Born into poverty in Om Koi District of Chiang Mai, Phanngan Sommana, 58, better known as Mae Pang, has turned her humble beginnings into a powerhouse of achievements and success, not only for herself, but the thousands of poor people in her community whom she has helped over the years. She is now president of the Haa Thanwa (5th December) Community’s Credit Union Co-op (which manages 20 million baht savings belonging to 1600 residents), sits on the Northern Human Rights Committee, among many other titles and has spent the past twenty years devoting her life to the betterment of her community. Our interview takes place in the Community Job Centre, which she set up, a small hot room on the dusty village road where five women are industriously making krob khem snacks for sale.
Citylife: How did you come into social work?
I am one of nine children of a social worker/teacher mother and teak logger father. When my father lost his job when teak felling was banned, we became very poor and were cheated of our land, so we moved to the city to what is now the 5 Thanwa Community (off the Tippanet-Wualai Junction). I graduated with a diploma from what is now Rachamankha Technical College and immediately went to work for a large saw mill for ten years, owned by an ex governor of Chiang Mai. He taught me, he shared his ideas and vision and he inspired me. And because of him, I learnt about social work, management, and eventually when he joined the senate, I helped him in his dealings with government bodies. I was married at the time and we had two sons, and my husband also brought his daughter into our home. When our area set itself up as a slum community in 1986, with my new found confidence, I volunteered my services, acting as secretary to the committee. That was the real beginning of my attachment to my community.
Citylife: Why have you chosen to devote your life to your community?
It is my family. Their problems affect me, their families influence mine, if the village is full of drug dealers, then how can I protect my children? My husband left me and our three young children ten years ago. I was broken, but the community rallied around me when I was facing some hard choices: suicide, alcohol or religion. They helped me to choose religion, and I want to help others do the same. Because I overcame my own problems – I started a small car servicing centre, M3 Service Centre, which is now in Nimmanhaemin, as well as finding jobs where I could – I knew that I should dedicate my life to helping others do the same. When families are broken it is so easy to take the bad path, but much harder to take the good one, that is why we all need to support each other.
Citylife: What have you achieved for your community?
Mae Pang (while handing over her very long CV, listing pages of social service certifications and trainings):
My first initiative after my husband left, was to send my sons and ten other boys to become novices; to this day I work hard to bring people towards religion as well as to stop them smoking and drinking. I then began to set up various community groups including the Credit Union Co-op, which is a bank for the community (membership includes 1000 women and 600 men). I organised some money from the community to send some women to Bangkok for training and now we have 20 million baht in the bank! Everyone is required to put in a minimum of 100 baht per month and can borrow three times their savings. At death, their families can claim double their savings and we do our best to care for all members’ finances and offer advice. I also negotiated to turn reclaimed land from a canal into a child development centre for children from babies to about 4 years old; this allows the mother to go to work, thereby doubling the family income. Through courses, myself and other women are trained as counsellors, and offer counselling services to alcoholics, drug addicts, but mostly women who get pregnant, have young children they can’t care for, or abusive husbands. For the past 13 years I have been president of the Thanwa Community Women Development Group, am the president of the Haa Thanwa Community Fund, sit on a variety of committees such as the National Community Development Committee as well as Corruption Watch. On an international scale, I monitor Asean women’s activities and have travelled to Laos and China for international conferences.
Citylife: When do you find time to do all this?
When an abandoned pregnant girl comes to me, how can I say no? When a women is abused by her drunken husband how can I deny her help? Some people just need to talk, while others require more action. One girl had been promised marriage by a mid-level government employee but he refused to marry her. I know in modern society this doesn’t mean much, but he was avoiding her thinking that all she needed was money, but I managed to convince him that all she wanted was an apology. He finally gave her one and restored her honour.
As we talk, she receives a phone call which got heated with hard core negotiations, there were mention of interest rates, 8 million baht, and trips to Bangkok.
Citylife: May I ask what that was about?
Many years ago, when our community grew out of our land, we bought some land in Sansai for 74 families, but because it was so far from jobs and from their friends, only 10 families moved, it was a huge failure. I am now trying to get our Co-op membership up to 3000 members and buy a piece of land for 81 million baht just down the road to build a condo. This means that the younger generation can still live close to their families and friends, finding jobs in the city, and members can buy units for only 400,000 each, in installments. This is the first project of its kind in Asia; normally they move slum communities out of cities, but I think we should stay in the city, it is the modern age.
Citylife: Where are you going to find the money?
I always find the money. If you know how the system works and you work hard enough, you can get anything you want in Thailand. Thailand has great support for poor people like me. I can find money when I need it; I can find land, buildings; I can get equipment, training and knowledge. It is all available. That is why I don’t bother with silly politics, I just get on with it and fight to empower myself and others.
Citylife: What do the men in the village think of you?
I don’t really care. Some are happy with me for what I have done, after all, I am happy to help men too; others resent me. When dealing with men who think that HIV is spread because women are loose, as some of my neighbours claim, it is hard to take them seriously. Some men are resentful when I meddle with their wives’ thinking, when I ask the women to really ask themselves seriously what kind of men they want to spend their lives with and help them see that they shouldn’t accept any less. While it is hard to step into the man’s world, we need to fight and bite back and take control, not allowing men to tell us who to be. Some men join us to gain face, to take money or to destroy what we built. I will still accept them, but I work them hard, I try to inspire them and I make them accountable; some have stepped up and been great and I allow anyone a chance, but sadly many have failed. Right now all committees are run by women. There is too much ego with men; one even lost us 2 million baht. I believe that men should step back and take care of children until they learn to be gentlemen. They need to change; look at politics, there are no gentlemen there and that is the problem. Like animals fighting to lead the herd…women are just not built that way, we negotiate, we communicate, we compromise, in family as well as politics.
Citylife: Surely not all women are honest either, how do you protect the community’s interests against unscrupulous behaviour?
We follow standard systems for such groups. Our committee is separated from finances, we have outside accountants and auditors. The community also takes care of itself; no one wants to be cheated.
Citylife: Does your family support you?
100%. My daughter is a social worker, offering counselling to the grassroots people under the Ministry of Interior and she donates a portion of her salary to me; my sons run the service centre and give me some of the proceeds; I have helped sober up and save two of my brothers and now my sister works with me in the Job Centre. They know what I do is important to other people.
Citylife: Is your job done?
Never. It is hard to train people to be public minded and I will never finish in this lifetime. That is OK, I am happy to keep being reborn, keep working and wait for nirvana until we can all go there together.
Mae Pang does not solitic donations, though if you are interested in helping, perhaps buying milk for the child development centre, donating some toys, or books, or helping in any way, please get in touch with her at 081 235 7051