the NHRC where the work is harder and the salary no better.
“Each month the judges are required to write a number of reports. I prepared enough papers to last seven months,” What says. “I could have spent those seven months relaxing at home not working but still receiving a salary on par with the PM. I chose not to, leaving it all behind for the NHRC.”
The controversial human rights commissioner also emphasises his love for and belief in justice.
“I decided to study law more than 40 years ago. Why would I have done that if I didn’t love justice?” he asks. “I value it highly. But my justice is by no means arbitrary.
“There must always be ground rules or laws that we have to follow. Otherwise people would do what they want and not care about the potentially harmful consequences.”