Yongyot Kaewkeao, president of the kamnan and village chiefs association of Thailand: It’s too radical.
The pro-reform Progressive Movement is drumming up support for its campaign for constitutional amendments aimed at reforming clauses relating to decentralisation.
It seeks to collect 100,000 signatures by the end of June, and if the petition meets the target, a motion will be raised in parliament, possibly in November, to revise the constitution’s Chapter 14 related to provincial administration.
If the movement’s goal is accomplished, the positions of kamnan (tambon chief) and phuyai ban (village head), which come under the Interior Ministry and are now part of the centralised bureaucracy, will become a thing of past.
Nonetheless, while administrative reforms to empower locals are widely welcomed, the group’s latest push for changes goes beyond the changes to the kamnan and phuyai ban that politicians and academics have in mind.
‘Doomed’ from the start
Yongyot Kaewkeao, president of the kamnan and village chiefs association of Thailand, said the Progressive Movement’s proposal is radical and divisive and reflects its lack of understanding about public administration.
The country has made substantial progress towards decentralisation of power over the years with the elections of local administrative organisations (LAOs), which also led to the changes in the roles of tambon and village heads, he said.
LAO is a broad term covering provincial administration organisations (PAOs), municipalities, tambon administration organisations (TAOs) and specially administered local administration organisations (Bangkok and Pattaya). There are more than 7,000 LAOs nationwide.
“Kamman and phuyai ban take on the role of administrative officials and have clear job responsibilities. Their job is completely different from LAOs which are responsible for local development and public services,” he said.
While noting that the movement’s campaign may appeal to candidates who lost in elections of kamnan and village chiefs and draw support among reform proponents, Mr Yongyot said he believed the amendment proposal would be dead on arrival in parliament.
The opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), which is the Progressive Movement’s political ally, does not have enough votes to help push the changes in parliament, he said.
The proposal seeking to abolish the positions of kamnan and phuyai ban has already stoked ire among association members who will be compelled to take action if the movement proceeds further, he said. “But if the movement wants to make changes to the tenure of tambon chiefs and village heads, we’re open for discussions. We have no problem with it at all,” he said.
He also played down criticism of the political clout of tambon and village heads at the grassroots level, saying while local leaders do have support bases which can affect a political contest, locals have access to information and make their own decisions.
Democrat MP for Trang Sathit Wongnongtoey, who took part in the drafting of local administrative organisation law, said some reform advocates see kamnan and phuyai ban as part of the centralised system that can be replaced with the elected LAOs.
He used to think the same way but has had a change of heart.
The roles are not interchangeable, and he said the importance of these posts became clear to him during the Covid-19 pandemic as kamnan and phuyai ban were actively engaged in containing the outbreak.
Public health volunteers, who do not have the authority to set up screening checkpoints, relied on tambon and village headmen to curb the spread of the virus, said the Democrat MP. “I think they are necessary. They are part of the national administrative system and the link to other agencies — be it police, public health, agriculture. They also speak for the locals,” he said.
In several large thesaban (municipalities) where there are no kamnan or phuyai, a community council is set up with the president taking on the roles similar to tambon and village chiefs, he said.
On the length of their term, he said the issue can be discussed and sorted out while suggesting their performance should be evaluated every five years to ensure they serve responsibly.
The political influence of tambon chiefs and village heads as political canvassers has fallen in several communities due to various factors, says Mr Sathit. “Their roles have changed and I think people are aware of the differences in the roles [of LAOs and tambon chiefs and village heads]. The locals accept them because they’re up to the job, not because of their officialdom,” he said.
These local leaders still play an important role in administration of the day-to-day affairs of the locals, says Julapan Amornwiwat, deputy leader of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party.
Their advantages are that they are connected with people and with a solid structure they can implement government policies. During the pandemic, several communities without these local leaders struggled to get government support, he said.
However, like any organisation, there might be some flaws or weaknesses but they are not enough to justify dissolving the positions, he said. “Some people see these positions as unnecessary, so the issue should be debated to find common ground on the role and the form of a system for the government to provide support to locals,” he said.
He said the process to find occupants for these positions and how long they should serve is hardly an issue and differences can be sorted out. Parliament is willing to make changes to help these leaders serve locals’ needs better but is unlikely to vouch for dissolving them, said the MP for Chiang Mai. “I think there should be a limit to their terms. If they don’t perform or aren’t up to the job, locals should decide their fate,” he said.
The days of tambon chiefs and village heads, who are seen as a political tool for those in power, are long gone, said Mr Julapan.”I don’t think they can exert influence on people when it comes to elections. The political context has changed and people don’t just take their orders as was the case in the past,” he said.
Agents of government
Under the 1914 law on provincial administration, kamnan and phuyai ban are government representatives who report to a district chief and are responsible for maintaining peace and order and development work, said Woothisarn Tanchai, secretary-general of the King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) and an expert on local administration.
With decisions made in such a top-down approach, a song Phuyai Lee was written in 1961 to make fun of the centralised system where the development agenda was drawn up by the authorities and passed down to local communities for implementation, said the academic. It was not until the fifth national economic and social development plan that local input was analysed to design development projects that catered to local needs and problems, he said.
The positions of kamnan and phuyai ban have been kept intact although their roles have been adjusted to do more specific tasks such as enforcing the law and preventing narcotics — the powers that are not given to directly-elected tambon administrative organisations (TAOs). In remote communities, these local leaders know the residents intimately and local problems and can meditate disputes and assist TAOs in doing their job.
Jade Donavanik, dean of the law faculty at Dhurakij Pundit University, said the law on provincial administration involving elections of kamnan and phuyai ban is a form of decentralisation of power.
He said redrawing the roles and responsibilities of these local leaders may help determine if these positions are still necessary or should be abolished. “If their roles are clearly separate from the LAOs, there is nothing wrong with keeping them. But if their work overlaps and they work under politicians, they should go,” he said.
Mr Jade, former adviser to the Constitution Drafting Committee, said there is something amiss about the chain command involving these local leaders who are selected by locals but operate under the bureaucracy.
He agreed that the role of kamnan and phuyai ban as political canvassers is diminishing, noting that election-related violence in recent years involves LAOs, rather than tambon and village chiefs.