Currently – under a system that has existed for 98 years – phu yai baan, the elected representatives of villages, and the kamnan, elected by their peers from a group of villages, and traditionally the bridge between villagers and the district, or amphur officials, stay in office until retirement at the age of 60.
The draft act to shorten the term in office to just five years, was proposed by a cross-party group of MPs led by Prasert Boonruang of Kalasin, Noppakun Ratpatai of Chiang Mai, Niyom Worapanya of Lop Buri and Ponpen Boonsiriwattanakul of Chaiyapoom (all Pheu Thai MPs) and Sampan Tangbenjapol, a Democrat MP from Sukhotai.
Today’s protest was led by Komin Nopparat, the chairman of Phuket Kamnan-Phu Yai Baan Association. It was not the first such protest in Thailand; others have already been staged in Sakon Nakorn, Pratum Thani, Ayutthaya, Nakorn Ratchasima, Nong Khai, Pitsanulok, Sukhotai and Trang, demonstrating the power and cohesiveness of the traditional grass-roots politicians.
Mr Komin handed an official protest letter with the signatures of all the village chiefs in Phuket to Deputy Governor (palad) Chaiwat Taepee. In it, they warned the MPs involved, and the government, of action they would consider if the bill goes any further:
They will urge local people not to vote for the MPs in any upcoming election or by-election;
They will urge local people to instead vote for the candidate for the opposing political party;
They will reveal any dirty secrets they know about the MPs to the press or to the opposing political party. These, the letter said, might include instances of corruption related to the establishment of the Fund for Woman’s Development, the Million Baht Per Village Fund or the Village Development Fund;
They will reveal what they know about failures and abuses in the implementation of the government’s showpiece drug suppression policy;
If their demands are not met, they will rally at the Parliament and at Government House;
The village chiefs of 7,255 tambon around the country will put up defiant posters throughout the areas they represent.
The protestors also handed a copy of their complaint to Jarupong Ruangsuwan, Minister of Transport, who happened to be in Phuket today for a seminar on transport infrastructure plans for Phuket. Mr Jarupong promised to hand the letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Mr Komin argued that the proposed change would lead to division among local people and would damage the continuity of local developmental projects.
Kamnan, he said, would always be looking to the next election, and would therefore be unable to make decisive decisions on matters under their responsibility.
He noted that if local people feel dissatisfied with their Kamnan, they could raise a petition to get him or her booted out.
Mr Sampan, one of the MPs promoting the bill, was quoted by Matichon Online on Wednesday (October 3) as saying the threats of protests didn’t frighten him.
“Even if people come out and burn a coffin or shout at us, I’m not worried,” he was quoted as saying. “I am going to keep on pushing this issue. Some of the protesters are from the opposite side of the political spectrum, and others may simply not understand the new procedure clearly,” he said.
Over the past 20 years local government in Thailand has been going through a transition – often one step forward and two steps back – from heavily top-down centralised government to devolution of power to the provinces.
There is now a dual system, with the government appointing and controlling governors and district officers, but also elected provincial (OrBorJor) and sub-district (OrBorTor) bodies.
Originally, it was intended that OrBorTor – and particularly the president of the OrBorTor – would supplant kamnan; there was supposed to be a transitional period in which kamnan would automatically be members of the OrBorTor Council, but would be phased out.
Under the 1997 constitution the post of kamnan was reduced to just four years, but soon afterward the until-60 system was reinstated.