Core arguments for and against elected governors: ‘Thainess’ and the evolution of devolution

Guest contribution by The Rational Actor. Seriously.

Recently, the Future Forward Party has raised the issue of elected governors in provinces like Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen. This is a contentious issue in Thailand and is broadly a ‘modernisation via democratic decentralisation’ versus ‘decentralisation is un-Thai’ argument. The argument has its roots in King Chulalongkorn’s decision to allow Prince Damrong the freedom to modernize by introducing one version of a British imperial colonial system – a system which Great Britain has largely now abandoned within the UK. As Thailand is one of the last countries in the world to have appointed provincial governors, it is worth revisiting some of the basic arguments, especially the idea that modernization is a continuous process.

Historical background

In the Northeast, appointed governors under a new Ministry of the Interior were introduced after the 1893 Franco-Siamese War, which Siam lost, convincing the Siamese elite that they would have to rapidly modernize their administration. This required converting the Lao tributary town-states, or muang, into outer provinces under a governor system topping a new Siamese bureaucratic structure (the thesaphiban system, lit. local government). This was borrowed from the West, especially the British Empire’s concept of the governor. Thus, the concept of an appointed non-hereditary governor is a foreign concept, not a Thai concept.

Due to concerns of a possible Lao rebellion (especially given one occurred in 1901-1902 – the Holy Men’s Rebellion), the thesaphiban system only really took off in the Northeast well into the 1900s. It is worth noting that His Majesty King Chulalongkorn in 1903 raised the issue of Lao administrative self-governance under a residence system, which was also foreign:

I had once thought about the administration of these Lao towns when you first brought the matter up. But there was no opportunity for me to say anything, and I forgot about it. Up to now it has been neglected. I think that if we arrange for the Lao to administer themselves in the same way that the prominent peoples of the East Indies do—with commissioners to inspect and superintend as the Residents, Assistant Residents, and Controllers do—this would waste few government officials. The Lao would be able to control themselves. But whether or not it can be done, I cannot say. I am just giving you something to think about. (24 January,1903)

As late as 1907, when the first effective changes under the thesaphiban system were being planned for the Northeast, King Rama V warned Princes Damrong and Sanphasit to proceed with great caution in the implementation phase, to prevent another rebellion. Thus, sensitivities in how the Northeast is governed dates back a century.

Implementing a national bureaucracy required reducing the Lao aristocracy in the muang, who held the position of town lord governor (chao mûang, also initially chao mûang, later phuwa ratchakan) and lesser positions as hereditary positions, routinely confirmed by the Siamese monarch. This was gradually achieved by re-appointing the Lao elite as Siamese governors, etc., if qualified, though increasingly not in their own muang; dismissing them; or, for the most part, pensioning them off as soon as fiscally viable.

At the time, the new system of governors was seen as modern, civilized and far better than the existing feudal Lao aristocracy which it replaced. The Lao hereditary aristocracy for the most part was seen by Bangkok as particularly corrupt and rapacious, with many Lao aristocrats essentially milking their peasants for all they were worth in terms of revenues and in-kind labor contributions (the corvée and troop levées). The new system was based on a nationally appointed bureaucracy under the Ministry of the Interior drawing on a pool of bureaucrats which had passed national meritocratic exams to both enter and graduate from new educational institutions, such as Chulalongkorn University. Few today would argue against the reduction of the Lao aristocracy.

The next major administrative development was the Thesaban Organization Act of 1934, which introduced a municipal system to augment the sukhaphiban (sanitary district) system. This replaced the thesaphiban system. The Act was amended in 1939, then under King Rama IX in 1953, and then most recently in 2003, via continuous modernization to adjust municipality candidacy criteria, including population size and population density requirements. One strange outcome of these criteria was that, from 1972 to 1994, there was only one municipality in Thailand: Chiang Mai (Bangkok being a special metropolitan administration). Presently, dozens of cities qualify as provincial municipal capitals that could be home to elected provincial governors.

However, while municipalities have been continuously modernized under the Chakri Dynasty, there has only been one substantial development in the nature of governors since the nineteenth century, namely the case of Bangkok and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, with its elected governor.

The developmental equivalence argument for elected governors

The main argument for elected governors is the developmental equivalence argument. This argument relies on the fact that Bangkok possesses a Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). It came into being in 1973 and actually comprises two parts, the executive (the elected Governor) and the Bangkok Metropolitan Council, which has been elected, from 1985. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration includes four provinces which constitute the ‘capital city’ and is a unique form of governance within Thailand.

However, it is not Thai. The concept of the Bangkok Metropolitan Council and Governor was borrowed wholesale from Britain, again, namely from the Greater London Council. It existed from 1965 to 1986 and was succeeded by the Greater London Authority in 2000. In this British system, the ‘governor’ was called the ‘leader’, but the Thai BMA governor was functionally equivalent to the ‘leader’.

The main thrust of the developmental equivalence argument is a functional one, i.e., that Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Phuket, and similarly developed provinces have reached a level of metropolitan development such that they, too, ‘deserve’, for representative and economic development purposes, their own greater councils and elected governors governing structure. This was an argument accepted in Britain in the first years of the 21st century, leading to developments such as the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, from 2017 under an elected mayor. To win this argument in Thailand, the cities have to follow the ‘adaptation of a British system’ line of argument and prove that they are as ‘developed’ as Bangkok was around 1973, when the BMA was instituted. In the Northeast alone, in addition to Khon Kaen, it is likely that Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Ubon Ratchathani would merit elected governors based on equivalence.

The political inclusion argument

There is another kind of equivalence argument which emphasizes ‘political inclusion’ along ethnic lines, i.e., that regional ‘ethnic’ capitals should have elected governors. This argument relies on an interpretation of UN Sustainable Development Goal 10, Target 2, i.e. (author’’s highlight),

“By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.”

The political inclusion argument would be supported by a reading of the Thai constitution of 2017, Section 27:

All persons are equal before the law and shall enjoy equal protection under the lawUnjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of the difference in origin, race, language, sex, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic or social standing, religious belief, education or political view that does not violate the provisions of this constitution, or any other ground shall be prohibited.”

In this argument, the BMA is not just home to the capital but is also home to the ‘regional capital’ of a majority Central Thai ethnic region. This is an interesting argument as it brings into question the very nature of the ‘regions’ of Thailand. These once possessed an administrative function, but regional capitals no longer exist. The four-region system, however, is still most known for its cultural divisions, into Central, Southern, Northern, and Northeastern Thais. Equivalent capitals to Bangkok would be Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chiang Mai, and, probably, Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), for historical reasons, though an argument could be made on economic and spatial reasons for Khon Kaen.

Conclusion

The Future Forward Party’s proposal for Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, and Phuket to have their own elected governors is as yet not well elaborated and seems to combine elements of the equivalence argument together with the political inclusion argument. It is possible that these two arguments should be separated out and that the Future Forwards Party should campaign only on the first argument. That Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, and Phuket should have their own governors has been mooted by members of both major parties, the Democrats and Pheu Thai, largely based on the developmental equivalence argument.

The main counter-arguments are that elected governors would reduce the checks and balances available to central government and might not be qualified, that they might act nepotistically and found their own dynasties, and that people already have democratically elected MPs and mayors. A halfway measure would therefore include central government vetting of candidates, by the Ministry of the Interior.

Interestingly, the issue of local government of major urban areas and elected leaders was also politically polarizing in the UK, a principal blueprint for Thailand’s decentralization. The creation of the Greater London Council only followed the setting up in 1957 of a Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, which reported in 1960. Given that ‘Thainess’, essentially Thai sovereign power, is being invoked by the conservative establishment to oppose elected governors, featuring extreme arguments such that if Chiang Mai had an elected governor it might secede to Myanmar, the setting up of a Thai royal commission into local government to consider the matter may be a viable way to invoke the royal prerogative to achieve substantive modernization.

This approach would promote a measured consideration of how devolution can be continuously modernized in a fashion acceptable to all. In fact, continuous modernization is a very Thai concept, as illustrated personally by King Chulalongkorn’s adoption of the British imperial colonial system and the subsequent administrative innovations made under Kings Rama VI and VII. The alternative, i.e., that Thailand forever retains aspects of a foreign 19th century imperial colonial system would appear to go against the principle of continuous modernization introduced by the Chakri Dynasty.

“The Rational Actor. Seriously” is the pen name of an author living in Thailand.