After spending two years as a Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship – Advanced Scholar (QES-AS Scholar) at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) and a doctoral researcher in the Law and Society Program in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria (UVic), I have come to believe that an academic has a crucial duty to not only understand the world but also to change it. When discussing the role of academics in society, people seem to primarily focus on their function in exploring and explaining the world to the general public but often overlook their role in creating social change in practice. In my view, explicitly or implicitly, academics generally play this dual role. Indeed, the most exciting time for many scholars is when they see their expertise contribute to creating an equitable society in the world.

Experiencing Academia for Change

I recognized academia’s role in society a long time ago when I worked as an environmental lawyer. At that time, I worked closely with many scholars who acted as witnesses in and out of courts. These scholars were key players who influenced government decisions and court judgements. However, I had never looked at these experts from an academic perspective until I came to the University of Victoria. The Law and Society Program and CAPI have played a significant part in expanding my understanding of the academic’s roles because they enabled me to see various ways scholars could engage with citizens to create change in society. They also provided me with opportunities to apply my knowledge to address some social problems during my study.

The Law and Society Program introduced me to many distinguished scholars who have devoted their expertise to understand and address various fundamental social problems. The social issues these academics have engaged in are diverse: the environment, Indigenous People’s rights, animal rights, and political and religious conflicts. These scholars have demonstrated that scholars’ roles are not confined solely to understanding and explaining what happened in society but also to solving critical problems.

For example, scholars at the Faculty of Law at UVic have advocated, among other things, for recognizing Indigenous laws in Canada as distinct legal systems. For me, the most exciting moment was September 2018 when the University of Victoria started the world’s first joint degree program in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders, known as the JD/JID Program. This program recognizes and helps to strengthen the status of Indigenous law in Canada. This example showed me how influential scholars could contribute to change in the real world.  

Above and below: Songkrant delivering a public talk about Indigenous People’s rights at Chiang Mai University on Sep 30, 2020

Furthermore, through my sponsorship by the QES-AS program, I had the opportunity to do internships at partner organizations for about four months each year. These opportunities gave me the chance to use my skills to address some social problems.

In 2019, I undertook an internship at UVic’s Environmental Law Centre. During my internship, I conducted research on different environmental legal clinic models worldwide to see how they worked and how they contributed to addressing environmental problems.

This research introduced me to a new method of using legal knowledge to protect the environment and people. It encouraged me to think about setting up an environmental legal clinic at Chiang Mai University in my native country of Thailand, where I have worked. From my research, I know that Thailand needs this kind of clinic because it has faced severe environmental problems such as air pollution, hazardous waste, and water pollution, to name a few, throughout the country for decades. However, Thailand has only a few environmental lawyers that people can turn to for help. Without assistance from lawyers, no matter how good the law is, Thai people are unlikely to effectively employ legal means to address environmental problems. I believe that this research could help me in establishing an environmental legal clinic in my country to provide legal services to people in need and train more environmental lawyers.

Employing Research to Make Change

I have started to turn my goals into reality by discussing my research findings with one of my colleagues in Thailand. I consulted with her about the feasibility of establishing an environmental legal clinic in our faculty. My colleague supported my idea, and we agreed to work together to design, plan, and implement this idea.

Later, through the environmental lawyer network, I had a chance to meet with a staff member of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) to share my research and ideas. The UNEP staff member was interested in my research and the idea of setting up an environmental legal clinic at Chiang Mai University. She told me that UNEP was interested in supporting universities to establish environmental legal clinics in Thailand and other countries across Southeast Asia, and my project fits very well with the UNEP agenda.

My colleague, the UNEP staff member, and I are currently working together to draw up a road map to establish the first environmental legal clinic in Thailand. I am aware that we have a very long road to travel from now until the clinic’s launching day. However, the journey to transform academic work into reality has started with a firm foundation, and I consider this project as an example of academia for change in action.  

While writing this blog, I am doing a second internship at a public interest environmental organization, named ENLAWTHAI Foundation (ENLAW), in Thailand.  The ineffective and outdated legal procedures for dealing with pollution are among the most critical problems in Thailand, which ENLAW and other environmental organizations have tried to address for many years. At ENLAW, I have researched legal procedures to address polluted mining in Canada and Thailand to understand commonalities and differences. ENLAW will use this research to push the Thai government to reform its legal procedures.

Above and below: Songkrant delivering a training about strategic litigation to human rights lawyers in Chiang Mai, Thailand on December 5, 2020

Besides my main task, I also applied my expertise to other causes that I believe are important. For example, I helped ENLAW’s staff prepare a speech about how environmental rights are crucial for Thai people and should be included in a new constitution. The staff delivered this speech to thousands of people (including myself) who were demonstrating for constitutional reform in front of the Thai Parliament on 22 September 2020 (photo below).

In addition, on behalf of ENLAW, I was one of three speakers who participated in a public seminar on the rights of Indigenous People, in which I introduced Thai audiences to the vibrant Indigenous movements in Canada. My talk received much attention from the audiences, especially Indigenous People and activists.

Finally, my interactions with various scholars, public interest lawyers and active citizens during the past two years provided me with an opportunity to thoroughly deliberate and formulated my dissertation.

My dissertation title is “Creating Rights from the Bottom Up: Public Interest Environmental Lawyers in Thailand.” In my research, I try to understand law and lawyers’ roles in assisting people to protect their rights and the environment.  My dissertation has two aims. First, to explore how law and legal strategies contribute to improving environmental rights in Thai society. Second, to examine why some legal strategies are more effective than others in creating positive changes and how to improve these strategies. My experiences during these past two years have dramatically helped to strengthen my research.

After finishing my dissertation, I would make my research available to the public. I plan to publish my dissertation and translate it into Thai to reach Thai audiences. Furthermore, I will find venues to disseminate research findings to the public, primarily environmental lawyers, non-governmental organizations, communities, and related governmental agencies. If these people understand both the potentials and drawbacks of law and legal strategies, they could better protect the environment. In this way, my research will serve not only to explain how constitutions and laws work but also to be part of the movements for a decent environment and an inclusive society.

Changing Oneself to better Change the World

Karl Marx, long ago, criticized the role of philosophers: “[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” In this critique, Marx advocated for action over explanation.

In my view, scholars do not need to choose one of these narrow aims: to change or understand the world. As scholars, we should embrace both aims simultaneously: we need both to understand how society works as best as possible and also try our best to make it better. I do not find any contradiction in doing both.

As a new scholar, I understand that answering social questions and proposing change is a learning process. Scholars should learn from their mistakes and improve their skills to become better along the way. Within two years, I have learned a great deal about how the law can support or suppress people and how scholars can address social problems. This could not have happened without support from networks. I have no doubt that the knowledge and experiences I have gained during the last two years are the solid ground for my future academic career. I am not sure how much I could achieve in my academic life; however, I will try my best to understand the world and make it more equitable for all of us.  

Songkrant “Kan” Pongboonjun is completing a PhD in Law at the University of Victoria through CAPI’s “Regulating globalization in South and Southeast Asia” project, which has the goal of “activating a dynamic community of young global leaders around the world to conduct interdisciplinary research on innovative governance and justice strategies to mitigate the harsher effects of economic globalization in South and Southeast Asia.”

Read Songkrant’s other blog post(s)

About the funder:

The Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships (QES) is managed through a unique partnership of Universities Canada, the Rideau Hall Foundation (RHF), Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) and Canadian universities. The QES-AS is made possible with financial support from IDRC and SSHRC.