This photo taken on 29 June 2021 shows a Grab delivery driver parked in front of empty shophouses closed by the economic impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus, on Patong Beach in Phuket. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

When the Pandemic Spreads Another “Fever”: Regional Autonomy

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Some Thai provinces are learning to adapt quickly to the Covid-19 pandemic. This might drive regional efforts for greater independence from Bangkok.

Thailand, under the military-backed government, operates in a highly centralised manner. When Covid-19 first hit the nation back in 2020, the Prayut Chan-ocha government imposed a strict national lockdown for months. While this successfully kept the spread of the coronavirus at bay, the rigorous lockdown was a devastating blow for Thailand’s already fragile economy. Attempting to avoid further economic damage and the responsibility that comes with it, the government has adopted the “no national lockdown” approach when the second and third Covid-19 waves hit last December and in April this year. Instead, provincial governors have been granted authority to enforce Covid-19 control and prevention measures as they deem appropriate.

A sudden shift from rigid centralised control to a more flexible, territory-specific one has left Thai provinces disoriented. Ineffective communication, a lack of transparency over the availability and distribution of vaccines, and a clash of interest between groups responsible for managing the pandemic at the national level have heightened public distrust in the Prayut government. These issues have combined to put extra pressure on provincial authorities.

But many provinces have been able to adapt quickly. Phuket — one of Thailand’s most popular provinces for tourists— has anticipated weak responses from the central government in Bangkok and attempted to purchase its own vaccines since the beginning of the year. Although Phuket, under the leadership of the local Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Association, has failed to get a green light to purchase vaccines independently, it has managed to secure priority allocation of government-procured vaccines from Bangkok. To ensure a speedy vaccination of its residents, Phuket has developed its own “Phuket Chana” or “Phuket Wins” vaccine booking channel and engaged in a campaign to boost vaccine awareness and provincial solidarity. Phuket has given the first doses to at least 63.3 per cent of its population, making it the most vaccinated province to date. Vaccinated foreign tourists will soon be allowed to enter Phuket with some conditions. 

Given the deepening interconnectedness between health, socio-economic, and political issues, the push for independent decision-making could very well expand beyond Covid-19-related policies.

 Similarly, Lampang province in northern Thailand, led by governor Narongsak Osottanakorn — famously known as the Tham Luang cave rescue Chief — has conducted a door-to-door awareness-raising campaign and achieved remarkable success. Local health workers and volunteers are sent to villages to educate people about vaccines and help them with registrations. Like Phuket, Lampang has created its own “Lampang Phrom” or “Lampang Ready” vaccine booking platform as a backup to the nationally-used Mo Phrom application.

 Buriram province in Northeast Thailand has demonstrated the ability to enforce quick and strict regulations. Villages with small numbers of Covid-19 cases have been shut down to prevent further spread. And, strikingly, the Buriram provincial government has invoked national legislation and made refusing vaccinations a criminal offence. Citizens aged 18 and older will be penalised up to 40,000 baht (about US$1,250) and/or face two years in prison if they refuse to get vaccinated.

The irony is that such swift mobilisation of people and resources to tackle the pandemic are not visible in Bangkok. The capital is still struggling to contain the third Covid-19 wave that broke out in April. Daily infections in Bangkok have soared up to 1,000 by late June, forcing the government to impose a partial lockdown by shutting down construction camps and other high-risk areas. Bangkok initially ordered the closure of construction sites with no movement restrictions, allowing many high-risk workers to travel out of the city. The fourth wave with the spread of a highly transmissible Delta strain is predicted to occur in the next few months, yet the vaccines currently distributed are said to be effective only against the Alpha variant. And, with the looming election, in-fighting between factions within the Prayut government is likely to intensify. This will hinder the country’s handling of the pandemic.

These uncertainties will prompt provinces to strengthen local resilience to protect their interests. Given the deepening interconnectedness between health, socio-economic, and political issues, the push for independent decision-making could very well expand beyond Covid-19-related policies. 

Rich autonomy-minded provinces like Phuket and Chiang Mai are likely to seize the Covid-19 turmoil to exert more control over their own affairs. Citing the lack of efficiency and budget constraints, Phuket has been advocating for self-government since the 1980s. With less intervention from Bangkok, Phuket has taken the lead to boost its tourism industry by investing 750 million baht to hire unemployed residents for six months and another 250 million for skills training and events. The jobs offered, including tree planting, building and road painting, and street cleaning, are not only aimed at stimulating employment rates but also to enhance the province’s landscape and infrastructure. Chiang Mai — which has been pushing for greater autonomy for over 30 years — has unveiled the plan to become a smart city to cope with increased haze pollution and tourism losses from the pandemic. With eco-friendly transportation, and the use of technology to enhance services such as health and retail, the province hopes to improve citizens’ quality of life and attract high-quality customers. Local authorities have already been dispatched to survey citizens’ problems and needs.

 Power, wealth, and budget have traditionally been concentrated in Bangkok. This has slowed development outside the capital. But the Covid-19 crisis has exposed the limits of Bangkok’s control and the advantages of decentralisation. Limited guidance from the central government has also left authorities in the provinces confused and struggling to adapt. It is, therefore, natural for all provinces to seek some form of decentralisation. Nevertheless, rich provinces may have more potential to turn their desires into reality. But the new norms and structures that emerge to ease the path towards the devolution of authority will eventually prove to be a welcome change.

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