Meet the three men who run our city

Pim Kemasingki interviews the three leading political figures in Chiang Mai to find out what their jobs entail and their hopes for the future.

By | Tue 1 Jan 2019

Supachai Iamsuwan

Governor of Chiang Mai

Citylife: What is your vision for Chiang Mai in 2019? (The governor chose to answer this one question.)

Governor Supachai: From my perspective Chiang Mai needs to work on three fronts: proactive, modify and acknowledge. In this instance, proactive means finding new opportunities, modify is to adjust what we have and acknowledge is to accept that there are problems and come up with a strategy to fix them. My vision is to make Chiang Mai stronger and we need to make sure it is a great city to live in for our residents as well as a great place to visit. People who live here want to live in a sustainable society.

Modify is when we look at the economic foundation we already have and adjust it to be more competitive on various fronts such as farming, tourism, trade and investment and develop the quality of life as well as the management of the environment.

Acknowledge would be to find solutions to the ongoing pollution problems, solving the waste water issues and manage garbage as well as developing human resources to be more competitive on the world stage. The acknowledge strategy is to fix problems, build stronger people to use in all sectors, with the support of the central government as well as getting the participation of society at large. I want to have more green jungle areas. I am also really pushing to solve the Mae Kha Canal once and for all. We have begun dredging upstream 20-30 kilometres up by the source of the water as well as expanding some areas for better flow. We will also remove all the debris, both natural and man-made, and that will help, as well as taking out the garbage. By the end of December, it should be finished. There are many groups which work together. The area which requires the most work is the final part of the canal in the city just before it joins the Ping River south of the city. The communities living there will have to be a huge factor in helping us to solve the problems. We are still negotiating with them to move them somewhere else. At this point we are also asking them all to start using waste water treatment systems which cost around 5,000 baht each, but which can be shared between a few households. It is affordable and will require residents to be more responsible.

The sustainable solution is for communities to fix their own problems.

Our strategy for modify is to focus on tourism. We must upgrade the quality of our service, and develop the level of convenience, while still focusing on nature and culture. We must also offer more information and good content to visitors and provide them with apps and other means to access such information. The identity of Lanna should be showed off and used to move the industry. I believe that we need to focus on a mix of both manmade attractions and events. Also get more meetings, incentives, conference and exhibition (MICE) visitors. The service needs to elevated in all sectors from transport to fixing pavements. We must take care of our tourists and give them safety, and order in a clean and healthy city.

I want to create good feelings for tourists both Thai and foreign. I want to organise a welcome to Chiang Mai campaign of sorts. We must make sure that we never take advantage of tourists, we give them information so that they will know how to have appropriate behaviour. And give them access to whatever they need, in many languages.

Agriculture, we are always looking at health and safety. The Northern Food Valley is a very successful initiative which has produced many innovations in food processing and technology. It is all about innovation, research and development, adding value and elevating our products to meet international standards. Right now we are mainly selling raw goods, but if we do more with them, add value, then we will get higher prices. This is also up to demand and supply markets I want farmers to have more education and learn to manage themselves more effectively. If they learn about market forces and how to manage costs, it will help everyone. So we need to find a way to share knowledge.

One future crop we are seeing great opportunities with is coffee. It is a great crop as it helps with the pollution issue and deforestation simply because coffee grows best under the shades of large trees. At this point there is also so much more demand than we can supply, so the future is looking bright. Chiang Mai can position itself as the centre of coffee in the region as there are so many talented business owners, baristas, we also have the decades of research done by both the Royal Project and Chiang Mai University as well as some very strong businesses. I am trying to make Chiang Mai Coffee City part of our strategy.

Then there is OTOP. In Chiang Mai we have many products which are popular and iconic but can probably use some redesign. There is such variety already and a strong foundation in place to support any growth. So things to focus on is quality control and better marketing.
Maybe clustering products. Today it is interesting to give knowledge too, so villagers making a product could also become a tourist destination. This can elevate the income for the entire community.

To be proactive I believe that we have to take advantage of the many opportunities. We need to also be aware of world trends. Chiang Mai has high numbers of the elderly, higher than other regions, we live longer. We have great universities and with so much knowledge we can promote ourselves to be a wellness and health city and it will attract even more elderly, that and all of our spas. We have local products with raw materials and just have to use innovation to create new opportunities. This can connect to better public transport and universal design.
This then can connect to the smart city initiative.

Smart city has so many dimensions and it is all about living well, being safe and secure, being energy efficient, applying the use of technology to elevate the quality of life, good wifi. Chiang Mai University is already a good example of a smart city and soon we hope to bring this to Nimmanhaemin where we will bury or move unsightly wires, have CCTVs, fix the pavements, make sure all buildings fall in line visually and fix the traffic problems. We are already there, it just needs to be comprehensive.

Under the framework of ASEAN, Chiang Mai can also be a centre of education for our neighbours. They can join us, do exchange programmes. This will help build a new economy.

This is my vision. One thing I want to bring back is to be more effective in supporting startups. We have so many but they need to continue and succeed. We need to help them to become more innovative and get better marketing.

I really hope that Chiang Mai will have value chain, add value to society and the economy hand in hand. I focus on society, that is my priority.

A new agenda of the province was to get villages to have sufficient economy. We have now worked to help support this with 2,000 villages, helping them to come up with ways to become more sufficient. For instance, if a village eats 5,000 eggs per year, we will encourage them to have an egg coup co-op for the village. Then all villagers can save money on eggs, selling the surplus off to the markets. The money goes into the village cash flow and the villagers can eat clean and healthy eggs.

It is all done by the villagers themselves, we just support them.

It is best if people can rely on themselves first, and then the community, then finally the government.

One thing I am very worried about is the pollution. We have done everything we know how to reduce the problem, using both government and private sectors. Public participation is very important. How to take the fires away from the forests? Maybe we have to get rid of the brush so there is less fuel. How to change attitudes? It comes back to awareness and education. We understand that there are labour and cost limitations for many farmers and that is why burning is still so prevalent. I am dispersing responsibility in hopes that people will own their local problems and fix it themselves. It needs all parties and all year round, not just once a year when the problem is visible. Education is very important. Get the messages into the systems when they are young and they will grow to be responsible adults.

I think it is important that we listen. If you have an opinion, I am online, on air and on ground. Just send us a Facebook message or Line. We will hear you and collect the information.

As to questions and follow up questions, when asked Governor Suphachai said that he acknowledges all of the problems and is continuing to work to solve them.

Tel. 053 112 708-9,

Boonlert Buranupakorn

President Provincial Administration Organisation

Citylife: Please explain to our readers what your roles and responsibilities are.

PAO President Boonlert: The PAO oversees the whole province. As president I manage and provide public services for Chiang Mai province, assisting in the works of sub-districts and municipalities and allocating budget. The governor is appointed to those who ascend the ladder of promotions by the central government and he is in charge of overseeing 20 organisations from the labour to cultural offices. The governor oversees the big picture, making sure that we are in accordance with national policies. Whereas I am elected by the people and I look after the interest of everything Chiang Mai. Our 1.5 billion baht annual budget comes both from the central government as well as taxes collected from hotels, tobacco, petrol and wheels (the Department of Land Transport). However the tax collected goes to Bangkok first, and we only get about 50% back. There is another separate committee that controls where that budget goes.

Citylife: You were last elected a long time ago, in 2012. Now that there is a possible re-election looming, can you tell us about your platform and expectations for the upcoming election?

PAO President Boonlert: I would prefer not to talk about politics at this time.

Citylife: We are here today to ask you, as we start the New Year, what challenges or exiting developments are in stall for our province this year.

PAO President Boonlert: We will be focusing heavily on tourism. A large part of our money comes from tourism, it is second only to the agriculture sector. You are media, you know how many international publications have ranked us as a top world destination over the past many years. This trend isn’t going anywhere and we need to capitalise on this. But when tourists arrive the first thing they see is an airport that is over capacity. We need to expand, and fast. The new airport is a long term relief, but in the short term we need to make sure that arriving visitors don’t get stuck in traffic for ages when they first arrive. The access is terrible. Rush hour especially. So we are thinking of doing an overpass from the airport straight to Hang Dong Road. Today, half of the people using the roads are not using the airport facilities, but are using the road as a bypass. There is a missing link for the ring road, so we need to make a bypass which alleviates congestion around the airport. We have talked to the Airports of Thailand (AOT) and now we just have to wait to see if the central government will give us a budget. The public transport system also needs to be fixed. The red line for the light transit has been approved and will hopefully be completed in five or six years, so that doesn’t help in the short term. We have talked repeatedly with Wing 41 about using their road to complete the loop from Suthep Road through to the airport, but it’s hard talking to government officials, this is the failure of the system. They cite security, so I don’t know.

Citylife: With the perceived drop in Chinese tourists, are you worried for our future as a tourist destination?

PAO President Boonlert: Tourism is our mainstay and I don’t think it is going anywhere. Chinese tourists over boomed the past few years, far past anyone’s expectations. Our focus should be on all groups, not just Chinese. We don’t have new things to offer them, and if we want repeat visitors, then we have to think creatively. I’m not saying we are going to do the same thing, but something catchy like the London Eye, that would bring people back. It is all good talking about home stays and nature, but it is hard to get great numbers of people to be that adventurous. My other concern now is that we have around 1,000 hotels suffering because they are having problems with their licenses. Basically they do not conform to all codes required such as fire escape, smoke detectors, etc. These are not new problems, but they are being rigorously enforced now, following the Malin Plaza incident [the pub at Malin Plaza in front of Chiang Mai University, they have caused issue for everyone (and subsequently the hotel owned by its owner) were raided and shut down following a serious injury incurred on its premises by the son of a senior army general. This resulted in a years-long crackdown on pubs and hotels across Chiang Mai, according to Boonlert]. I would like to suggest that officials issue them licences, then give them a reasonable timeline to come up to code, otherwise this will continue to hurt many businesses.

Citylife: One visible abuse of authority which our readers have voiced concern over are the constant road checks, aimed at non-Thais, where fines are solicited for various offences. What are your thoughts?

PAO President Boonlert: I have told the chief of police many times that it is best that they simply warn tourists. Or go and talk to the rental places, they are the ones who shouldn’t be allowing tourists to rent vehicles without proper licences. What you don’t know is that there is nothing illegal for the police to pocket a percentage of the fine. The law allows for certain — I don’t know how much exactly — percentage of all fines to be distributed to the police. So you think it is corruption, but it is legal. But the point is it is unpleasant to see them targeting foreigners, it is ugly. I have said so many times, but no action.

Citylife: Recently there have been talks of extending the drinking hours in tourism cities such as ours, what are your thoughts?

PAO President Boonlert: I fully agree. People come here with expectations to relax and have fun; they are on holiday. So maybe we can zone things, like the old city and Nimman can close an hour later? The problem are the NGOs who are lobbying for us to be all about culture and heritage. They want us to be like Luang Prabang. But we are way beyond that now, we are a vibrant city and all laws need to be applied within the context of location.
I think zoning is good and this will help with our proposal for UNESCO, which is moving along quite nicely. It has been four years so far, and many people are getting impatient, but it takes around ten years for UNESCO to do due diligence, so we have a long way to go. The good news is that some countries have already endorsed us. What I want to work on is encouraging more public participation: clean pavement days, tree planting initiatives, festivals, these are things which UNESCO appreciates.

I tell people my job is to press ‘enter’ like a computer. If I don’t keep pressing ‘enter’ nothing happens!

Citylife: What are the challenges for you?

PAO President Boonlert: Red tape. I like reform. I believe in change and progress. But if I can find a way that we can work without having to wade through the red tape, then that is the ideal situation. For instance, education. We follow a national curriculum which is not suited to all regions and with no reform in sight. So we have decided to go ahead and do it ourselves. I invited 500 key people in the education industry to come to a meeting four years ago and was blown away when 1,000 came. This was unheard of. What we have done is weaving local culture into the national curriculum. So about 20% of education now is locally focused, with curriculum drafted by local people. So, in Chiang Dao for instance where there are many Chinese people, we offer Chinese language in schools. In mountain communities we teach them about tribal cultures. We are tailor making education with a focus on local culture. To help fund this we asked people to donate 10 baht each. And we were amazed to receive over 3 million baht. I will be asking for another round of support soon, maybe your readers could spare ten baht each. This initiative became successful because of public participation. Unfortunately we don’t have the authority to do this in all areas, such as the economy, so for now we are focusing on education. If Bangkok won’t reform, then we will.

Citylife: What other areas are you working on in 2019?

PAO President Boonlert: I want to drive the price of agriculture. Bangkok promoted lamyai and rubber trees, but then there was no market. So we have negotiated to use the rubber to build roads, it is expensive for us, but at least we buy the rubber from local farmers. It is things like this that we do to help the people of Chiang Mai. We also need to elevate our produce to a consistently high standard so they can enter the international markets. We aren’t there yet.
Then there is pollution. Trust me, we are all very aware and concerned. Recently we have explored the future of bamboo in Mae Chaem area, a real pollution hot spot. We have also built 500 check dams with the aim to build 3,000 more in 2019. These slow the flow of water, allowing it to seep into the surrounding nature, making it all juicy and fresh. We need to understand that farmers are poor and they need to earn a living. Penalising them is not the solution. Nothing is a fast solution. It all comes back to education, everything does, all the problems we have discussed today. Education is key. With pollution, we will continue to raise awareness and find solutions. But you know most of the pollution comes from Myanmar, right?

For more information about the 10 baht fund, phease contact edu.

Tassanai Buranupakorn

Mayor of Chiang Mai Municipality

Citylife: What are your thoughts on the upcoming elections?

Mayor Tassanai: Next year is the big election, if it doesn’t get moved forward again. This will mean local elections too. In fact, my term ended in 2017, but as per Article 44, I have been continuing in the position. As someone who inherited a lot in my first year, in 2009, when there was no budget and many unsolved problems, I don’t want whoever will be the next mayor to face that hardship. I am unsure about putting my name down again. Being a public servant means that I am told off all the time and I think maybe it is good to have new blood and new perspectives. I have also made sure that there are no debts and that the office is in a good state for whoever next steps in. I hope that the next person will continue to strengthen the system in place.

Citylife: What have you been focused on?

Mayor Tassanai: My biggest concern is social disparity. We’ve many tangible things such as CCTV, bus systems, public parks, which I hope the next person will not dismantle that. Now that the news has come out that Thailand has the world’s worst social disparity, whether it is true or not, the fact is that it is a serious problem. A child is born to a poor family and through no fault of their own they don’t get to go to a good school, we can’t allow this to be. Rich kids go abroad, middle class kids go to reputable private schools and poor kids go to municipal schools. Put all three of them together in twenty years and you see clearly how the cycle perpetuates itself. There is no comparison as to advantages. It should be that if you work hard, you put in time, you have skills, you should be able to achieve success, but that is not the case here. So we need to make sure that at least the basics are equal, and that is education and health.

Citylife: What is your health policy to address to social disparity?

Mayor Tassanai: One is health insurance. If you are a woman, it could cost up to 5,000 baht per year for various health checkups. For the past four years I have been making sure that municipal hospitals cover this cost. The idea is if people are healthy, they can work at their full potential. I want this to continue to run in the following year.

Citylife: What of education?

Mayor Tassanai: As to education most of the students in the municipality are in the middle to lower economic income group. We look at four areas. Firstly the health of children, are they overweight, are they eating healthily and then we offer supportive programmes, vaccinations as well as eradicating breeding grounds for mosquitos. We also look at the environment, from the safety of playgrounds to clean toilets, quality and updated books and laboratory equipment, for instance. We work on making sure our kids have at least a national average score on their o-net exams, we encourage non-academically minded children to explore music and sports and have also been adding language skills. Basically we are upping the standards of education in municipal schools so that they can be competitive with expensive private schools. This will help eradicate class. Poor kids aren’t stupid; it’s the system is just that is inferior. Have you ever heard of a rich kid at a municipal school? If you keep disparity in mind, then it is a problem in other areas such as slums. No one wants to live there or their kids to grow up there, but they have nowhere to go. If they had more knowledge and health then maybe they could help themselves more. Same with immigrants, they had to come here because even this is a better life, we need to understand this. I have some budget for this, but honestly need more. This is why parks are important — health — and museums are important — knowledge.

Citylife: How are tourism sectors?

Mayor Tassanai: Over 70% of the economy of the municipality comes from tourism because we don’t have heavy industry here and no agriculture. We slowly adapt to it culturally; in the old days when the farang used to kiss and hug in parks, we gently asked them not to and now it is time to be empathetic to many Chinese tourists, many of whom have overcome great hardship, we just have to kind and give them information about our culture. As to investment, we need to be prepared to facilitate this better. If someone wants to build a tall building, we can’t just tell them that it isn’t suitable, there needs to be a law that says yes or no. You can’t use your heart when it comes to investment, it needs to be clear in the law.

Wherever you are in the world you have to obey the law. We can’t have our police slapping tourists, like in the recent news. But as to police stopping foreigners to check licenses, that is within the purview of the law and is something we can talk about. But at the end of the day, are we being respectful and acting lawfully? That is what is important.
We still have resources to sell but we need to hurry up and get organised. Like laws controlling the old city, the problem is whatever law is passed, it’s not retroactive. Right now we control the colour theme — cream, white, brown — I’m considering adding a new regulation that requires repainting the building every seven years, but that is a cost to our citizen and we must think it through first.

Citylife: What can signage be managed properly?
We do what we can but the law does not limit that one shop can only have a certain amount of signs. If the signs are poaching on the public spaces, that we can do.

Citylife: What about the ongoing issues regarding Mae Kha Canal?

Mayor Tassanai: There is progress. But to be sustainable we must improve the waste water system, which we have started to do. We have added sources for fresh water, we have dredged the canals and what is important is to make sure no more waste water goes into them. Most people think it is the communities living along the canals that is causing the problems, but it is actually you and I. Because the system we are using does not segregate waste water from good. Water used in bathrooms, rain water, about 80% goes into the natural water streams. Right now we have a treatment plant and we have some drains in place already but not enough. The Mae Kha Canal within the municipal area is around 11kms long, we have drains for three. So much more to do. We don’t even have a system to separate household waste water. This isn’t about intent, but an investment that public sector needs to take responsibility. It is a budget which the government need to continue to support with.

Citylife: What is the demographic of the population right now?

Mayor Tassanai: If you look at the number of registered households, the number has decreased, but the actual numbers, when looking at waste, has greatly increased. Much of the population comes for economic opportunities and are not registered as residents. That goes back to the social disparity.

Citylife: We have covered problems about waste management for over twenty years, where are we now on this matter?

Mayor Tassanai: We try to control it as best we can. From separating them into catagories — hazardous waste is farmed out to a private company to dispose of, infectious waste is segregate to the incineration at Chang Phueak cemetery, branches and leaves get recycled and the rest is taken to the dump. Many areas from walking streets to temples have also banned foam, so that has reduced the number.

Citylife: How do you manage your budget?

Mayor Tassanai: Our budget is around 1.6 billion baht per year. But that covers everything, from the monthly pension of the old and handicapped to food for school lunches. It’s not all for development. Around 90% of the taxes are collected by the central government including wage tax, company tax, alcohol, etc., we only get to collect on asset taxes such as signage. I have reduced the staff numbers from 1,700 to 1,400 baht but I also raised their salaries. Some were on 100 baht per day, so immediately I upped the minimum wage to 300 baht. Our salary bill increases about 5% year on year, but we try to control it.

Citylife: What do you think of the proposed light rail transit system?

Mayor Tassanai: To be honest I don’t think it will come anytime soon. I don’t think they will start construction in 2020 as projected. We are relying on the central government, but this year they have run at a loss of 500 billion baht. But yet this system is very important to us and will be a great tool for our continued development. To remedy the traffic problems, we need public transportation not the building of roads. We now provide buses running in three difference routes. Before my term, the buses used to be old and didn’t run on routes. Now our compact white bus has the application that passengers can use to track the bus’s progress. Parents don’t necessary have to drop kids in front of schools. If the light rail transit does come, the bus can turn into the feeder.

Among the three routes, I am not really satisfied with the third one as it runs from the bus terminal to city hall using the canal road. I don’t see anyone stopping along the line, but the decision isn’t up to me, but rather the Office of Land Transport.

Citylife: So are you going to run for another term?

Mayor Tassanai: That is still undecided but in nine years of my administration we have made promises that have been kept. Those that had left undone we have finished them all – parks, museums, pawnshops. Adding to that we have installed CCTV. And we have built the system of health insurance and education which I hope will be carried on by whoever takes the office next.