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Phuket's Pink Panther: OrBorTor Chief Paiboon Upatising

PHUKET: Paiboon Upatising is wearing a pink tie. He is sitting in an office in a building that is painted pink. Even the cover of his smart phone is pink. “I’m not red and I’m not yellow.

By Alasdair Forbes

Monday 4 August 2014, 06:48PM

I’m the Pink Panther,” he jokes.

The choice of pink dates back to November 2007 when HM King Bhumibol left hospital in Bangkok wearing a bright pink jacket, and immediately sparked a nationwide demand for pink clothing.

“[Wearing pink is] a tribute to his majesty,” says the President of the Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation, or OrBorJor. “And I hope it will lend me a little of his power.”
Pink is the theme of the OrBorJor. Its website is pink-themed, as is that of the Phuket Provincial Hospital, which the OrBorJor runs. The OrBorJor buses in Phuket Town are pink.

It’s the colour of optimism, an optimism that runs through Mr Paiboon’s life. He is slim these days, the result of a battle with cancer two years ago that he seems to have won, and he has a “can do” attitude to the long list of things he wants to achieve while in office.

The OrBorJor runs not only the hospital and the buses but also owns and runs five schools on the island, along with Chalong Pier and Surakul Stadium, home to Phuket FC.

It pays the salaries of 200 teachers in state schools and helps pay for state school maintenance when the Education Ministry’s budget does not stretch far enough.

It funds the beaches’ life guards, plants artificial reefs to protect vulnerable parts of the coastline and pitches in with roadshows to promote tourism. It has installed 300 security cameras to supplement those of the police.

A good example was a couple of years ago when village houses were flooded with rain runoff from Phuket’s main road, Thepkrassattri Rd. The road itself, too, was flooded. Mr Paiboon organised for the runoff to be diverted onto unused private land and the OrBorJor paid for the drains to take the water there. There have been no more floods since.

Mr Paiboon is from a wealthy family, the grandson of Chinese immigrants. The family was behind the Phuket Villa series of property developments, and holds the agency for Boonrawd Brewery, makers of Singha and Leo beer.

Many were surprised when he was elected in April 2008. Although he had previously been an elected Senator, representing Phuket, he was up against the might of the Democrat Party machine, which was supporting the incumbent, Anchalee Vanich-Thepabutra, who was seeking re-election.

He says he was not that surprised at the win. “The voters needed people to communicate with,” he explains. “I’m closer to the local people.”

He was re-elected in 2012 with 60 per cent of the votes cast.

The OrBorJor is a slightly odd animal. Originally, back in the 1990s, when the government decided to devolve power to the provinces, it almost seemed that it would take over from central government’s appointed provincial masters. That was all reversed during the time of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successors, who firmly believed in central control.

But it still plays an important part in the island’s community. Asked to define the OrBorJor’s role, he says, “We look after whatever the central government or the tambons and municipalities cannot do.”

To do this it receives a budget that comes from a variety of sources: a once-controversial tax on hotel room nights, income from the pier and the hospital, along with slices of the tax take from vehicle registrations, tobacco and VAT.

This gives it an annual budget currently of B1.4 billion. “It’s not enough,” Mr Paiboon says.

He wants to do more. Environmental matters have been at the heart of OrBorJor policy ever since the first body was elected in 2000.

“It’s difficult to control people’s behaviour,” he says, citing garbage as one of his top concerns. “Thai ways...”

Composting – turning kitchen waste into fertiliser – is not something that attracts many Thai adherents, and most of the “wet” garbage ends up mixed with every other kind at the island’s incinerator at Saphan Hin, which is overwhelmed. It can handle 700 tonnes a day, but receives 690.

Wet garbage is separated out, but currently ends up as landfill, and the land is running out. “We’ve asked for budget from the central government for composting at Saphan Hin.”

Budgets are a constant – and long-standing – problem in Phuket, he explains. Bangkok allocates funds based on the number of people registered as living in the province, currently about 300,000.

But the actual population of residents is estimated to be around a million – and that’s not counting the millions of tourists who all use water and other resources and produce waste.

“That’s why there are not enough police, not enough teachers, not enough roads, not enough public transportation, not enough people to take care of the problems in Phuket. We don’t have enough money to look after our island.”

He would be in favour of Phuket becoming a special economic zone, but only if enough funding can be assured.

“Even the Governor of Bangkok, who is elected, does not have enough authority or enough budget. They should have designed it so that we have enough budget to look after Phuket.”

But despite all the island’s problems and the shortage of funding to tackle them, Mr Paiboon is far from despairing. That optimistic pink colour says it all.



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jgrit8 | 26 June 2015 - 00:36:40

Are you telling me that you get to work with B1.4 billion but don't have enough money to keep lifeguards on the beach for 12 months? Not enough money? Really? How about the money from the hotel tax? Doesn't it help balance the lack of funds you receive from the central government?

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