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Thailand visitors stop in Iowa City to learn about local government

BY DEREK KELLISON | APRIL 30, 2012 6:30 AM

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Two visitors from Thailand say their country is pushing for strong local governments, and they are stopping in Iowa City this week to examine the city's political structure.

Radio Thailand reporter Thanawan Chumsaeng and Karn Boonsiri, a director and lecturer at Thailand's College for Interdisciplinary Development, arrived on April 28 as part of the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program.

"Things are improving [in Thailand politics]; people who get elected must have experience, knowledge, and respond to people's needs," Boonsiri said.

The two focused on studying the local forms of government, such as county and city governments common throughout the States.

Boonsiri said some political parties in Thailand are pushing for more power at the local level.

"This will happen in the future; it will take time, though," he said.

Thailand is established as a constitutional monarchy with federal, regional and local government systems. Much like Britain, the country has a king as the head of state and the prime minister governs.

This week, Thai officials could consider a vote that would phase out regional governance, putting more power into local governments and a more nonpartisan election process at the local level.

Boonsiri said the independence the local branches of government have in the United States, such as in Iowa City, interest him as a political professor.

"Decentralization is fairly new in Thailand," he said. "We have introduced many things locally, but still our local governments are not strong enough. There may be something not quite right, but we will improve."

Boonsiri said he was fascinated by the lack of strong party politics in U.S. city elections and appointments in such positions as city councilors, mayors, and city managers.

"It's good to have someone with experience and political neutrality," he said. "There is no position like the city manager in Thailand. It is a smart way of using someone who is really an expert, because most city managers have town and public-management degrees."

The two visitors have also visited several other cities throughout the country.

Chumsaeng said unethical election tactics slow the improvements in Thailand's political progress.

"Voters may be bought out or threatened in Thailand," she said. "This is a common practice, but it is not seen in the U.S."

The country has struggled through many political coups, including the last one, in 2006, when sitting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's brother was overthrown.

Iowa City officials say they're ready to inform the visitors about their positions, but the visitors also provide officials with an opportunity to learn.

"I don't think we have a perfect system; there are some things that we could use different perspectives on," said City Councilor Susan Mims.

Overall, Chumsaeng said, both parties will learn a lot from the exchange.

"I'm happy that we are able to talk freely," she said. "They learn the truth from us, and we learn the truth from them."


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