Suthep 'reform' just another empty promise

Decentralisation is one key reform idea proposed by the anti-government movement. But if protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters believe it will be a piece of cake, they need to think again.

During his nightly speech at the Democracy Monument on Saturday, Mr Suthep was exuberant when surrounded by rows of village heads and kamnan blowing whistles and singing the rally theme song Soo Pai Ya Dai Thoy (Keep Fighting) with him on stage.

"I dare you Charupong to fire these village heads and kamnan," he roared, referring to the Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan's threat to punish local officials for supporting Mr Suthep.

"These people have overcome their fear and have now decided to join us."

Mr Suthep said there were 500 village heads and kamnan at the rally that night who openly supported the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

"And there will be more of them to come," he added to the cacophony of whistle blowing and clapping.

Will they? I wonder.

Don't be fooled by the show of force by the pro-PDRC local leaders. The fact that not a single one of them came from other provinces except Surat Thani _ the power centre of the Thaugsubans _ speaks volumes about the uphill task ahead for the PDRC's decentralisation plan.

Don't belittle the power of village heads and kamnan who pull the strings on the ground. When Mr Charupong planned to amend the law to change their tenure from retirement at 60 to a five-year term last year, tens of thousands of village heads and kamnan took to the streets and Mr Charupong meekly withdrew the amendment attempt.

When Mr Suthep announced that under the PDRC decentralisation plan, the provincial administration agency under the Interior Ministry would be abolished to allow locals to elect their own governors _ and presumably other local officials _ the village heads and kamnan were the first group to come out to protest against it.

Since then, Mr Suthep has been trying to allay their concerns, but to no avail.

On Saturday night, he was not only using his men in Surat Thani to make his supporters believe he had eventually gained support from village heads and kamnan, he also promised to reward village heads and kamnan throughout the country with an even higher status in the officialdom. "When we win, don't be afraid that we will dismiss you. Instead we will elevate you to be assistants of district chiefs to befit your honour and dignity," he declared.

With that promise, his decentralisation plan is doomed from the start.

When you don't even dare to challenge village heads and kamnan but instead try to cater to their whims, forget about reforming officialdom as a whole.

Which brings me to a recent statement from the civil service supporting the PDRC reform plan to free the bureaucracy from political intervention.

This is ironic, to say the least. It's a call for reform when the very people who made such a call are the ones who urgently need to be reformed themselves.

I sympathise with officials who are forced to close their eyes to corruption to survive or are even used as tools by corrupt politicians. But if the centralisation system remains intact, if the government policy that looks down on the rural folk does not change, any administrative reform to empower the locals is not possible. For sure, we will still continue to see government officials from Bangkok imposing policies and megaprojects that will destroy local communities' natural resources and well-being.

The desire for change fills the rally site. Yet I find it quite perplexing that the protesters _ many of whom are well-versed in reform issues _ do not have a chance to go on stage to tell the PDRC what change is needed, or pressure the self-proclaimed reformers to be more specific with their plans. Instead, they submissively accept very vague ideas from Mr Suthep and refuse to see that a new dictatorship is forming.

As much as I want to see reform take place, it's too big a gamble. The ill-defined reform plans show the PDRC leaders have not thought the thing through. It also shows reform is only a smokescreen when a power struggle is the real issue at hand. "If we win, you and your cronies will have no place to live in Thailand," Mr Suthep roared from the stage, referring to caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. "If you win, we'll have to accept prison."

No matter who wins, Thailand will lose. In Mr Suthep's do-or-die gamble, many more will die for change that will never come. Is this what we want?

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Former editorial pages editor