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Undemocratic Public-Private Collaboration in Thailand: Policy Responsiveness or Just a Discourse?

The political struggle in Thailand can be seen as the unfinished democratization project. Although we have already had the revolution for establishing the democratic regime since 1932 by a group of democrat bureaucrats and military, there were military-led 13 coup d'etat, and the constitution has been changed for 20 times during the "85 years of solitude" of Thailand politics. While the people once demonstrated on the road, demanded for democracy and successfully dethroned the military regime in 1973, they suffered from the mass massacre in 1976 by the right-wing military, police, and people who mistakenly believed that they were communists. We might experience genuine democracy after 1992, but we also faced the military coup again in 2006 and 2014. At present, we are currently divided into those who believe in democracy, and those who don't believe in it. 

In 2016, the military government implemented the provincial economic development policy, namely Pracha-rat (public-private collaboration) provincial economic development. It aimed to establish the provincial enterprise in each province for matching up the local farmers, fishermen, and tourist entrepreneurs with the elite businesses and private sector, under the provincial committee led by the non-elected provincial governor. The military government hoped that by doing so it would help local people for not only the production improvement of agricultural, handcrafting, and tourism "products" and know-how learning, but also increasing the opportunity for business loans and product distribution to the business partners such as big-chain department stores included in this initiative. This will lead to the increased prosperity for the local people in return. In short, this policy is the combination between the ideas of marketization and collaboration among different stakeholders.

A Pracha-rat project to improve education standard in collaboration with CP ALL company (Photo from CP ALL)

This is an interesting policy movement in Thailand. Firstly, it was named as the collaboration  among governmental agencies, private sector, and citizens rather than partnership. In fact, even in one of the official documents also referred to the Western literature of collaborative governance. This could imply the emphasis of the notion of "the multi-sector participation" rather than the notion of "contractual" partnership. This leads to the second, perhaps more important, issue of how such collaboration could occur under the undemocratic regime. As the Western literature of collaborative governance assumes the participation under the democratic context, it is interesting in assessing the function of democratic-like collaboration under the different context, particularly in undemocratic era of Thailand.

However, we must be cautious on the hybrid form of such policy. Firstly, we just don't know that how people can involve in this initiative. There is no prior criteria in selecting which private business can join in this initiative, nor the  criteria for involving the local citizens to participate. We just saw it when the government launched the policy in the top-down fashion, and this initiative seemed to be limited in the sense that it secretly allows for only "handful" stakeholders to be included. Although one of the policymaker contended that everyone can involve to receive the services for business development, it is still unclear on who will benefit, and how (i.e. which type, scale, scope of business; levels of benefits; and etc.). It is true that there are currently collaborations between governmental agencies, private sector, nonprofit organizations, and citizens under democratic or undemocratic regime, as we can see in Thailand's healthcare networks, but those collaboration reflects much more voluntarism and democratic spirit than this initiative. If we hope that this initiative will be an expansion of democratic development by stimulating people to self-deterministic participate in the public policy arena, I think this is not the case.

A Pracha-rat project to strengthen local economy in collaboration with civil society organisations (Photo from Thai Publica

Secondly, it can be seen that this initiative is another way for government to control its people, not to empower them. This can be seen through the organization's committee structure of the provincial enterprise of this initiative. The majority of them are government officials such as non-elected governor (in Thailand, the provincial governor is appointed by the central government, only the local mayor will be elected, but such democratic structure has been "frozen" by the military government), provincial bureaucrats from various ministries, the private businesses, and only a handful "representative" of the local citizens. By numbers, those bureaucrats and private sector's representatives accounted for more than two-third of the committee. Moreover, the hierarchical structure from the central organization toward the local enterprise also reflects that, in essence, there are some central's control rather than decentralized structure. As previous evidence show that the pathology of Thailand's public administration relies much on technicality of public management rather than empowering citizens (except the healthcare policy domain), this would conflict with the basis of collaboration and reflects the notion of control: the legitimization of the military government by giving a limited piece of democracy, instead of the whole process of election, decentralization and so forth. Power politics under such "collaboration", as a result, is uneven, and favor for government's control rather than people's learning and empowerment. 

Thirdly, even the word "Pracha-rat" (in Thai, in means the combination between the people and the state) has been used in various numbers of other current policies, transforming itself to be a meaningless slogan or only a buzzword. For example, the reformed national welfare for the poor has been renamed as "Pracha-rat welfare program", although there is no element of collaboration between different actors but only the Ministry of Finance. In a similar vein, the public housing program has also been renamed into "Pracha-rat housing program" without including other stakeholders other than the Government Housing Bank. Despite the fact that the Ministry of Public Health is genuinely understand the essence of collaboration by attempting to establish the community-led local public hospital committee for empowering the local people in developing their own welfare in terms of healthcare, the general use of "Pracha-rat" or public-private collaboration in huge numbers of policies in Thailand seems to be symbolic rather than practical. We are currently living in the world of buzzword that serves the bureaus as a dummy policy rather than the people instead.

To be fair, however, we need to evaluate the operation and outcomes of this collaborative economic development program for making legitimate arguments. In other words, the collaboration in Thailand may differs from what happened in the Western contexts in the sense that some collaborations (like healthcare networks) can also be empirically operated under whether democratic or undemocratic regime. The notion of democracy implicitly underpinned the notion of collaboration may be operated in a particular policy domain, but the national-level politics. We need more investigations in understanding how these collaborations operate (i.e. do they operate independently as self-governed network, or they are just the "expansion" of the central government through funding for the NGOs and citizens?), even the revisiting of the collaboration conception, then we can understand how the governmental controls and democratic development interact through the collaborative networks in each policy arena in particular, and the national politics in general. 

A Pracha-rat project to foster SME Start-up and Social Enterprises in collaboration between government agencies and a public university (Photo from the Office of SMEs Promotion)

This also leads to the debates between those who believe that the existence of collaboration under the undemocratic regime is unacceptable, while some may contend that such collaboration is still necessary for public services delivery without realizing the importance of the democratic regime as a whole. This debate arises when the people in Thailand are divided, and the solidarity among us as can be seen in the golden era of democracy in 1973 is broken. Thus, Thailand's (national) politics and administration seem to be separated by some, although actually it is that (national) politics operated within the administration. Unlike China, we cannot move forward to the responsive government if genuine democracy is yet to be established, and only a piecemeal democratic collaborative networks, while necessary for public services delivery in a particular policy domain, is insufficient in the long run. We can understand the actual realities occurring now, but it is not enough for ensuring the good life for Thai citizens. The history of Thailand reflects much that welfare and responsive policies are derived from the democratic government, not the other way around. In this case, the Pracha-rat provincial economic development reflects pseudo-participation from citizens in determining their own ways of development and empowering them for the future. But it seems to be too early for claiming such an argument without evaluating the process and outcomes of such initiative. 

Things like collaborative governance and its politics seems to be more complicated than what happened in the Western countries for sure.

This article was first published on Ruechagorn’s blog on Blogspot.com.

The author is a PhD student in Public Affairs, University of Central Florida.