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From Asia Times (April)
All aboard Thailand’s decentralization train
A group of provincial entrepreneurs, academics and hoteliers in Khon Kaen are bypassing Bangkok to privately develop a light rail line
Thailand has made scant progress over the past three decades in spreading power and national budgets outside of the capital Bangkok, a core issue behind the nation’s yawning wealth divide.
But now there is a slim hope that the decentralization process has begun, and it has started not in the capital but in the provincial city of Khon Kaen through an independently devised light rail project.
“This is decentralization but I don’t want to use that term,” said Suradech Taweesaengsakulthai, president and chief executive officer of CHO Thavee PLC, and a founding member of the Khon Kaen Think Tank (KKTT).
Khon Kaen is a medium-sized city with a population about 120,000 in northeastern Thailand, best known for being home to Khon Kaen University and for tourists a tortoise zoo.
The KKTT was established four years ago by a group of 20 local entrepreneurs, politicians, hoteliers and academicians fed up with decades of neglect by Bangkok and determined to chart their own course in developing their city.
Thailand’s Bangkok-led decentralization efforts have stalled since the late 1990s, when the first decentralization bill was pushed through to create local elected bodies that were supposed to get about 30% of the national budget.
The reform was resisted by the central bureaucracy, and under the regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha elections for the local bodies were cancelled.
The non-elected KKTT has acted independently, with its first achievement being the successful launch of an urban mass transit project suitable for Khon Kaen and other secondary cities. Construction on the project is expected to begin in the last quarter of this year.
Bangkok has over the past two decades built up an impressive rapid mass transit system covering almost 100 kilometers, with several extensions to the network now underway. But there are no mass transit systems to date in any of Thailand’s other urban hubs, despite growing problems with congestion, mafia-type public transport monopolies and pollution.
The traffic congestion is most noticeable in Thailand’s more popular tourist destinations such as Pattaya, Phuket, Had Yai and Chiang Mai, where local populations vary between 200,000 to 300,000 b Ironically, it has been Khon Kaen City, which attracts few international tourists, that has emerged as a leader in devising its own urban mass transit system – a Light Rail Transit system, or tram, covering 22.6 kilometers of a highway that already cuts through Khon Kaen City. ut also welcome an annual influx of millions of foreign tourists.
Continues with photos