Guest contribution by Sarah Walsh & Ember V. Everwood

Twenty-two years ago, Lertsak Kumkongsak stumbled into the library of his university and saw a poster of the Thai Volunteer Service (TVS), calling on students to work in a community for two years. At the time, Lertsak was looking for something new, so he immediately jumped at the opportunity.

Lertsak’s first responsibility as a TVS member was to support villagers who were protesting the building of a dam on the Songkran River. The construction of the dam would have blocked the mouth of the river, thereby destroying fisher communities. Since that protest, Lertsak has fought for the rights of villagers.

He has never looked back.

“I plan on being an activist until my legs don’t work anymore,” Lertsak says.

In the past, Lertsak says, “NGOs in Thailand never merged community development and the political fight. This is what I am striving to do [now].”

Today, at age 47, he walks the road from Bangkok to Khon Kaen fighting for human rights.

The villagers he has worked with have kept him motivated for the past 22 years,, Lertsak says. “I am happy every time I work with the villagers and am able to change their mentality and help them solve problems.”

But changing the mentality of people is not easy, he explains. “In some areas it’s hard to start working with people but in other areas it’s easy. The hardest part is building trust. But if you do your reading and prepare before going into a community, change comes easier.”

Lertsak was born and raised in a village himself and he dreamed of obtaining higher education to give himself a better life. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Lertsak joined the workforce as a lab assistant. His career in biology, however, did not last long. His work with TVS sparked a passion in activism.

Although his career as an activist has not seen many concrete victories, Lertsak is pleased with helping give communities a voice. Now as he marches every step of the 450 kilometer journey from the capital to Khon Kaen, he states, “I am scared, but I am not tired. Walking is an ongoing battle, but we will not stop.”

Lertsak continues to march despite the many challenges in the “We Walk” campaign.

“The police tried to stop us on the first day of the walk, and we received calls from ten temples telling us that we could no longer stay with them,” Lertsak says. “The police were trying to break us down and chase us out. But we went to the court and were granted temporary protection from the administrative court. Ever since then we have had an easier time walking.”

His work brings some disappointment and stress, but Lertsak says every day is worth it.

“We Walk” participants aren’t walking to change government policy, Lertsak says. “We walk because we are afraid that our rights will be revoked.”

“We want to see how the public and the government react to the walk. We want to see how far the government is willing to go. We want to give villagers a chance to express themselves fully and give them the courage to speak out when their rights are violated,” Lertsak says. “I want the villagers to be more politically aware. It is because of villagers having their opinions expressed that I choose to walk.”

“The past few days we have been walking I have seen awareness increasing, and that makes this battle worth it,” he says.

Sarah Walsh is a pseudonym. She studies at Providence College. Ember V. Everwood is a pseudonym. She studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Both institutions are in the USA.