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Civil servants and uncivil temptations

Government officials have a crucial role to play in Thailand's reform process, as the NCPO is well aware

Politicians come and go, as do military juntas. But civil servants stay in place regardless of political change. They keep the mechanisms of state functioning even as breakdowns occur elsewhere. So it comes as no surprise that the National Council for Peace and Order has turned its focus on government officials in an effort to gain their support. Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has ordered a raise in their salaries, prompting some to call it an attempt to "buy support". The junta can just shrug off the criticism. If the generals are to push ahead with their reform agenda, it is vital they get bureaucrats on their side.

In attempting to woo civil servants, the NCPO is merely repeating the actions of past governments that used it to rescue themselves from crises or simply to bring stability in times of trouble. Under its plan, the junta has ordered an 8 per cent pay raise for all bureaucrats. For some two million junior government officials around the country, the increase will come in the form of a temporary living allowance. The increase in remuneration will require a budget of between Bt20 billion and Bt30 billion, rolled out by April next year.

It is understandable that the NCPO wants their support for reform, but raising the performance level of bureaucrats will require more than just better pay.

The NCPO obviously attaches great importance to the role of government officials. After taking power in May it quickly ordered permanent secretaries to take control of their ministries in a bid to ensure the bureaucracy continued to serve the public efficiently. The move also paved the way for the interim government and upcoming national reform.

Now, the NCPO is speeding up its efforts to woo government bureaucrats - and for good reason. First, they constitute a large section of the population and are spread out across the country. Giving them pay rises will foster a national "feel-good" factor. The effect will likely be similar to that enjoyed by those who benefited from the quick-fix rice-pledging scheme.

Second, bureaucrats encouraged to feel positive toward the NCPO and its reform plans can influence the sentiment of the public at large. Third, bureaucrats will play a more direct role in national reforms, presenting information and suggestions to the junta and the National Legislative Assembly and then implementing the resulting plans. Last but not least, the junta will need their support if it is to withstand opposition that will grow once martial law is lifted.

In short, getting government officials on its side is vital if the junta is to ensure a smooth path to reform. What the NCPO is doing now shows that it has carefully planned every step of the process.

But even without reforms, an efficient government bureaucracy is necessary for the country to progress. Increasing their income is just one way to improve bureaucrats' performance. Officials should also be provided with improved technology, proper training and other support.

The more knowledgeable and capable our bureaucrats become, the quicker Thailand will advance. Good officials are undeniably a great asset for the country. In the past we have witnessed honest officials help unmask corruption. Some have risked their careers in exposing crucial information. Others have taken to the street to protest against unjust policies.

The NCPO and the next administration need the support of government officials at this juncture, but the officials must stick to their professional principles and not be simply "bought". The country can only survive and prosper if they put the nation's interests before their own. The powers-that-be might need them more than ever right now, but Thailand relies on them always. Only when our bureaucrats perform their duties with efficiency, honesty and integrity can our country be said to rest on solid foundations.


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