Khon Kaen governor: strong central government an important move for junta policy

KHON KAEN – Mr. Khamtorn Tawornsatit took up the position of Khon Kaen governor on June 3 of this year. A career civil servant, Mr. Kamtorn has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and started as a district officer in Sakorn Nakorn Province in 1992. His first governorship was of Mae Hong Son Province in 2009. He was governor of Chainat Province for just eight months before his appointment to Khon Kaen, as part of move by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) immediately after the May 22 coup to replace several governors suspected of supporting the February elections. The Isaan Record recently sat down with Mr. Kamtorn to discuss his perspectives on the current situation and the role of provincial government.

Ending Color-Coded Divisions

The Isaan Record: How have you been handling the creation of harmony and conformity of people in Khon Kaen in the case of colored-shirt villages?

Governor Kamtorn Tawornsatit: I’d like to inform you that the word ‘colored-shirt villages’ was a measurement to address the critical atmosphere caused by the differences in information and beliefs of the people. The NCPO therefore came and took control of the country. First, we have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence. When we are divided, we think of others not as Thai, but as opponents. Thus, this crisis could be peacefully resolved if we looked at others as Thai. There would be no violence if we trusted each other.

“We have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and violence.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

“We have to look at the people as Thai, that we are all Thai. This idea eliminates division and
violence.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Today, I have managed to eliminate the colored shirts in each community. Each community is different. Khon Kaen people are not the same as they appear. They have different beliefs. [Understanding] this will make us successful in the creation of harmony and conformity. If one makes an assumption that all these folk are all the same and think the same, that’s not true. Thai people have freedom within them. When we are aware of their right to believe or like [what they choose], we respect their right. But at the same time, we could [think differently] because different facts and visions [influence us]. First, we have to respect each other’s thoughts. Each village and subdistrict is not the same. Some quickly understand the situation. Others may not quickly understand the situation. However, we consider which community or village can understand the situation well. We have talked in principle about what the causes of the crisis were or what environments can lead to violence, [and] we urged them to stop. [We had to] stop the flow of information that has caused division; this is the most important. Then people understand peace and happiness.

I’d like to compare Thailand to the human body with many diseases such as hypertension, [with] blood, bones, [and] including the lungs, spleen, and heart. There is a doctor for each disease. But if each doctor treats this patient all on his or her own, it would affect the other diseases. Therefore, the situation [on May 22] was critical. It was already moving forward and could not be turned back. No one could handle it. Everyone speculated there would be violence. Therefore, no one knew which disease ought to be treated first, nor which doctor should be the first. In medicine, there is a leader of the doctors who decides what disease is critical and should be treated first. As can be seen, the situation had to be stopped and the administration had to take control. After everyone cooperated, we could take the opportunity [to analyze] what causes there were to all this conflict and then to manage the divisive ideas systematically. And then guidelines could be proposed to solve the problems which [in turn] lead to reform.

IR: What are the benefits of the Damrong Dhamma Center (centers established by the NCPO in every province to aid in public service) establishment for the people in Khon Kaen?

KT: The Damrong Dhamma Center was born from the NCPO Order 96. A NCPO order is on the same level as a decree and alters many laws. For example, a governor has the duty to control the operation of the bureaucracy [with authority] derived from the central government. These are the mechanisms of the justice process. Previously, governors had no authority in these areas but did have the power to call people in for questioning if necessary. But now, they have power to command [these areas]. The authority to command has now been unified in seven or eight areas, such as in forests, where the governor can take command for more efficient law enforcement.

For the many complaints received from the people, the governor can announce guidelines on how to support the people. At the moment, command orders [go out] to all officials in the province, thus even local officials from the central government [have to obey] if the governor asks them for their cooperation to solve a problem. In the past, [in trying to find a] solution to a problem, the official were overwhelmed by the problem. Official could not solve all the problems in a timely fashion. But now, it is the problems that are overwhelmed by the officials. That is, working in an integrated way, the officials are able to solve problems. If even a single problem is taken care of, it might also solve other problems.

IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of national security and maintaining peace and order in Khon Kaen (short and long term)?

KT: First, for the state’s administrative power to be used, people must trust in the state’s mechanisms. We want peace and happiness. What state officials can do is deliver on justice. Justice comes from good governance observed by state officials. After all officials observe good governance, work can be fast and accurate, [and with that] then comes fairness and justice. Justice is about how the legal process is enforced. The last part, fairness, is how well the political rights, the duties and power of the people, are taken care of. In the long term, it is about having a peoplecentric and problem-solving approach. To address problems of the people in this case, the government has announced the 12 Core Thai Values policy. This shows that people come before the structure and the system.

 “If one asks, ‘Who is a governor?’—the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn


“If one asks, ‘Who is a governor?’—the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Addressing Problems of the People

IR: What is the government doing to address the short and long-term problems facing people of Khon Kaen?

KT: The urgent problem is the livelihood of farmers. Farmers are the foundation of the country. It is the farmers who are having problems now, especially with production and the market. In this, the livelihood of [the farmers] must be taken care of, the economy has to flow, and a reduction of social costs will all create opportunities for the people. In the long run, according to my principles, I think the problem concerns the country’s plans [on the one hand] and the national scheme [on the other]. They do not match with each other. First, for the long term, is the National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP). The plan provides the big picture and gives direction to this country. We give too little attention to it. It should be held as the principle for state administration for every level of government. The national scheme is related to the NESDP. For example, land usage must match with soil potential. This gets much less attention and leads to disasters and development problems. NESDP is my long-term, primary solution [to the country’s problems].

IR: What is the provincial government doing in terms of providing economy stimulus and raising revenue for the people of Khon Kaen?

KT: We must look at Khon Kaen’s gross [provincial] product by its character. In theory, Khon
Kaen is the center of Isaan. Therefore, agriculture is not the most important aspect of Khon Kaen. Gross product comes from many industries such as green logistics, Khon Kaen serving as a medical and educational hub, and as a Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions (MICE) city. The income from these tells us we are the center of the region. If more development takes place, Khon Kaen could be the center of the Mekong basin and next, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

[*Ed. Note: Khon Kaen was designated by the Thai government as a MICE City in July 2013. A MICE city is one promoted as “a premium destination for meetings, incentive travels, conferences, and exhibitions.”]

IR: In the provincial administration, is there an opportunity for civil society to be involved in the process? In which areas in particular?

KT: For provincial development planning, we have a provincial development committee which already includes all related sectors. It’s simply not true that as a new governor I can change
[government] policy—this is an old misunderstanding. There are laws, plans, decrees, good governance, and the provincial development plan in the way [of my doing that]. Vision must come from the planning committees, their strategies, and their missions. The governor comes and assigns policy in operations, not in development. Therefore, I’m quite sure that Thailand is already good in principle. The people, civil society, and the private sector are already involved. But the upper mechanism of budget allocation and budget considerations can only support that vision.

IR: Why is good governance important?

KT: One confusing aspect of the state administration is that the state mechanisms do not have
credibility and reliability in the eyes of the people. Therefore, observing the principle of good
governance is how to win the people’s trust, confidence, and feeling of reliability [in the
government]. When this is accomplished, I think the people will cooperate and become a part of economic, social, and political development.

Decentralization and Self-Governance

IR: What is the vital key of decentralization?

KT: There are three mechanisms in the administration: centralization, authorization, and decentralization. But if we tried to use one or another in Thailand, it would not work because we
have all three mechanisms. We must use them together. In the history of Thailand, it was never that we had separated states such as Buriram, Khon Kaen that then joined together to become a nation. It was born as a kingdom by itself as the Rattanakosin kingdom and then spread. Thailand’s decentralization has spread management and development—not government administration. For example, the areas of services or development can be decentralized. However, security-related administration cannot be decentralized. Therefore, only decentralization of management and development will be done. But, because [people] misunderstand the nature of a unitary state of Thailand, people might think the word “freedom” must be used. With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people. If we don’t have democracy yet, then the quality, perspectives, and knowledge of our people should be taken into consideration. I’m not complaining, but these are all obstacle to democracy.

IR: In your opinion, should governors be elected or appointed?

KT: If you are the government, will you only stay in Bangkok? We had the same atmosphere during the [Cold War], that is, when the Communist [Party] of Thailand still existed. District and provincial authorities had to fight in all work zones. There was the government in Bangkok [but] it meant nothing because it could not help us. We only had the district offices to fight with that force.

At the same time, if we look at present situation, [can] you be the government without eyes and ears? How can you be an efficient government? Where is the nation? There has to be one
government for the whole country. For a government to occupy the whole of Thailand, [local central government offices] have to be the government’s eyes and ears. Governors get their salaries from the Ministry of Interior, but do all the jobs from every department/ministry. If one asks, “Who is a governor?” the governor is the ears and eyes for the government in each province. Who is the district head? The district head is the [central] government in a district. Imagine what would happen to the country if the government was not in Bangkok, in Isaan or in the South—there would no one from the central government [in those places].

“With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

“With Thai democracy, it is impossible to talk about rights and freedoms by the book because rights and freedoms are related to the quality of the people.” Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

IR: Is Khon Kaen ready for an elected governor?

KT: I insist that the [central] government must be in every region. You can change the governor or the title. That is, the governor is called the representative of the government which handles national security, foreign affairs, peace and order. To the question, can we assign national security to a local government? No! You must think how a self-governed province manages its revenue. Will they share it? I’m afraid they would try to keep it in their province.

IR: Is Khon Kaen ready to be self-governed province?

KT: Khon Kaen can be self-governed in some areas, [but] not all. One must understand—where is self-governance happening on the planet? Some areas can be handled, some cannot. Thus, the readiness of Khon Kaen depends on high urbanization. For example, Khon Kaen municipality is self-governed but they cannot manage some areas, such as garbage fee collection, on their own. Some think everything can be handled. Elected people can handle some issues, but not others. [The issues they cannot handle,] must be handled by appointed people. Raising garbage fees is problematic and unwelcome. Decentralization cannot be done in all areas; self-governed provinces cannot manage all issues.

IR: What about local elected bodies whose term has ended and the appointed officials there who are now in charge? The NCPO did not extend their terms and instead has used appointments to fill vacancies. What is your view on this?

KT: It is within my authority to appoint [new] members [to formerly elected local bodies]. While we are [in a period] when we do not have confidence in the electoral process and the election
system is being reformed, we use appointments as authorized by the NCPO. The procedures and rules are already defined. [Appointees] must be a bureaucrat who has served in the position in the area for a certain period as legislatively defined.

IR: How is decentralization related to solving Khon Kaen’s problems?

KT: The most urgent matter is to proceed according to the vision. It is not physically possible for Khon Kaen to be a self-governed province. It needs leaders. Even managing traffic jams is difficult, because there are those who stand to lose. Thus, appointed people are needed. Today, there are many issues related to solving problems of the municipality and organizing the city. If asked why [these problems haven’t been solved yet,] it is because of elections. If you are elected, will you be able to [act with discretion] or will you think you can do anything?

Looking to the Future

IR: What area is Khon Kaen ready for in terms of the ASEAN Economic Community?

The Governor: Khon Kaen has Mice-City industries which indicate its capability to support expositions, seminar tourism, and it is a medical hub as well as the gateway to other main cities in ASEAN. Khon Kaen is not a city focusing on border trade but is an aviation hub for business negotiations in this region.

IR: What message do you want to give to people in Khon Kaen?

KT: The bureaucracy is the mechanism of the government. Taking care of the people’s welfare is the duty [of the bureaucrat]. When bureaucrats do their job with good governance and with
responsibility to the people, the faith and trust of the people [in us] will provide the energy for us to move together. Without trust, the country cannot develop. Come and work together [with us].