Nan proves villages have the answers

Nan proves villages have the answers

Villagers in Nan province create a mini-dam as part of a reforestation project. In the past decade, 13 northern provinces have suffered a deforestation crisis that has destroyed at least 8.6 million rai of land. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill
Villagers in Nan province create a mini-dam as part of a reforestation project. In the past decade, 13 northern provinces have suffered a deforestation crisis that has destroyed at least 8.6 million rai of land. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

For those in the provinces, having greater say in the key issues of local administration remains a distant dream. For instance, they cannot vote for their governors, as is done in Bangkok.

However, a small tambon in the northern province of Nan has shown the way towards a different kind of self-rule.

Nan's system of partial self-rule was established about 15 years ago by a group of well-respected residents of tambon Namkian in Nan's Phu Piang district. There, villagers have been able to tackle several tough issues like narcotics, gambling and deforestation, all the while allowing state authorities to focus on similar problems elsewhere.

Spearheading the self-ruled system was Sarit Surit, a key figure of the so-called "42 Warriors" -- a group of local leaders with a vision to develop a new type of participatory process. Mr Sarit is a local medical practitioner and a former member of the Communist Party of Thailand. The successful system he and his fellow group members created has since become a model for local administration. Indeed it epitomises the famous saying, "villages hold all the answers".

I learned of their aspirations during my first visit to the tambon back in 2010. Recently, I returned with a senate panel tackling poverty and inequality, led by Prof Sangsit Piriyarangsan. I was profoundly impressed with the progress being made.

Back in the early 2000s, Namkian was a little different to other tambons. It faced a spate of grave problems like the aforementioned deforestation, gambling and narcotics. Then, local leaders gathered highly regarded figures to discuss the problems and map out solutions. They involved representatives from key institutions -- family, temple, education and healthcare -- in the consultation process. Eventually, a set of rules were applied to all 600 households in the tambon's five villages.

Mangkorn Deepin, former Namkian Tambon Administration Organisation (TAO) chairman, said the rules initially targeted gambling and drugs. For instance, any community member found to be involved in gambling faces a fine of 2,000 baht and is stripped of all village welfare benefits.

One method used to combat narcotics in Namkian entails information provided by individual villagers. If a villager knows of anyone using or selling illegal drugs, the person's name is written down and put in a box. If the same name appears often, an investigation ensues. The accused is then summoned and, if the accusation is proved, he or she is sent away for rehabilitation. Regarding drug dealers, they initially get a warning. If however they do not stop the illicit trade, they are turned over to the police, while their families are cut off from the village welfare scheme.

A villager needs wood for house construction and repair. But to ensure wood is available for everyone and for a long time, forest preservation is vital. To that end, a villager must seek community consensus before felling a tree. Anyone breaching the rules faces punishment.

Within five years after the rules were put in place, Namkian was able to solve its gambling and tree felling problems. As for drugs, only a few cases have since troubled the village.

Prapan Boontan, vice chairman of Namkian TAO, and one of the 42 Warriors, told me that one villager was so infused with community spirit that he confessed to leaders that his son and daughter-in-law took drugs. Both have been sent for rehabilitation.

The villagers likewise have a strong commitment to forest conservation. When a village group, which included women and youths, learned that trees had been felled in the forest, they went to the spot and found tree stumps and some machinery. They took the machinery and burned it in front of Namkian school -- a harsh act meant to send a strong message against deforestation.

Another component in the community is the formation of self-help groups comprising people born in the same year. They help each other in times of illness, and each group has a charity fund for members' funerals, children's schooling and so forth.

In order to discourage lottery playing, leaders conduct a mock lottery draw in which no one can actually win. The point is to remind villagers to spend their money wisely.

The 42 warriors have curbed smoking by asking local shops not to sell cigarettes. Those who want to smoke must buy the product outside the village.

Unfortunately, there were traders from other villages who tried to cash in on the situation by opening shops and selling cigarettes in the villages, but a community boycott forced them out. The above-mentioned are just a few examples of how self-rule measures can make a difference.

Today, the 42 Warriors are focusing on economic well-being, ensuring that the village's main crop, rubber, gets the best prices. They also have implemented a pricing agreement requiring one price for all villages.

By doing so villagers have more bargaining power.

A recent infrastructure project, meanwhile, allows villagers to benefit from an innovative water management process using soil and cement weirs, which helps secure water supply for the whole year. The project's construction is funded by the state, while villagers pitch in labour.

With no law endorsing their role, the 42 Warriors have made progress by successfully installing a self-ruled system, albeit partially.

The Namkian model is a combination of old local administration act, and the Tambon Administration Organisation Act, with input provided by local leaders including village heads and community leaders.

It's an informal yet efficient organisation, a merging of representative and consultative democracy forms.

As seen, an active citizenry remains a key component of the Namkian experience and allows even the toughest problems to get solved.

Prasarn Marukpitak is former senator.

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