Resource Autthapon Muangming. (2018). Local Government in Thailand and Decentralization after the 2014 Military Coup. Social Science Asia, 4(2), 35-50.
The objectives of this article are 1) to study the decentralization and local government situation in Thailand after the coup d’état in 2014 and 2) to investigate the direction of decentralization under the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2560 (2017). Document analysis was used for data collection. It was found that Thailand’s local government system has been developing for over a century. It was evident that most of the administrative system was based mainly on the central government with most of the local administrators being appointed by the central government. In 1997, there was major reform under the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2540 (1997). This reform can be considered as progress for local government in Thailand as decentralization for local administration was clearly specified in the Constitution. In the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2550 (2007), the essential parts of decentralization were not changed and some aspects were added. However, with this attempt to decentralize local government, there were still many obstacles that deterred and delayed the development process. Moreover, the political changes in 2014 caused the drawback of power to more centralization, as can be seen from the pattern of the issuing of orders, appointments, suspensions and inhibitions of local government operations including the removal of local administrators. When considering the contents of the 2017 Constitution from the database and observations of documentation presented by experts, it was revealed that many chapters in the 2017 Constitution were unclear concerning decentralization. And on consideration of the National Reform Plan of the National Reform Steering Assembly in reference to local government, it was found that, although there was progress on various issues, certain other issues still did not show a firm direction towards strong decentralization of local government.
The government’s centralization system in Thailand cannot thoroughly develop local communities judging from the social situation and other dimensions of each locality; the differences relate to geography, way of life, beliefs, values and traditions as well as the problems and needs of the local population. Furthermore, the current trends of globalization and changes in the economy, society, politics, science and technology have rapidly developed. These aspects make the social situation more complex for administration and make it impossible for the central government to manage and solve problems or respond to the needs of people promptly, quickly, thoroughly and efficiently in every locality. Though the government is the major mechanism for governance and the happiness and well-being of people, limitations in delivery of the system are caused by such things as the issue of regulations, budget approval, limited staff and a lack of understanding of the local situation and subsequent delay in the management of the whole system. These issues lead to various arguments about the approach to reduce the workload of the central government, which has extensive and various responsibilities, so that it handles only the main and necessary tasks. However, one of these tasks is the governance reform that gives people the opportunity to participate in their own local administration. This is an important and necessary issue in the current complex situation of society with the assumption that “No one knows an area as well as the people in that area”. This viewpoint leads to the concept of local governance and decentralization. Local governance is an important process for encouraging people since it is known that local governance is like a school for people to learn about democracy. The process provides an opportunity for people to participate both directly and indirectly. For example, people can join in the thinking, planning, execution and follow-up, as well as the improvement of a development plan. The people can express their own and their community’s needs. They can exercise their right by voting for suitable people to be the local administrators. Moreover, local governance also makes people feel that they are stakeholders in local development. The people feel a sense of ownership and are ready to preserve the resources or benefits for the local community which in turn leads to a belief in democracy. Although there are some local governances established to respond to the needs of people in the local community, it is evident that the authority for management is still retained in the central government. The power has never been transferred to local governments. Local administrations have no power in making decisions or determining the direction or management of their own resources that should be the practice with decentralization. This results in the local people having no independence for their own management which is a major obstacle for the development of local administration. Therefore, transferring only authority to the local government is not truly decentralization. Decentralization is one of the tools to achieve local development and public services to meet all the people’s needs. However, decentralization is not limited only to the transfer of authority; the government should also pay attention to how the goal of public service can be achieved. In order for local organizations to carry out their responsibilities efficiently, the central government needs to transfer political management, resource management, personnel management, budget management, and appropriate technology management to the localities, which are the administrative organizations closest to the people and who have power to manage public services corresponding to the community’s needs. The concept of Thailand’s local governance has been applied and continuously developed since the era of King Rama V. During the first period of the implementation, the authority for making decisions and determining policy came from the central power in Thailand which also appointed the local administrators, so that there was no characteristic of decentralization under the concept of democracy. Later, the concept of decentralization was widely discussed until the issues were finally determined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2540 (1997) (the 1997 Constitution) and later the Determining Plans and Process of Decentralization to Local Government Organization Act B.E. 2542 (1999) was enacted. It can be pointed out that this act demonstrated the progress and change in local governance in Thailand with the clear determination of decentralization in the 1997 Constitution. In addition, this act also increased the power to local government, giving local authorities more independence in terms of budget, personnel, tax collection and provision of public services, and encouraged elections of all local administrators and councilors. When the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2550 (2007) (the 2007 Constitution) was passed, the issue of decentralization was no different from the previous situation in terms of the extension of the authority of local government to have clearer and more extensive roles. Local authority had more independence and responsibility for governance, developing the system of operation and internal control. People in the community were provided with more opportunity to participate in management along with the local government. Even though there have been attempts to decentralize to local administrative organizations and public awareness of self-government is promoted, still there are some limitations and obstacles from both internal problems of local government and external problems, especially the central government. This is because the central government still has not truly transferred power to the local governments, hence the processes of decentralization are driven slowly with no continuity or the expected success. Besides, the political crisis in 2014 with the subsequent military coup d'etat caused the democratic process to stop and the administrative style to become more centralized. The central government has the authority to order, suspend and inhibit local activities. Furthermore, consideration of many sections of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2560 (2017) (the 2017 Constitution) shows that the question of decentralization is unclear because the government has focused on its security policy, transferring authority and independence, and decentralizing the authority of management. In this article, the author will focus on the evolution of local government in Thailand and its decentralization from the past to the present by considering the direction of its development, the progress or regression of governance, and the obstacles that block the decentralization driving process; it includes analysis of the direction of decentralization reform and local governance under the government led by Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha and the 2017 Constitution which is the major blueprint for the country’s reform of government together with the National Reform Steering Assembly. This article aims to 1) study the decentralization and local government situation in Thailand after the coup d'etat in 2014, and 2) investigate the direction of decentralization under the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2560 (2017). This article is based on document analysis. The data were obtained from various sources i.e. news publications, books, periodicals, official documents, related laws, and electronic media. The selection of the documents was based on the following specific criteria: 1) the real original documents and 2) their correctness and the reliability. The triangulation check was employed by studying the information from the same type or the same content from various sources of information and then comparing for the accuracy and the parallel information. The obtained information was analyzed by content analysis and the interpretive approach.
Local governance of Thailand and decentralization before the coup d'etat in 2014
The local governance of Thailand has been evolving for over a century, since first appearing in 1897 in the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who realized the need to reform the country and modernize the system to match the West. His scheme included the establishment of the sanitation division in Bangkok under local governance, and this was the initiation of local government. In 1905, the Local Sanitation Division Act Ratthanakosinsok 127 set up sanitary units in many districts around the country. The sanitation was divided into 2 types: city sanitation to be established in the areas of cities or developed localities, and district sanitation to be located in the rural districts. Until the reign of King Rama VII, the king appointed the Board of Public Sanitation, a committee to study foreign local government. This committee foresaw that municipalities should be established and proposed their plan to the king. Although the king thought that people should practice the control of local business and learn about democracy for themselves, a law still was not enacted. After the country changed from an absolute monarchy to a democracy, the concept of decentralization received more attention. In 1933, the improvement of the administrative structure was created under the Government Administration Act, B.E. 2476 (1933) that determined local government agencies and established the municipalities. Then, the Municipal Act, B.E. 2476 (1933) was enacted, so that municipalities became the first local government agencies in Thailand according to the principle of decentralization. The municipalities could be divided into 3 levels: (1) the subdistrict municipality, (2) town municipality, and (3) city municipality. All levels of sanitation became the responsibility of the municipalities. After that, there were no additional municipalities because they had limited roles and authority, and people lacked knowledge and understanding about local governance. There followed a period of laying the reform and foundation of local government. Four forms of local agencies were established. These were the sanitary organization, municipality organization, provincial administrative organization (PAO), and tambon administrative organization (TAO). In the early period, the local sanitary organization’s patterns were re-introduced. When the sanitary organization was well-developed to meet the specified criteria, it would be promoted to a municipality. It was anticipated that this promotion would be a catalyst for local development. In 1955, the Provincial Administration Organization Act B.E. 2498 (1955) was passed for the administration of municipality and sanitary organizations, and in 1956 the Tambon Administrative Organisations Act, B.E. 2499 (1956) was enacted. The act specified the work units of sub-districts as cooperating agencies. These agencies managed their own expenses independently. Although, the government had laid the foundation for local organizations aimed to make people participate in local administration, it was found that the central government still designated the officers from central government who would govern the local organizations. After the end of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram’s government in 1957, the TAOs were dissolved and replaced by district council committees, but these were still controlled by government officials or the central government. Even though there was continuous development in local organization in Thailand, population growth, the rapid growth and complexities of cities and the arrival of foreign tourists were all factors that caused some difficulty in management for both central government and local government. Although some areas would have local governance to share some duties of government, the authority and duties were limited and the potential of local areas was not enough to make or manage public services efficiently. So, special agencies with authority and responsibilities were required in order to thoroughly and quickly provide services to meet the needs of the people. Incidentally, in 1973 there was a major political transition; democracy was in full blossom and the people were demanding the opportunity to fully participate in political activities. The concept of decentralization was raised again and the government passed the National Government Organization Act, B.E. 2518 (1975) the main theme of which was to set up the Bangkok metropolitan area as a local government. The duties of this particular local government included being a municipality, sanitation organization, and PAO, and it was entitled to manage as a special municipality. This special administrative organization had duties and authority determined to be part of the regional offices, i.e. the districts and provinces. In this case, the administrators and councilors came directly from elections, whereas in the past they were appointed by the central government. Moreover, Pattaya city was established to be the second special local government authority in accordance with the Pattaya City Administration Act B.E. 2521 (1978) to support the expansion of the city and its development as a tourist attraction. The trend of decentralization increased until 1992, and the concept of decentralization was taken into account in the election campaigns of many political parties. In addition, there was also the proposal for the direct election of provincial governors but this idea created wide criticism in society. So, this period was considered to be the time that Thai society was actively involved in local government policy. Although the issue of direct election of provincial governors did not materialize, there was a revision in the regulations of PAOs which changed the position of the provincial governor from automatically being the chairman of the PAO; the chairman came from the election of provincial councilors. The promulgation of the 1997 Constitution was a major reform of Thailand that set out the overall reform of local government and the most obvious decentralization in the country’s history. This 1997 Constitution paid special attention to decentralization, e.g. independence of policy determination, governing, personnel management, financial management and fiscal management with governance supervised by government agencies as necessary. Local people were also granted the right to nominate and remove local administrators and amend local regulations. Furthermore, the government also established the machinery for driving decentralization and passed laws to escalate the plan and process. This machinery also pushed and proposed the legal amendments to local governance to be in compliance with the provisions of the 1997 Constitution and quickly made progress in decentralization, e.g. raising the sanitation organization to be a municipality. The expansion of TAOs increased, restructuring of the local administrative organizations with councils coming from elections and the local administrators from direct elections or the approval of the local councils. Moreover, there was also a measure of revenue allocation for the local administrations according to criteria prescribed by law, including the preparation of administrative transfer to the local administrations of, especially, education and public health functions. However, during the period of government led by Thaksin Shinawatra, the direction of decentralization seemed to go in another direction. One approach, which reflected Thaksin’s business background, was by having the provincial administration managed in the style of a chief executive officer with the provincial governor acting in this role. In this case, the governor had the maximum authority to make decisions and took a role as an assistant of the prime minister to drive public services; this approach led to wide criticism and discussion of the pros and cons. In addition, the government also operated a number of functions that blocked decentralization, e.g. delaying the transfer of personnel to local organizations, bureaucratic reform by establishing departments in central government focusing on the management of large public sector projects, and adjusting the ratio of local governments’ income to be not less than 25% of the net income of the central government. It was observed that not only did the government not have a policy to promote decentralization, but the government sector and its group of officials also showed a strong movement of anti-decentralization by claiming that local administrations were not ready to manage the work necessary under the transfer of various tasks such as carrying out organization and personnel; this was especially the case with teachers who did not accept the policy of transferring educational institutes to local administrations. There was also a request for an evaluation of the readiness of local administrative organizations, and it can be said that this was a stage of stalling decentralization. The 1997 Constitution would be a major blueprint for the country’s reform, especially the issue of decentralization that showed signs of progress. But there were many obstacles, both with the insincerity of central government in promoting decentralization or even in the contents of the 1997 Constitution itself, e.g. in spite of determining what local governance could or could not do, there was no determination as to how to achieve it and no clear definition between government and local administration relating to policies such as governance schemes, support, verification, follow-up and evaluation. Furthermore, many kinds of transfer of authority were not in compliance with the practice, so there was no progress in decentralization. The political scene changed again in 2006. Following volatility in national politics, a coup d'etat ousted Thaksin. The 1997 Constitution was abrogated and replaced by the 2007 Constitution. The 2007 Constitution did not lessen the essence of local administration; in fact, the role of local government organizations was expanded into a clearer and broader role by determining the proper relationship between local administration and the central government. This time, local administrations would have independence in their own authorities, with clear governance of local administration, promotion of the public-sector role to have more participation, and support for local administration with transparency and integrity. However, Thailand then entered a period of political crisis with severe and long national conflict. This caused instability in the government with frequent political changes, and decentralization was disrupted. Though the government expressed its efforts to push the policy towards decentralization to local government, the policy was still unclear, especially the issue of the income of local government. The central government did not allocate 35% of income to the local government as promised, instead it provided 25%. In addition, the government had not yet transferred the responsibility for providing some public services that could be done locally and, in those instances where responsibility was transferred and required a large budget, it allocated only a small budget. The government considered that the local governments were not capable enough, but this was not an excuse for centralization because it was the duty of central government to take care of the development of localities. Furthermore, although the decentralization policy led to self-management of local government, the problem of a lack of clarity in the authority of governance, especially with the conflict between independence and the intervention of regular monitoring, was an obstacle to local administration’s management. There was also incompatibility between the regulations and the situation that existed. Many local policies were questioned by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) as to whether they were appropriate, so local governments could not fully administer their work because they were afraid of committing offences and legal prosecutions. Even though the 2007 Constitution was a driving force for decentralization and had the backing of the people on the issue of decentralization reform, autonomy, and self-management for some provinces, national politics seemed to block this development process. It can be seen that the previous sequences of the decentralization process had obviously made progress, but it was quite slow and took a long time because of the many obstacles to local administration both internally and externally, especially the problem of national political conflict that affected the drive of the decentralization policy. It had been anticipated that when the decentralization policy could be developed quickly, it could be used as a baseline for strong and solid democracy after the promulgations of the 1997 and the 2007 Constitutions. The issues of national reform mostly focused on national politics so the issue of local reform did not receive enough attention. When there was a political crisis in 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) decided to take control of the country by coup d'etat. Thus, the 2007 Constitution was abrogated and replaced with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) (the 2014 Constitution). Based on its contents focusing on the country’s reform and a referendum in August 2016, the majority of the people voted to accept the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand B.E. 2560 (2017) (the 2017 Constitution). This was again a major blueprint for national reform of government that clearly indicated the direction of local government.