Decentralise, or Pracharath bound to fail

Decentralise, or Pracharath bound to fail

When Thaksin Shinawatra was looking for innovative policies to launch his Thai Rak Thai Party, he looked for inspiration from activists leading social movements and was not disappointed. Universal health care and village funds became his landmark policy successes that subsequent governments could only try to outdo by pouring in more money to expand the programmes further.

In the same vein, the Prayut government has also turned to civil society movements for an innovative policy product to win the hearts and minds of people on the ground.

Amid apparent support from many civic groups, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha launched the Pracharath (citizens and state) policy drive amid great fanfare on Sunday. The premier and junta leader vowed to strengthen the grassroots economy to bridge inequality while civil society leader Dr Prawase Wasi, the owner of the Pracharath development concept, lectured on what it takes to rescue the nation from the "black hole" well beyond a massive one-time financial injection.

High-minded phrases such as holistic development, livelihood rights, people's participation, bottom-up planning, environmental conservation, green farming and community banks filled the air. Optimism was understandably high.

Grassroots and civic groups have been pushing every government --  civilian and military -- for bottom-up development that addresses people's real needs on the ground. But officialdom has always said no.

This time it may be different, they hope. Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak has endorsed the Pracharath development model and promised to turn it into reality by creating a win-win situation.

With strong military blessing, many activists hope it might be possible to make community groups part and parcel of community fund management to strengthen the local economy, transparency and grassroots democracy.

With all bureaucratic doors shut, it is hard to say no to a policy opening for change and grasp what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix bureaucratic glitches and let grassroots movements grow -- albeit at the risk of being attacked as coup cheerleaders.

As for the military government, having Dr Prawase, the respected development guru and reformer, on its side is the best legitimacy it could ever have hoped for.

I hate to be a kill-joy. Despite the good intentions and hype over this people-state cooperation, I don't think this partnership is going to work.

When the 30-baht healthcare scheme and village fund were launched, the public knew exactly what to expect. But Pracharath? The very abstract name of this policy product forced Gen Prayut to distance it from Thaksin's Prachaniyom, or populism. It also lends itself to unclear goals that make it difficult for civic groups to monitor. 

In addition, the government focuses too heavily on the financial side while a strong grassroots economy depends on a healthy environment to ensure food security and well-being.

This requires granting local communities the right to manage their forests, sufficient land to till, power to manage river basins and protect the seas and the autonomy to stop industries that harm their health and the environment. It also demands state policies valuing human security more than economic growth figures, or corporate profits.

More often than not, people are plunged into hardship and illness because of faulty state or state-sanctioned policies and projects. For the government to promise people a good life while imposing policies that destroy the environment and local sources of livelihood smacks of deception.

With all the Pracharath fanfare, one would think that civic groups could now give the government input on how to use the 136-billion-baht stimulus package. Tough luck. Wait, they have been told; a committee needs to be set up first. 

But many communities cannot afford to wait. They are being kicked out of forests and farmlands and polluted by toxic mining. Their seas are being emptied by commercial trawlers. All because of misguided state policies.

Not having enough cash is not the main problem of people on the ground. It is not having the power to take charge of their lives, their communities, their education and natural resources.

The main obstacle to people's empowerment is state centralisation. Without structural change to an unequal power structure, any efforts to help are piecemeal as people empowerment remains a distant goal.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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