It's a small world in Thai politics

The Kingdom is closing in on the Philippines in a contest to have the most provinces

Oh God, not another one. On a ranking of things Thailand desperately needs right now, where would "an extra province" be? Surely somewhere down in the 900s, wedged between "pay rise for politicians" (#946) and "more Cambodian child beggars outside police booths" (#948).

Despite this, it's been decided by the country's administrators this week that 76 provinces is not enough. We need another one. Like I need another hole in the head.

Thailand is a country dripping with politicians who are, on the whole, drips. Lacking any real political platforms, they scurry back and forth between political parties. They bark and bray about "third hands" and "committees" and "new freeways" (which, coincidentally, go to construction companies with shareholders sharing that MP's surname).

Oh, they're just dreadful. They sweep into functions an hour unfashionably late, sitting on hastily-arranged sofas in the front row while nervous emcees praise their illusive virtues, at the same time ignoring the three under-12-year-olds in traditional Thai costume being carried out on stretchers - waiting for an hour in such garb is akin to 20 minutes in a California Wow sauna.

The good news is they disappear as soon as they come, thanks to elections, scandals and karmic mortality. They are always replaced. And for every MP, there are 100 government officials swooning, nodding and waiing them, tasks more important than any administration that needs to be undertaken.

Do you get the impression I'm not keen on them?

The worst thing is their numbers. For every one of those 76 provinces we have a gaggle of representatives at the national level. But wait, as they say in those ads for stay-sharp knives, that's not all! There is another gaggle at provincial level; which means another level of administrators pushing papers and photocopying in triplicate.

Penetrate deeper into the countryside and you find district politicians, not to mention sub-district politicians, not to mention the elected phuyai baan (translated, tragically, as "village headmen". I don't know about you, but doesn't that conjure up visions of witch doctors presiding over boiling cauldrons of Catholic missionaries? Not that I'm complaining.).

In other words, the more provinces you have, the more politicians and administrators. We know what that means. More forms to be filled out, more missing documents, and more glaring civil servants devoid of any behavior either civil or servile.

Thailand wants to be a hub for everything, but in reality it's probably the greatest hub for administration, though just pipped at the post by the Philippines, which has 79 provinces. Give us another few years, though, and Thailand will race and overtake that country faster than a Filipina who spots a microphone.

My distaste for Thai politicians is in contrast to my great love for the Thai people, but isn't that the way everything is? The universe is all yin and yang; life and death, joy and sorrow, Kiri Te Kanawa and Celine Dion. And while Thais are the nicest folk on earth, just look at the people running them.

Now those people want another province.

Back in 2006 Thailand was experiencing a euphoria never before seen. We were gripped by Suvarnabhumi Fever, as we thought the airport was the one thing that could save us all from the despair of a faltering economy and a cabinet of really nasty types where the kick-back rate had risen from a paltry 10% per government contract to something around 40%.

Looking back, it seems incredulous that we were so stimulated by the opening of an airport, but those were the times. Thailand was going to become the hub of aviation.

In the midst of all this, the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced the most logical step - that Suvarnabhumi would be so magnificent it would be its own province! Seceding from Samut Prakan, this 77th province would attract proud residents with its promise of work and new infrastructure.

Our PM and his cabinet quietly overlooked the fact that the only people happy to live next to airport runways are illegal Burmese, methamphetamine traffickers and the profoundly deaf. Thank goodness the military stepped in, ousting the government literally moments before the airport's opening. Corruption is one thing; an extra province is the last straw.

Call me stupid, but shouldn't we be downsizing government? Wouldn't Thailand run better if there were, say, 17 provinces instead of 77, with one-tenth the paperwork? Where is the universal good in turning a district into a province?

The district in question is Bung Kan in Nong Khai, a far north-eastern province that resembles a snake, long and thin, hugging the Mekong River. And that's the alleged problem; residents complain they have to travel a long distance to contact authorities in Nong Khai.

Or rather, a politician claims residents complain. Last week government spokesperson Marut Masayawanit explained that by creating a new province, local officials will be closer to residents and thus "will solve their problems quicker".

Um ... see what I mean? Has, like, Mr Marut been on the "It's A Small World" ride at Disneyland just one too many times? It sounds as though he believes close proximity ensures local officials will solve problems, which sounds great at Disneyland, but scary out here in the real world.

Worse, the site for the new Bung Kan provincial hall has been found - on a 150-hectare public park. Start chopping those trees down now. So the new province loses its public park, but gains three national MPs and a hoard of local officials just dying to solve problems because they're so damned close.

But the real last word must go to Songsak Thongsri, former government MP who wanted Suvarnabhumi as the 77th province, but for now over on the government side. "This is an opportunity for us to improve the fortune of our country," he said last Tuesday.

How, you ask? Well the number 76, he claims, is an unlucky number. This is borne out by the fact seven and six equals 13, which is an unlucky number.

Well, only in the eyes of farangs, Khun Songsak. Thai culture has never seen the number 13 as unlucky, nor the number seven as lucky for that matter, but for heaven's sake let's not split hairs. If Khun Songsak says 76 is unlucky, then so be it.

By adding an extra province, it brings the number to 77. "If you add seven and seven, that makes 14," Khun Songsak revealed. "And if you add one and four together, it makes five, which is an auspicious number."

Okaaaayyy and if you hurry, Khun Songsak, you'll make it in time to join Mr Marut for another ride around "It's A Small World".

Please, nobody tell him the truth; that Bangkok is not, officially, a province. Like Pattaya it's a "special administrative district", but because it's so friggin' huge it's treated as, and even called, a province.

Thus, Bung Kan is actually Thailand's 76th province, not 77th, rendering Thailand festering in the quagmire of ill fortune that only the number 76 - and a glut of politicians - can bring.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Writer