MAHA SARAKHAM – The 22 million people of the Northeast’s 20 provinces have never been allowed to elect their own provincial governors, nor their chief district officers. Instead, the Ministry of Interior has been filling these positions with appointed officials, often choosing outsiders to the region. Focusing on national security in the past four years, the military government has kept a lid on public debate on the long-standing question of Thailand’s decentralization.
At an academic lecture in Maha Sarakham last month, political scientist Thanet Charoenmuang from Chiang Mai University reinvigorated the debate over local elections and the decentralization process. Discussing the history of (de)centralization of the Thai state, he called it high time to give people the right to elect their own provincial governors.
Thailand’s evolution into a highly centralized state began during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V). From 1892 onwards, the country underwent far-reaching administrative changes which included the replacement of regional and provincial elites with centrally appointed servants of the king. This caused former independent and self-governed areas to lose their power to the central region, Mr. Thanet explained.
“The centralization by the central region during that time gradually reduced local power influences until these areas were fully subjected to the central state,” Mr. Thanet said.
The state’s centralization efforts intensified in the years after 1892, a development that Mr. Thanet calls “over-centralization.” It included not only the political and economic field, but also the management of culture, the arts, and religion. For example, all Buddhist temples in the North and Northeast were put under the oversight of Sangha Supreme Council, the country’s central governing body of the Buddhist order. This affected local ways of Buddhist practices and teaching, which then had to conform to central Thai standards. Local scripts like the northern Tai Tham script, or Lanna script, was forcibly replaced by the central Thai script. Likewise, local schools were ordered to employ teachers from the central region, and to follow a standardized curriculum.
“The palm leaf scriptures of the North, used to record history in the Tai Tham script, were burned by officers of the central state,” Mr. Thanet said.“The recorded local history was lost.”
Because of the destroyal of historical documents, local people today have no knowledge about the history of their own areas. When there is no recorded history, people have no understanding and no concern for their local areas, Mr. Thanet argued.
The first local administrative system
In 1905, King Chulalongkorn ordered the establishment of sukhaphiban districts (sanitary districts), the first western system of local administration in the country. However, this new administrative system failed to include elections of local leaders or the delegation of state power to local communities, Mr. Thanet noted.
“Rama V established the sukhaphiban system but didn’t include an important principle: the election of local leaders. There were only appointed provincial governors and district chief officers which were state officials from the central region,” Mr. Thanet said. “There wasn’t any participation from local people.”
When the thesaban or system of municipalities was established in 1933, citizen still did not have a chance to elect their own leaders. They were only allowed to attend the meetings of the thesaban committee. But the makeup of the thesaban continued to be dominated by civil servants from the central state.
“Although people had the right to express their opinions about how to solve certain local problems at the thesaban committee meetings, they were often overruled by the civil servants,” Mr. Thanet explained.
Twenty-two years later, Thailand officially established its system of Provincial Administration Organizations. However, Mr. Thanet noted, that the chair of the provincial administrative organization was still not chosen through elections because the central state continued to appoint provincial governors instead.
People in Bangkok were give the right to vote for their own governor for the first time in 1975. But until today, people in the provinces still have not had the same right.
The central state’s fear of a break-up of the Thai nation state is the reason for this situation, Mr. Thanet argued.
The Thai state’s fear of secession
“In 1992, I campaigned for the governor of Chiang Mai to be elected but the Ministry of Interior told me at the time that the governor couldn’t be elected because the provinces shares a border with Myanmar,” Mr. Thanet recalled. “They said Chiang Mai would then break away and become part of Myanmar.”
The 1997 constitution, drafted with popular participation, finally introduced measures for decentralization and the devolution of power to local administrative bodies. People in all parts of the country gained the right to elect the chair of the provincial administrative organization, the chair of the sub-district administration organization and city mayors. This was a success for those who had been campaigning for decentralization, Mr. Thanet said.
“But after this, in reality, local areas still didn’t have the power to fully self-govern because the civil servants on the provincial level were sent in from the central region and they still oversaw and directed the local administration,” Mr. Thanet argued.
The decentralization laws stipulated that the central state should allocate a budget to the local administrative bodies. At first this was set at 40 percent of the total state budget but it was later reduced to 23 percent, which was hardly enough for the management of local areas, Mr. Thanet said.
He ended his lecture with a call to continue the push for decentralization and self-government of local areas in Thailand. Referring to the example of Japan, which has allowed the election of provincial governors for 71 years, Mr Thanet is convinced that having elected provincial governors in Thailand would lead to more public participation and efficiency in the local administration.
“It’s time for the central region to let local people freely manage their own affairs and decide their own future,” Mr. Thanet urged.
This story was first published in Thai on April 24, 2018. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.