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Thongbai Thongpao

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Thongbai Thongpao Obituary
BANGKOK (AP) — Thongbai Thongpao, a pioneering Thai human rights lawyer inspired by his time as a political prisoner under a military dictatorship, died Monday. He was 84.

His wife, Mayuree, said he died in Bangkok of an apparent heart attack.

Thongbai was best known internationally for his defense of student activists arrested after a 1976 right-wing coup, but he was active in journalism and law from the 1950s until his death. He received a Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service — the "Asian Nobel" — in 1984.

"He fought all through his entire life for justice and is regarded as a role model for human rights lawyers in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia," said Gothom Arya, director of Mahidol University's Research Center for Peace Building. "He worked relentlessly to bring justice to the people and even got himself jailed for doing so."

The son of rice farmers who died when he was just nine in the poor northeast, Thongbai received his early education at Buddhist temple schools. By combining work and study, he earned a law degree from Bangkok's Thammasat University in 1951.

Gravitating to left-wing movements that were then tolerated, he concentrated initially on journalism, writing news and commentary for several newspapers.

He was imprisoned in 1958 after a trip with other writers and journalists to China, with which Thailand did not have diplomatic relations. Their timing was their undoing — a coup while they were abroad had installed a hard-line military regime.

Held until acquitted by a military court in 1966, Thongbai's time in prison with some of the country's leading left-wing activists turned his focus to practicing law to defend the poor and oppressed. He wrote about his prison experience in a 1974 memoir, "Lard Yao Communists," a tongue-in-cheek title making fun of the military's standard accusation against dissidents.

A student revolution in 1973 — undone by another military coup in 1976 — opened up new opportunities for him to practice law and journalism in a new atmosphere of freedom.

When student activists, the so-called "Bangkok 18," were imprisoned after the 1976 coup, he fought successfully for their freedom by making his case on the world stage as well as in the courtroom, with international pressure forcing the government to release them under an amnesty.

He remained a prominent public figure after that case while continuing his practice and seeking to establish a network of human rights lawyers. In 2000, he became a senator.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press
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