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Local government in Thailand
Civil service controls much of
regional and local government

By Andrew Stevens, Political Editor

12 February 2006: Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in Southeast Asia. Its 76 provinces, excluding two special administrative areas, are headed by members of its civil service, which is traditionally the backbone of Thai society, especially under the military era (1947-1992). As with other Southeast Asian nations, its sub-provincial local government is arranged on village, town and county lines.

Though Siam famously was never colonised by any European power, political reforms were enacted during the nineteenth century, as well as the loss of three southern provinces to British-governed Malaya. In 1932, limits were placed upon the King's power but the country was ruled by the military supported by social and economic elites for most of the 20th century. Following the second world war, in which Siam had supported Japan, the country became an ally of the US, which was content with the military regime in a region being decolonised so close to Communist China. Civilian rule had taken place intermittently but was only permanently achieved with the triumph of opposition parties in the 1992 elections.

A new constitution agreed in 1997 affirmed the status of the monarch as a ceremonial figurehead and vested legislative power in the 500-member House of Representatives and 200-member Senate. The House of Representatives is the primary body, elected by proportional representation, while the Senate acts as a non-partisan revising chamber. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King as the leader of the emerging coalition from lower house elections.

Thailand is divided into 76 provinces (or 'changwat'), which are then grouped together into five regions for administrative purposes. The provinces themselves are often based around historic small kingdoms and princely states of the old Kingdom of Siam, with the office of governor previously in the gift of local ruling families. However, the curbs placed on the King's power in 1932 saw the old system dissolved. Each province is named after its capital city, which is generally the largest city in the province.

The 76 provincial governors are appointed by the Ministry of the Interior from the civil service rather than elected, like the French prefect system, except in two cases.  The capital city Bangkok is governed by a Metropolitan Authority, headed by an elected Governor. In 1976, the city of Pattaya was also given special administrative area status and elects a mayor and council manager to supervise its local affairs, primarily due to demands to tackle central government inertia over crime and sex tourism issues.

Beneath the provinces exists a sub-tier of 795 districts known as amphoe and 81 minor districts known as king amphoe. The king amphoe are created in remote rural areas. Each amphoe is headed by a chief officer appointed from the Ministry of the Interior. Below this are tambon, loosely translated as communes, of which there are currently 7,254. Larger units (over 10,000 population) are known as Mueang, while other cities (over 50,000 population) are referred to as Nakhon. All of these are further sub-divided into muban (villages), currently 69,307 in number. The process of structuring local government began in the 19th century with the creation of sanitation districts and the 1914 Local Administration Act specified the powers of district-level bodies in urban and rural areas. The 1994 Tambon Council and Tambon Administrative Authority Act and the 1997 constitution state the elected nature of the tambon. Bangkok’s 50 district areas are known as khet, which is roughly the equivalent of the amphoe. A new province and special administrative area, around Bangkok’s new airport, is scheduled to be created in 2007.

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