Opinion: Virus Blunder is the Fruit of Bangkok’s Colonialist Mindset

Anti-government banner hung on a bridge in Rayong province on July 15, 2020.

Watching how two young protesters were taken away by police in Rayong province earlier this week after protesting against the Prime Minister, I am reminded of the need for greater decentralization.

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha visited the province on that day after the news that an airman from the Egyptian Air Force infected with coronavirus had been roaming around the town, particularly a local shopping mall.

Apparently, if you are a VIP, or have diplomatic immunity or rather military immunity in this case, you can discard Thai coronavirus protocol.

The press reported a 90 percent cancellation of hotel rooms in the province and schools have been shut again as a result of the latest coronavirus scare. Angry locals want to know why the government failed to keep the Egyptian officer in check.

The Egyptian officer initially even refused to be tested when confronted with Thai health officials and local police. They had to contact the embassy in Bangkok before being able to test him, in which it was proven positive. This led to anger against not just the government’s COVID-19 Administration Center but the Egyptian Embassy as well.

People wonder why the man, part of an unauthorized excursion by the 31-strong Egyptian military delegation, wasn’t quarantined for 14 days per Thai regulations upon landing.

The Embassy’s Facebook site which published a letter expressing regrets but short of an apology received over 1,200 mostly angry messages. The diplomatic mission deleted the post and reposted the same letter it again on Wednesday and continued to attract more barrage of outrage from Thai netizens.

Worst ever bilateral relations between Egypt and Thailand since its formal diplomatic relations began in 1954 aside, the focus should be on decentralization, or the lack thereof.

The public learned that Rayong governor had little or no control over the debacle. Somehow, 31 Egyptian officers could travel freely without quarantine after arriving in Thailand.

Locals affected by the cancellations of hotel rooms and related businesses deserve a more responsive local administration. The system of governor appointed by Bangkok as it is the case in virtually all provinces that placate Bangkok and their VIPs is simply anachronistic.

To add insult to injury, Bangkok, which is not classified as a province, as its own elected government although the current one was appointed by then junta leader Gen Prayut.

The practice of Bangkok-appointed governors began during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) a century ago. When faced with western colonial threats, Bangkok tightened its grip and control over many far-flung territories which back then were more like vassal states and fiefdoms.

This centralization led to the construction of a railway linking Bangkok and Chiang Mai, capital of the semi-independent Lanna Kingdom, which was completed in 1921. It also spelled the end of local rulers, lords, kings or whatever they call themselves in the north.

Phrae, 551 kilometers north of Bangkok is now a small quiet province in the north. A century ago, locals didn’t just hand over its fiefdom for Bangkok to take over without resistance. The Ngiew rebellion of 1902 saw many officials dispatched by Bangkok to rule over the locals like internal colonists murdered, including Phraya Chaiyabun, the governor appointed by Rama V.

Its local lord, Chao Luang, or Chao Phraya Piriya Thepvong who backed the rebellion eventually fled to Luang Prabang, today’s Laos after he failed to secure independence from Bangkok. His mansion was eventually occupied a formal residence of successive Bangkok-appointed governors before becoming a museum today.

That was over a century ago, and yet the system of Bangkok-appointed governors persisted well into the 21th century.

In another part of Thailand, separatist, or independent fighters, continued in what was Patani kingdom in the Deep South with more than 7,000 killed over the past 15 years alone. Like Rayong, locals who are not separatists simply want a more responsive political system where they’re properly represented by an elected governor.

Back to Rayong, the two arrested young Rayong activists were on Thursday eventually charged with violating the Emergency Decree. All the two did was to condemn Prayut who arrived by helicopter from Bangkok for his handling of coronavirus by raising placards.

One of the two activists filed a complaint against the officers who arrested him for negligence and assault.

The time for change is long overdue. This continued intra-colonial system is not just alienating local people but it’s also not adequately responsive or legitimate for today’s world. The system is preventing Thailand from unleashing its local potentials and end up treating locals more like subjects.

Afterall, Bangkok-appointed governors is just an outdated legacy of Thai elites colonizing its own fellow countrymen.