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Should senior ministry officials stay clear of politics?

Like all people, officials should have the right to express their political stance on whether they agree or don't agree with anti-government protests. But for top officials of state agencies, who have the responsibility for overseeing tens of thousands of staff, is it proper for them to clearly take sides in a political dispute?

Two weeks ago, Public Health Ministry permanent secretary Dr Narong Sahamethapat joined the Public Health Society to issue a statement rejecting the Yingluck administration's right to govern, saying the government didn't have the moral authority to run the country.

Narong has been backed by the Public Health Society - a group of medical workers comprising members of 20 public health associations. They include the Thai Federation of General and Central Hospital Doctors, the Rural Hospital Directors Society, the Public Health Society of Thailand and the Dentistry Society.

The group said it would only follow orders issued by Narong, who could face disciplinary action for his statement encouraging the society's members not to work with the government. Once Narong joined the community and announced he did not support the government, he was heavy criticised by former senator and prominent health advocate Jon Ungpakorn. Jon questioned the correctness of an official taking sides and supporting the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)'s political movement.

Jon said he personally respected Narong as a senior health official and understood well that Narong was not ready to work with the caretaker government and the Public Health Minister.

He said it would be better for Narong to resign from his position as top official of the ministry if he wanted to take sides, instead of dragging the whole ministry into the political arena.

Narong defended himself, saying he believed he had done the right thing in serving the public and would not quit the ministry. But to Jon, his action was not correct because the ministry was already divided between officials who supported and opposed the PDRC.

A few days after Narong announced his political stance, another group of medical workers in Chiang Mai province calling themselves "Friends of Democracy" issued a statement supporting the February 2 election, saying it was the best way for all parties to lawfully settle their differences. The group asked all medical workers to take a neutral stance on issues of politics and to continue to provide medical services without discrimination.

Even his deputy permanent secretary Dr Chanvit Tharathep did not agree with Narong's political opinions, saying public health officials should comply with the royal decree that set the election date at February 2. Medical workers had a responsibility to comply with the law and a code of conduct to take care of all people without discrimination, he added.

Not only Chanvit, but the directors-general of several departments in the ministry declared their disagreement with Narong's actions - like Dr Porntep Siriwanarangsun, director-general of the Public Health Department who said officials should not involve the state agency in politics, no matter which side they took.

"As departmental director-general, if I took any side in the political movement it would create conflict instead of harmony in the department. We don't want society to be more divided," he said.


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