Thailand: The Politics of Decentralisation


John Funston

After starting 2005 with the biggest electoral win ever in February, Prime Minister Thaksin ended the year on a troubled note. The Bangkok public forced a close associate to abort his takeover of the Matichon newspaper. Erstwhile friend, media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, barred from presenting a TV program, attracted 50,000 and more at weekly anti-Thaksin public meetings. Academics and respected public figures increasingly criticised administration failings.

A common theme among Thaksin's critics was that the prime minister had failed to protect hard-won democratic freedoms; however one opposition group went against this trend - teachers opposed to the transfer of schools to local government authorities. In an attempt to enhance democratic accountability the 1997 constitution provides that power over areas such as education should be decentralised; the 1999 Act Determining Plans and Process of Decentralisation set out a ten-year plan to achieve this.

When steps to implement the Act began in 2004, teachers objected. Not only were they opposed to losing their status as national public servants, they also claimed that local elected authorities - at provincial, municipal and sub-district level - were dominated by corrupt politicians. There was public sympathy for such views, and uncertainty over whether proposed changes would assist the vexed issue of educational reform. Many in the ruling Thai Rak Thai party supported central control, though TRT could not afford to alienate local authorities as its members provided key grass roots support during elections.

To placate 400,000 teachers cabinet suspended transfer to local authorities just two months before the February elections. One local body however challenged the suspension, and the court ruled in its favour. In August cabinet confirmed that transfers would go ahead, though on a limited scale initially. Teachers again mobilised, holding 10,000-strong rallies in late October and early November.

Demonstrations forced the government into further concessions, in particular agreement that transfers would only take place when schools agreed to this. A committee of 9 TRT MPs and 9 teachers prepared amendments to the decentralisation act, making transfers 'voluntary'. This appeased some, but many wanted nothing less than a complete stop to transfers. When the House of Representatives passed the amendments on 7 December, 50,000 teachers demonstrated in opposition. Many burnt their TRT cards, pledged to close their accounts with the Thaksin family-controlled AIS telephone company, and declared full support for Sondhi.

When the amendments were sent to the Senate the upper house refused to rush them through. Too late for the final session in 2005, it will be reconsidered after senate elections next April. The government plans to proceed with transfers on a trial basis before then.

WATCHPOINT: The first test of this contest will come with the April senate elections. Though senate candidates are in theory independent of party affiliation, pro-government candidates may find election difficult if either teachers or local government authorities are off side.


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