Whether as a source of royal blessings or through the power of its rent-seekers, Bangkok’s hold over provincial Thailand endures.
Voters across Thailand went to the polls to select provincial-level officials in December and municipal-level officials in March. But political and administrative decentralisation barely dents Bangkok’s dominance of the lives of provincial Thais. A pair of episodes concerning, of all things, Thailand’s immensely popular century and a half old state lottery make the extent of this lasting dominance clear.
Three decades ago, a low-ranking civil servant in the southern province of Trang sought to harness royal auspiciousness emanating from Thailand’s exemplary centre at Bangkok as she bet on numbers. Similarly, in 2021 an ageing lottery ticket vendor understands that the concentration of well-connected rent-seeking interests and market power in the Thai capital strains the effort of a humble man in that same distant province to earn a living.
Late 1992 saw Thailand and Myanmar in a tense stand-off on the border between Chumphon Province in the former country and Tanintharyi Division in the latter. At issue was control and sovereignty over a point that the Thais called Hill 491. As King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on 5 December drew near, many in Thailand feared that these tensions would give way to an armed clash. The king, therefore, used his birthday-eve address to Bangkok’s great and good, including the high command of the Thai armed forces, to calm the crisis.
“And now I come to the matter of 491”, the king said during his address. “491. Here we say that it belongs to Thailand. Over there they say that it belongs to Myanmar. In truth according to the ‘491’ marker, it is the border. Half of it is Myanmar’s. Half of it is Thailand’s. Now, if that is the case, how to settle the matter? If a Burmese stands on the peak, we will have to hack off half of that Burmese person. That is, if the Burmese put his head on our side, cut his head right off. That will not be wrong. But if we put an arm on that side, they will hack some of us off. That will not be wrong either.”
Urging a peaceful solution to this problem, and referring to the contested spot by its numerical designation several more times, Bhumibol advocated either effectively making the contested territory a “no man’s land” or finding a way for Thailand and Myanmar to use it jointly.
The two days following the king’s address were a weekend. But when, early on the next working day, I arrived at the government office in Trang in which I was conducting research, I found the clerk in a state of excitement. “Khun Michael, Khun Michael”, she asked, “did you hear? The king uttered ‘491’ in his speech. That will be the winning lottery number this time for sure!” Announcing that she must buy that number from one of the bookies that took bets on the last three digits of the winning number in the biweekly Thai Government Lottery, she hurried out of the office and raced off on her motorbike.
The clerk was gone for more than an hour. “Khun Michael, Khun Michael, that number has been closed in the whole city!”, she announced after returning. So many Trang residents wanted to bet on “491” that bookmakers fearful of their losses, should the lottery hit this number, had stopped taking bets on it. But the clerk had convinced someone to accept one last bet. Some days later, the results of the drawing were announced in Bangkok, and the clerk lost her wager.
Fast forward 29 years. Near Trang’s famous clock tower, just up the road from the office in which I researched in 1992, vendors today do a brisk trade in tickets for that same biweekly Government Lottery. The official price of a ticket is 80 baht.
Late last month, the internet exploded with the question, “Does it get more expensive than this?”, and with photographs of stalls in that street-side location in Trang selling sets of ten tickets for 3500 baht, or 350 baht per ticket. What was going on?
The middleman is in Bangkok. I don’t know his name, but they call him ‘Mister’ . . . ‘Boss’, ‘boss’ . . . I don’t know who has the quota . . . It’s a problem with no solution for Thailand. No matter what government is in power, it’s the same.
One vendor explained matter-of-factly to a journalist that he does not set that outrageous price. Brokers put together these sets of tickets with numbers deemed lucky and sell them to him for 3200 baht per ticket. His margin is only 30 baht a ticket, or less than ten per cent. People with quotas permitting them to buy tickets directly from the Government Lottery Office pay only 70.40 baht per ticket. But that Trang vendor’s effort to get a quota had been futile. He felt cheated.
Other sets of lottery tickets for sale on that stretch of sidewalk included those with two tickets for 200 baht, 4 tickets for 600 baht and five tickets for 700 baht. Speaking in Southern Thai to the same reporter, a second vendor blamed these mark-ups on the dealers in Bangkok on which an old man like him depended for the tickets that he sells. “The middleman is in Bangkok. I don’t know his name, but they call him ‘Mister’ . . . ‘Boss’, ‘boss’ . . . I don’t know who has the quota . . . It’s a problem with no solution for Thailand. No matter what government is in power, it’s the same.”
In Thailand, royal munificence emanates from Bangkok. Rent-seeking and market power are concentrated there. The capital’s dominance of the provinces is not strictly administrative or political. It is also cultural, ideological, commercial and economic. Just ask anyone who has ever played the lottery, whether underground or official, in Trang.