Vision to put Yala 'back on its feet'
Getting over the Covid crisis is the big challenge for mayor Pongsak Yingchoncharoen
Mayor of Yala City municipality Pongsak Yingchoncharoen has more than 17 years of experience in managing the city once severely affected by the southern conflict. With the Covid-19 pandemic making things worse for local people, now is one of the most challenging times of his working life.
Combining the municipality's strengths, particularly its world-class city design, the mayor's experience and vision together, it would not be overly optimistic to say that Yala City Municipality will soon be back on its feet and stronger than ever.
The Bangkok Post recently spoke to the mayor while he was leading representatives of the Pattani Fishery Association to file a complaint against the new legislation "written by the government without an insight into the local people's problems", as they put it.
Mr Pongsak introduced himself to us as a Yala native. He studied at a junior high school in his hometown before moving to Bangkok to study at Triam Udom Suksa School in Bangkok. After that, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical studies at Chiang Mai University and gained an MBA at Queensland University, Australia.
The mayor began his political career with an invitation from an older local politician. He later became a mayor of Yala in 2004 and has continued to work in the same post.
He said Yala City municipality had been affected by southern violence for more than 20 years before the situation became less tense a decade ago. The municipality's urban development project, spearheaded by the mayor, started five years ago with the aim to kickstart economic rehabilitation.
"The Yala City municipality has a total area of 19 square kilometres with a population of 60,000 people [as of 2019]," he said. "The municipality is renowned for its beautiful town plan designed around 80 years ago when Phra Ratthakitwichan [Sawat Na Nakhon] was the mayor.
"More than 400 roads in the municipality are connected in the shape of a three-layered spider's web similar to the town plan of Paris.
"Some roads criss-cross in the same layout as LA's town plan. The municipal area was clearly divided into zones such as an educational zone, a zone for government offices, a residential zone and a green zone."
The mayor's work for the municipality now focuses on cleanliness and waste management. He revealed the municipality plans to be a logistics hub with the construction of a dual track railway. The project (the Yala-Pattani dual track railway) has already been approved by the cabinet.
In terms of education, the mayor said he had initiated projects to develop youth in line with their aptitudes and interests. Counselling teachers have been sent to schools under the municipality to help high schoolers find their strengths and fulfil their potential.
"For instance, children who are good at IT will be taught by lecturers from Chulalongkorn and Thammasat Universities. We also provide them scholarships to further their studies in the bachelor's level," Mr Pongsak said.
Like many other provinces in Thailand, the agricultural sector in Yala has seen better days. The mayor said one of the municipality's projects to help the local farmers is a project to promote the cultivation of local strains of durian such as Musan King and Blackthorn instead of Para rubber whose price has been plummeting.
Coffee gives hope to the municipality's economy. Boasting the area's very high quality soil, the mayor said both Arabica and Robusta grow well there. "Our Robusta has a nutty fragrance and tang of lime. These qualities are not found in Robusta growing in other areas," he said.
Like other local government units, the municipality is trying to catch up with technological development by launching a smart city project. The project utilises technology to facilitate local people with better services from the municipality.
An application for communication with municipal staff and Line Official Account (OA) have been introduced to help people send their complaints and stay updated on the municipality's latest news faster and more conveniently.
"Free WiFi in the main zones of the municipality and education about digital technologies are provided for small vendors participating in the Yala Market project,'' he said.
Despite the mayor's strong efforts to develop Yala City, Covid-19 has been a blow to the municipality, costing it revenue losses and forcing it to cancel many activities and projects that can stimulate the local economy such as the Yala Marathon.
"Another important activity that we have cancelled for this year is an activity to encourage Yala people who stay in other areas to return to their hometown during long holidays such as the Songkran festival," he said.
Although small in size, Yala City has won national awards many times such as the best town and city management award on 2018 from the Office of the Prime Minister and the most liveable city award from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
Yala City will represent Thailand to hopefully receive the Asean Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC) Award 2021, he said.