Buriram was the first province that went into a lockdown, albeit partially at the time. Sakon Nakorn was the first to ban the sale of alcohol. Last week, Phuket imposed door-to-door body temperature testing of residents.
The capital city of Bangkok? We are a few steps behind the provinces.
COVID-19 has brought many changes to how we live, it also brought an unprecedented level of decentralization to our country.
Thailand’s governing structure is highly centralized.
All of Thailand’s 76 provinces are beholden to the powerful Ministry of Interior. Provincial governors are not elected, they are appointed by the Ministry. Provincial police forces answer to the Ministry. Provincial budgets are approved by the Ministry.
Only Pattaya is designated as a special administrative city, with the mayor elected by residents.
There are municipal and district elections in all 76 provinces, but the electors all answer to the governors, who are appointed by the Ministry. From political to fiscal policies, the Ministry points, the provinces follow.
This explains why the Interior Minister has long been a portfolio most sought-after by politicians.
But since the COVID-19 outbreak, things have started to change.
Last month, several provinces began to lock down their borders, which prompted questions in regards to the authority of the central government.
Were these provinces acting unilaterally? Do governors have the power to pass such measures?
When questioned on the matter, Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Krea-ngam told reporters that the decisions were made with the acknowledgement of the central government.
Whatever the truth may be, it seems Bangkok has since been largely hands-off, allowing the provinces to localize their strategy to contain the virus outbreak.
From travel restrictions between districts to alcohol sale ban to door-to-door testing and to mandatory face masks when outside, these are just some of the measures the provinces imposed, seemingly autonomously.
It is, as if, COVID-19 has forced Thailand to become more decentralized.
Decentralization is said to improve planning and delivery of public services, as local government incorporates local needs and demands. It is also said to strengthen democracy as it moves the level of decision-making much closer to those affected, the people.
When it comes to power and corruption, decentralization shifts the power out to local governments. It creates an added layer of check-and-balance as local governments do not always have to follow what the “poo-yai” (senior authority) at the seat of the government in Bangkok say.
Thailand is no stranger to the movement for more decentralization of governance. The late Future Forward Party (FFP) campaigned for a decentralization agenda to be integrated into the constitution, to ensure efficiency and transparency in governance.
Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a former leader at FFP, said Thailand was in fact quite decentralized up until the 2006 military coup, when the new constitution took power and budget away from local governing bodies.
Even Abishit Vejjajiva, the former leader of the Democrat Party, pushed for decentralization, as it is vital to combat new national challenges, such as an aging population. He said it also allows more freedom for schools to choose their own curriculum to face the challenges of today’s fast-moving world.
While there are indeed benefits for a nation to keep its powers centralized, structural inequality is inherent when a system keeps all the powers and budgets in one hand, Bangkok.
For those wishing for a more decentralized Thailand, the tiny step towards decentralization inadvertently caused by COVID-19 is a much welcome change.
The question is, does Thailand desire more decentralization? The truth is, more decentralization means more democracy. For example, allowing the provinces to elect their own governors.
The more precise question then becomes, how would the Bangkok ruling elites feel about more democracy?