Devolve state powers to stave off civil war

Devolve state powers to stave off civil war

As Thailand lurches towards something very much resembling civil war, it might be time to step back for a moment from the immediate debates over elections and reforms and very carefully consider where this crisis is coming from and in what directions it might be resolved peacefully.

Pro-government red shirts attend a rally at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Hua Mak last year. The red movement’s vow to come out in force to protect the Pheu Thai-led government has raised fears of violent clashes with anti-government protesters. BANGKOK POST

Ever since there was a Siamese/Thai state as such in the late 19th century, there has been a single, all-consuming mission: An impulse toward "unity" through centralisation envisioned by the Bangkok elite. It sought to physically bind the country together through roads and railroads and a single administrative bureaucracy.

But perhaps as importantly, this centralisation sought to create a unified mindset through the inculcation of "Thainess". Ethnic identities were dissolved. Religious conflicts suppressed. Non-Central Thai languages were demoted to dialects. Schools could only teach in Thai. A single version of history _ one of a Thai race under wise kings _ was taught.

It has been argued by many scholars that this policy to counter Western colonialism was also at the time one of internal colonisation by Thais over a non-Thai periphery. Many of the potential divisions were papered over and seemingly forgotten.

In 1932, the country became a constitutional monarchy. There was a small window of time when the nature and composition of the government and state was debated. A "Siam" would have created space for a variety of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, and to some degree political differences, to co-exist. However, with the military appointing itself the protector of a newly revitalised monarchy in the early 1960s, such debates ended. "Thailand", and a very narrowly defined Thainess, won out.

In many ways, unity based on this kind of centralisation succeeded. It to some degree stopped Western colonial expansion and Thailand "developed". But the hyper urban primacy (Bangkok was in the 1980s sixty times larger than the next biggest city of Chiang Mai) meant that such development was remarkably skewed toward Bangkok. Administratively it was also highly centralised.

Under the centralised bureaucracy, rural protesters had to go hundreds of kilometres and exert what pressure they could (mostly, by long, exhausting demonstrations) to be heard. Committees were set up only to disappear when the fragile coalition government dissolved parliament.

Democratic space grew, first in spurts, and then more evenly under the 1997 constitution. Tambon Administrative Organisations (TAO) were a new democratic space where local areas under elected representatives could determine their own path of development. A greater percentage of local taxes was earmarked for elected municipal councils to use for local initiatives. There were plans for some provinces to elect their own governors and for schools to come under local TAOs.

As democracy grew, as diversity found expression, the model of Thainess under a centralised government began to frazzle and come undone.

Events in Bangkok have largely interrupted this gradual decentralisation since 2006. As usual, Bangkok is the centre of everything. But does it have to be this way? Thai society has a stark choice to make. Two possible scenarios face it.

The first scenario is civil war, and even the dismemberment of the country.

The People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has shown it has every intention of seizing and assuming government powers. A recent announcement by the Civil Service Association indicates at least certain segments within the association are willing to act according to the PDRC's agenda.

Divisions are growing. As reported in Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, red shirts in the North would not accept the PDRC's silent coup. In a worst-case scenario, red shirts and other pro-government groups in the North "will separate ourselves from the central government". In Khon Kaen, the red shirt radio station is calling for a boycott of businesses perceived as supporting the anti-government movement in Bangkok and providing free advertising for those that are not.

Old ethnic, class, linguistic, and religious divisions are deepening. A lot of bad blood has been stirred up by the PDRC demonstrations composed of primarily richer ethnic Thai Bangkokians and southerners. The primarily poorer ethnic "Lanna" of the North and "Lao" of the Northeast have been listening closely, with patience. A sense of outrage grows. Meanwhile, the insurgency among the Malay Muslims continues apace.

If the PDRC succeeds under this scenario or comes to power through a coup, and the red shirts respond as one expects, it is likely that untold suffering, lawlessness, and bloodshed will result. It would be the end of Thailand as we know it.

Is civil war the only way to solve this impasse? Is this really what the average anti-government protester wants?

The second scenario is that elections on Feb 2 come off, and some kind of reform plan emerges from that. There are so many ways the election can be booby-trapped, but it offers hope, albeit slim, that the first scenario can be prevented. But even if the elections succeed, will there be enough commitment of a new government to think outside of a central, Bangkok-driven solution?

If it is true that most of the political conflict in the past eight years has been characterised as a "winner-takes-all" proposition, then I would like to suggest changing the locus of conflict and allowing a kind of partial "win-win" situation to emerge. The PDRC has based its movement on good governance and greater citizen involvement. The red shirts want more democracy. So how about this?

Reform should focus on the central government having its powers devolved into regional, democratically elected legislative bodies. All things considered, local control of public health, government administration, education, cultural affairs, language and environmental policy, public safety (the police) allows for greater public involvement and scrutiny.

In this plan, no longer would protesters have to make the long trip to Bangkok, or at least not as often. The national government would operate under a constitution that ensures the rights of all citizens and affirmed local and regional aspirations within the framework of the Thai state. The national government would also oversee certain areas that require centralised management such as foreign affairs, income redistribution, defence, and certain kinds of environmental policy.

This arrangement would decentralise conflicts to elected regional, provincial, and local sets of elected bodies that could respond more quickly and with greater sensitivity. It would be more than merely leaving in local areas a higher percentage of national taxes or having provincial governors elected to work with the Bangkok-based central bureaucracy.

Thailand's unity has always been one envisioned by a high centralised government and a certain level of coercion. This model has now become unworkable. It's time to consider another kind of unity, one based on equality, respect for diversity, and better governance based on local and regional control.

This may sound messy, but much less messy and bloody than civil war and partition.

The point is that "Thai society" can only decide on this and other proposals through elections. But they are in themselves insufficient. Public participation and pressure is needed to make sure that a range of reform proposals are brought to the table and that the vetting process is transparent and represents enough diversity.

This call for devolution of state powers is but one proposal. It would give engaged citizens _ red shirts, yellow shirts, and whatever other colour shirts _ a more manageable field on which to realise a common vision for a new, more peaceful Thailand.


David Streckfuss is an independent scholar based in Khon Kaen.

David Streckfuss

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