There are growing calls in Phuket, Thailand’s tourism powerhouse, to become more autonomous from the central authorities in Bangkok. While such an idea has not gained traction outside Phuket, the province might need to think deeper about what autonomy entails, and in what form.
The upcoming Bangkok gubernatorial elections will not only reflect the popularity of the Prayut Chan-ocha government, but will also call attention to the fact that Thailand’s capital is alone among the country’s 77 provinces with the right to elect its governor. This increasingly obsolete arrangement, together with institutionalised ways of governance, have fuelled calls for change, calls that have become explicit on the wealthy island province of Phuket.
Phuket’s governor is appointed by the Ministry of the Interior in Bangkok, and technically serves as the provincial leader. Under Thailand’s centralised bureaucratic control, the same applies to governors of other provinces — they are appointed by the Ministry. The chairmen and councils of provincial administrative organisations (PAOs) are locally elected. They are responsible for development planning, coordinate the activities of lower-level elected local government units and are endowed with some taxation powers. But the functions of the PAOs remain limited, and they are subordinate to the central bureaucracy.
Unlike the Sultanate of Patani in what is today Thailand’s Deep South, Phuket never enjoyed political autonomy. Even as the centre of a prosperous multi-provincial administrative circle or monthon in the early twentieth century, Phuket was governed by a commissioner, Phraya Ratsadanupradit (Khaw Sim Bee na Ranong), whose mission was its integration into the Bangkok-centred state. But pro-autonomy sentiment in Phuket has accumulated since the 1980s. It is driven by economic considerations — the belief that an autonomous administration can govern the province more effectively — rather than narrowly political factors. The province’s location on an international trade route and its rich natural resources — above all tin — mean that it long served that state as a major source of revenue. In recent decades, Phuket has continued to play the role of Thailand’s economic cash cow because of tourism.
Frustration over the distribution of government resources has grown among Phuketians. In 2019, Phuket’s gross provincial product (GPP) ranked seventh out of Thailand’s 77 provinces. In 2020, it was among those provinces making the highest tax contributions, over five billion baht. As a recipient of government funding, however, Phuket ranks below Northeastern provinces that generate less GPP. Budgets are allocated according to size and population, and Phuket’s registered residents total some 416,582. This figure does not make it one of the country’s ten least populous provinces, but Phuket’s population is dwarfed by that of Nakhon Ratchasima (2.65 million), Ubon Ratchathani (1.88 million) and Chiang Mai (1.78 million). Even the population of Southern neighbour Songkhla exceeds Phuket’s by more than a million.
Fairness aside, Phuket’s elite and residents argue that the resources allocated by Bangkok cannot meet the province’s needs. As an international tourism hub, it requires funding to maintain and develop its infrastructure and public services, and thus to remain competitive. It must address environmental degradation challenges and issues surrounding migrant workers, for whom its economy serves as a magnet.
… the proposed change to governance in Phuket has not become part of the national political agenda. This failure can be attributed to weak communications on the part of those calling for change and the Bangkok government’s indifference, or even hostility, to meaningful decentralisation.
Furthermore, many Phuketians insist that the extant governance structure is too complex to respond effectively to real-time problems. Phuket’s governor, who is also the provincial leader, has no authority over the vast range of public agencies operating in the province. Bureaux responsible to different ministries find it all too convenient to blame one another when things go wrong. The fact that governors are unelected and can abruptly be transferred further undermines accountability and continuity in provincial development.
As a result, there is a strong consensus among Phuketians calling for the transformation of Phuket into a special administrative zone akin to Bangkok —or Pattaya City on Thailand’s eastern seaboard. These zones enjoy special budgetary administrative powers; Bangkokians elect their governor. Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and veteran politician Sudarat Keyuraphan are among those who have voiced support for this proposal. Former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij of the new Kla Party has gone even further, adding an elected Phuket governor to his party’s policy platform.
Nevertheless, the proposed change to governance in Phuket has not become part of the national political agenda. This failure can be attributed to weak communications on the part of those calling for change and the Bangkok government’s indifference, or even hostility, to meaningful decentralisation.
Pro-autonomy messages articulated by Phuket’s sophisticated elite have been restricted to internal audiences. Few Thais outside of Phuket are aware of the cause. That Phuket elites have put more weight on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ of autonomy has made matters worse. It is clear, to local people and some others, why Phuket should enjoy what they view as self-government. But to what extent, exactly, should Phuket be allowed to operate without Bangkok’s interference? What are the drawbacks? The details remain fuzzy.
Fundamentally, many in Bangkok seemingly view decentralisation as a threat to the country. Former Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat, for instance, noted that autonomy will not necessarily solve Phuket’s developmental concerns. Meanwhile, a senior military officer and member of a leading branch of the royal family, Julajerm Yukol, has stressed that provincial autonomy will fuel calls for federalism, erode national unity, and, at worst, bring the collapse of the Thai state.
Unlike Pattaya, a small municipal area, Phuket Province becoming an autonomous zone would have wider implications for Thailand’s governance. If Phuket gains autonomy, separatist insurgents in the South might try to spin the story in their favour. But such fears may prove alarmist: success in extending fiscal and administrative autonomy to Phuket might allow the province to serve as a pilot for much needed devolution in other parts of Thailand.
The devolution of power to Phuket faces many hurdles, but there is hope. Economic and health disruptions from Covid-19 differ across regions. Localised management has thus emerged, and Phuket elites have proven themselves to be highly capable. To start, they may need to think beyond the goal of electing their governor and experiment with different forms of autonomy. While many on the island may dream of an elected governor with authority over a wide range of agencies now controlled from Bangkok, and also of extensive fiscal powers for the autonomous provincial administration, the easiest approach may be to give special powers to Phuket’s elected PAO chairman. Where that would leave its appointed governor remains unclear. But, with more flexibility and a well-articulated plan that considers all the risks and benefits for autonomy, Phuket is more likely to win technocratic support for its aspirations.
Tita Sanglee is an independent analyst and a business owner based in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province, Thailand.
Michael Montesano is Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.