Weekly Local Biography

  Ben Svasti

Ben Svasti is the programme coordinator for Trafcord, an anti-trafficking operation, and the managing director of Viang Kaew Performing Arts, an events management company. These two seemingly very disparate careers suit a man with two very separate sides to his personality. He is also a man who can understand the problems produced by a lack of identity. He had that problem!

Ben was born in S t. John’s Wood in London, not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but probably a Thai gold one. His father was very British, ending up as the head of conservation at the National Gallery in London, complete with an MBE from the Queen of England. His mother, however, was even more royally aligned, being MR Saisvasdi Svasti attached to the Royal Court of King Rama VII in the UK. Despite much opposition, “from both sides”, said Ben, they were married, so Ben and his three brothers are ‘Luuk Krueng’.

It is generally considered in Thailand, that a child of mixed parentage is very lucky. Ben might not agree with that, having had to endure school life in the UK where he was known as “The Chink”. Particularly galling for a child with direct lines to Thai Royalty. And perhaps also galling for his mother, that the young Ben could not speak Thai, although he could just understand what the maids were saying.

Perhaps because of such personal turmoil, Ben went to university to study social anthropology. In understanding the basic make-up of mankind, perhaps he would gain a better understanding of ‘Ben-kind’!

That understanding was to take some time. Ben rebelled against his privileged background and would take menial labouring jobs, which he later says were part of his social anthropology studies. He was an anti-Vietnam war protestor. He would take six months off and travel the world. “It was a very enlightening time for me spiritually,” said Ben. He then went on to elaborate on being beaten up by the Egyptian military and made to stand in front of a firing squad. That is part of enlightenment that most of us would be happy to miss! He also slept in the snow and in the deserts of the Sahara, and cured himself of asthma by “running through it.”

In spite of (or perhaps because of) all this, he did graduate with a B.Sc. in Social Anthropology and an M.A. in Rural Social Development. He was 24 years old and by then had also run through his rebellious years, returning to the family home in the UK as the veritable prodigal son.

He described himself as tending more towards his Thai heritage. “My Thai side of me is stronger than that of my brothers. I have always felt closer to my Thai blood,” said Ben. As part of that closeness he then came to Thailand to experience the life over here, but with his surname (Svasti being a royal name) fell immediately into a year of Hi-So living. However, even for a burned out rebel, this was a lifestyle far removed from all of his qualifications and leanings. He still did not know what he wanted to do, but the Hi-So life was not it. He left the cafe lattes and volunteered for work at the Cambodian border. “If I can’t make up my mind what I want to do with my life, I may as well work for people who need it,” said Ben, explaining in a small way the rationale that took him to the refugee camps on the border.

It was 1979 and Ben was to spend the next 11 years working there. However, it was here that he found that being a Luuk Krueng was not an advantage either. He was working for relief organizations with the Cambodian refugees, and was using his English surname, Thompson. There he found he was known as “the farang”! After four years he reverted to using Svasti to be then berated by the Thai police who said that with his royal connections they would have been held responsible if anything had happened to him. Sometimes it seems you cannot win!

Ben described that period of his life as dangerous work. “Your mind becomes very calm under fire. You can make very good decisions,” said Ben. Perhaps having already stood in front of a firing squad helped in this instance.

However, after 11 years, he resigned. There was a political stalemate in the camps and he felt he could do nothing further, especially with the fact that many of the refugees were now long-stay, and had known nothing other than a displaced person camp.

He returned to the UK to do a Master’s degree in practical skills that he could use in development work, to then return to Thailand to work with Thammasat University in a three year women’s rights programme.

After this he stayed on, and set up his own Mother and Child charity organization that was again involved in women’s issues, the socio-economic development of women and eventually into the HIV/AIDS arena and then the rights of children. He describes his years of work in this troubled battlefield as being a catalyst. “If you do your job well, you work yourself out of a job.” Part of doing that job was to motivate government, and here was one situation where his name was important. “The surname Svasti definitely helps,” said Ben with a grin.

So to the performing arts. Ben said that he had dabbled in that artistic side when he was a student, looking at fashion design and even running his own mobile discotheque, so when the opportunity arose, he has allowed this side of himself to come forward. “I am a catalyst,” said Ben again, “working to put Chiang Mai on the fashion map, using its strong regional identity.”

Ben Svasti is one of the more interesting people you will ever meet. 1000 words could never do him justice, so I hope he will forgive me.