Born in Bangkok on January 30, 1954, Sommai graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Community Development from the Social Administration Faculty of Thammasat University.
“Thammasat University taught me to love the people,” she said.
After graduating from one of the kingdom’s most prestigious education institutions, she immediately took up a government position in rural community development, which had her mostly tied down to admin tasks in her Bangkok office.
Meanwhile, she applied for a scholarship to further her studies abroad, which she believed would enhance her capabilities to better serve the community in the future.
Before long, she was accepted into the Master’s Degree programme for Human Resource Administration at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, USA.
“At that time, Thailand did not have this [kind of] programme. When I first got to the US, many of my teachers and pupils were judgemental and degraded me. But when I proved myself and my abilities, they ended up loving me,” she said with a glimmer in her eyes.
But she didn’t stop with her Master’s, immediately pursuing a doctorate at Illinois State University, where she eventually graduated with a PhD in Educational Administration.
Back in Thailand, she resumed her path in community development, this time actively taking to the field, in several provinces upcountry. Namely, in Nakhon Nayok, Prachin Buri, Sa Kaeo and Chachoengsao, where she worked closely to improve the lives of underprivileged and impovershed villagers, helping them to obtain valuable education opportunities and improve their job prospects; she took on various projects, including growing crops, silk worm farming and production, for example. Moreover, she got involved in the studies of various infrastructure projects for roads and reservoirs.
“At first, many villagers were suspicious of our intents. Our work was dangerous at times, in the jungle, with some injuries and deaths... Eventually residents realized our good intentions and began to love us.
Her memories from the field are colourful indeed.
“In Thailand’s arid Northeast, drinking water can be scarce. At times, we’d have to drink water that collected inside the hoof prints of a buffalo. It’s clean and safe for us to drink,” she laughed. “I also was part of a team to inspect marijuana gardens,” she recalls with a laugh.
“They had developed really efficient and advanced growing systems. For example, they planted it on rubber sheets, created an automatic watering system and planted the crop between cassava plants, and even in the local canal.”
Asked if she was afraid during such inspections, she answers, “No, every time I inspected, they [the growers] always left ahead of time. Their role was to escape, ours was to destroy illegal plants,” she said.
She has also faced two major political situations, in Mukdahan and Phuket.
“While I was Vice Governor of Mukdahan, there was a Red Shirts protest. At that time, the local protestors were copying those in Bangkok. We had to take preventative measures day by day. Actually Mukdahan people are so lovely and kindly, but they are also strongly politically-minded too.”
“On the morning of May 19, 2010, at 7am, we got a call while we were discussing what to do about the situation. Tyres and wood were being prepared to burn around provincial hall. The protestors requested to come into the hall, but we could not allow them, as we knew what they were intending.”
All staff were moved from the hall and the critical moment came at 11am. A fire was started and spread into the area inside the hall, starting at a storage room before spreading to other rooms.
“Most of the police were local people, so they did not want to attack each other. I tried to control the fire by using water in restrooms.”
Worried about her staff’s safety, seeing more and more lit torches thrown in to feed the fire, Dr Sommai ordered all of her officers to evacuate. The Mukdahan provincial hall was completely burnt down to the ground.
“I did not feel anything at that time as I thought that we had done our best to control the situation, but then I couldn’t sleep every night. Even though my brain did not worry, but I think I was bothered deeply in my soul and I did not realize it initially.”
About two weeks later, protesters were trying to burn the second provincial hall, “But I would not let it happen again,” she stressed.
With her own hands, back and legs, she started to remove the tyres baracades that the protesters had set up around the hall.
“I just thought that if a woman started to do something using her own labour, the gentleman would help.”
Sure enough, a lot of men started to help her – it was a success.
“While we were working, some of my staff saw that rocks were being thrown at me. But I was lucky, I was not hurt,” she added with laugh.
Eventually, the situation was brought under control, thanks to help from the Army based in neighboring Sakhon Nakorn province. Key culprits from the gang that started the initial fire were apprehended – most of them being drunks and not even residents of Mukdahan, Dr Sommai notes.
“This was the biggest challenge of my life,” she said.
After four years’ service in Mukdahan, she was finally transferred to Phuket on January 2, 2012.
“Phuket is likely where am I from, it’s more civilized than Mukdaharn,” she says.
She points out that Phuket’s problems are different than her previous post.
“Most of the problems here concern wealthy people, for example, land encroachment, environmental issues, garbage and waste water,”
“Human resources is a strength in Phuket, where the people are capable, lovely, kind and give good cooperation with officials, which has enabled every project to be a success.”
However, Dr Sommai stresses that Phuket is growing too fast, which poses problems for the environment.
“As long as our key selling points are the beautiful beaches and nature, we have to maintain this by protecting environment. If not, no one will be interested to come to an island with a bad environment anymore.”
Asked about her impression of the political stance of Phuket people during recent protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), she said “I had thinking about how to find solutions to resolve the problem everyday.”
“It had been a long time of conflict between the two sides, however, Thai people are peaceful people in nature and I thought that PDRC protests were peaceful – they didn’t start fires or envoke violence.”
“That’s why I decided to stand with them this time. Thankfully, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) helped Thai people to achieve peace again, otherwise we would have had a longer protest with no solution.”
Comparing the two provinces she’s helped govern, she remarked, “I love both as my children. Mukdahan is like a baby which we can nurture, teach and educate to grow by supporting them to sell products between boundaries.”
“But for Phuket, it’s already teenager who has a lot of development problems,” she said with laugh, “I am still concerned about this, but I will do as best as I can for Phuket after I retire.”
Her retirement officially begins on September 30, and she will be spending it mostly at her home in the capital. However, “I will do my last job in overseeing the Asian Beach Games in November. I already started the job, doing a lot of coordination and planning, and I want to finish the job too,” she added.
Aside from this, Dr Sommai will continue to offer her services as a special guest lecturer for Education Administration at Rajbhat Phuket University’s Master’s Degree programme, which she has graciously done for two years.
“And I will visit Phuket to meet friends and educate Phuket people, teaching them to love and preserve Phuket’s environment,” she concluded.