For Release Friday, December 30, 2011
During my recent visit, Thailand was struggling with massive flooding. I monitored the interactions among national, provincial and local governments during the disaster. And I spent time with flood refugees in Pattaya, a city renown for sun and sex south of Bangkok.
Thailand is unique among its neighbors as having never been a European colony. It was ruled by an absolute monarchy until the 1930s and still has a strong royal presence in a constitutional monarchy. The national government structure has a prime minister, National Assembly with a House and Senate, and a complex judiciary — in all a blend of western laws and cultural practices that go back to the Khmer roots of the kingdom.
The Thai people have suffered through 16 constitutions, usually triggered by governance crises or military coups. Most of the constitutions make only small changes in the basic government structure. But each redistributes political and economic clout among the traditional powers — old families, the military, and the royal family — often with little consideration of citizen desires. Interestingly, the current king has played a role in resolving some governance crises, facilitating peaceful leadership changes between political parties and avoiding the threat of military coups, and yet more constitutions.
As one of the “Asian tigers”, Thailand enjoyed rapid growth through the second half of the last century. However, it suffered its own crisis of overdevelopment in the 1990s. As a result, some economic enterprises owned by the traditional powers were purchased or displaced by international firms, whose logos are now ubiquitous across the nation. Newer roads have been built to connect rural farmlands to urban centers.
Bangkok is the largest city in the kingdom; the region is home to over 12 million, almost 20 percent of the national population. It is served by numerous expressways, underground and elevated transit lines, and considerable boat traffic on the Chao Phraya River that flows through the center of the city.
The Chao Phraya River also channels monsoon waters from the northern rice fields, through the city, to the Gulf of Thailand. When flooding occurs, it can shut down factories for weeks and relocate families for months. Yet the positive, hospitable spirit that drives the Thai people prevails. Loy Kratong — which, ironically, is the festival of the spirit of the waters — was still celebrated with all-night revelry, in the midst of the flooding.
The metropolis of greater Bangkok, one of 76 provinces countrywide, is governed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), a creature of the national government. It has an elected chief executive, the governor of Bangkok, and an elected 57 member Bangkok Metropolitan Council. It is authorized to prepare regional plans and deliver road, transit, waste management, housing, security, and environmental services. But it often shares these and other authorities with the national and local governments.
These sharing arrangements were severely strained by the flooding, resulting in running conflicts between the national government’s flood control organization, the Flood Relief Operations Center (FROC), and the BMA. The prime minister and governor of Bangkok, two of only three directly elected executives in Thailand, carried on a daily war of words and threatened actions in the press. To add to the volatility, neighborhood districts (of which there are 50 in the Bangkok region) were often felt left out of decisions to control flooding, and periodically engaged in guerilla activities, such as illegally opening flood gates.
What can we learn about regional governance from Thailand? The national government has empowered regional governance in the Bangkok region, through the BMA, and at times provided funding, to plan and implement major transportation and other regional projects. As a result of the current flooding, the BMA is also a key player in designing and providing the improved flood control systems required to protect Bangkok against future flooding. While its actions might not match the boldness or rapid implementation of Chinese provinces, many of the infrastructure projects are impressive. And protecting the region against future flooding would be monumental.
Even though public comment and criticism of government appears to be a national pastime, public involvement in decision-making still appears to be dominated by the traditional powers. However, major public demonstrations influenced the drafting of the most recent constitution, resulting in provisions supporting public participation. In addition, the governors of Bangkok and the Bangkok Metropolitan Council are directly-elected. Only time will tell if actions like these will foster greater civic engagement at regional and other levels of governance.
The intriguing “wild card” is the role of the King in resolving governance crises. This is partially related to the respect that the people have for the current King, the threat of royal family intervention does influence the behavior of political parties. For better or worse, that threat has probably faded, due to the advancing age of the current King and mixed reviews of the crown Prince. Lacking a king, could regions in the states empower individuals or groups of individuals to help bring warring local factions together to take bold regional actions? Maybe a committee composed of regional senior statespeople. When I lived in the Pittsburgh region, for example, Fred Rogers and various Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins could play that role.
These are only impressions of a short-term traveler overseas (and a battered regionalist at home) — but hopefully food for thought as we think about regional potentials in America.
Bill Dodge is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters. He can be reached at WilliamRDodge@aol.com.
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