01 April 2013

Want public participation? Decentralize.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of my time in Thailand has been the realization that many Isaan communities lack the agency and voice that many Americans, myself included, tend to take for granted. The villagers that we learn from protest for months or years on end for their right to maintain their livelihoods and control over natural resources, and yet their demands are often discounted or left unanswered by the government. The root of this lack of government stewardship is beyond my experience and expertise to fully explain. Nevertheless, it is apparent after spending only two months here that the over-centralization of government power muffles the needs and desires of local communities.
Often, this centralization comes in the form of top-down megaprojects such as large dams and mines implemented by the national government in the name of economic development. Despite provisions for people’s participation in Thai law, the lack of power at the district and provincial levels of government makes it difficult for any public input to carry influence in the central cabinet’s decisions concerning where and how these large-scale projects are implemented.
Recently, we visited the community of Na Nong Bong in Loei Province. Along with five other nearby villages, Na Nong Bong faces water and soil contamination from a nearby gold mine owned by Tongkam Limited (TKL). The villagers report severe health problems, including skin rashes, respiratory problems, and cyanide poisoning. Their agricultural yields are falling and they are no longer able to utilize local water resources. Despite protesting for years, the affected villagers feel that their voices are not adequately heard by TKL or the government. This lack of public participation continues today as the company works to renew their license to mine in the area and looks to expand their operations.
Although the public can voice their opinions at several points in the mine licensing process, including a formal Public Scoping day and community forums, these avenues for public participation rarely make a difference. According to one representative from the Loei provincial Department of Primary Industries and Mines (under the Ministry of Industry), “The mining operations that have been stopped through public hearings have mostly smaller projects like rock quarries,” not large gold mines. Ultimately, the provincial office does not have any say in central cabinet processes. “We can give suggestions and include public input, but ultimately the central government can override our opinions,” he says. “We’re like a postman between the people and the cabinet.”
Nonprofit organizer P’Ubol spoke extensively with our group earlier this semester about “localism”; the idea that the Thai government should emphasize community autonomy and decision-making power instead of imposing sweeping policies on the entire country. This concept is especially important in Isaan, where communities have developed unique traditions and specialized ways of life over the course of many generations. The devolution of power to district and sub-district offices could facilitate the growth of public participation in development project proposals and amplify the voice of the Isaan people.
Such decentralization may sound like a rather utopian vision, but I do see small but important steps being made toward a more just and decentralized Thailand. For instance, the communities affected by the Rasi Sali dam in Sisaket Province are now working with the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) on a ten-year restoration plan to help mitigate the effects of the dam (e.g., the flooding of farmland and community wetlands and the destruction of fisheries). Villagers are included on each of the project subcommittees. As part of the plan, they also run a community learning center to support those affected by the dam and to help preserve local wisdom. “Villagers here have created a standard for Thai society,” says learning center director P’Banya. “There is still a movement toward megaprojects, but now people are starting to demand their rights and examine the real impact of government proposals.”
The seed of decentralization has been planted in some Isaan communities. It is now time to help it spread its roots and grow.

Kelly Hardin
Macalester College

1 comment:

Nelson said...

Kelly,
I absolutely agree, if Thailand could address its issue of centralization, then many of the development problems we’ve encountered would become relics of an authoritarian past. Every time we’ve talked to government officials I’ve been really excited, excited that we can finally get some answers to these issues, scold someone at the top. But it seems like we’ve only ever talked to pawns, which makes me wonder, how far up the chain of command do you have to go?
The context of centralization (and fear of decentralizing) reaches far back into Thai history, probably all the way to the disparate kingdoms pre-Siam. This, I think, is also the root of Thailand’s self-colonization. Only by having a strong central government can Thailand maintain an image of unity amongst so many different languages and sub-cultures.
Also, I think bringing up localism to address the issue of centralized government is an effective argument/response. And you’re absolutely right, it’s happening right and left in Thailand. Another good example of localism is the hill tribe people, who refuse to work closely with the central government.