Anger and despair in Thailand with Penguin on the brink of death

Also in this edition: Thais take to social media to seek ways to escape the country, government blames the people for the coronavirus crisis, and strains worsen in the ruling coalition

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Thais giving up on the kingdom as anger mounts over treatment of protest leaders

Tensions are rising in Thailand with protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak on the brink of death after 50 days on hunger strike as the regime continues to refuse to grant bail to most of the democracy activists facing lèse majesté charges for demanding reform of the monarchy.

With Penguin’s health failing, his mother Sureerat tried for a tenth time on Friday to secure his release on bail, and had her head shaved outside the Bangkok Criminal Court building on Ratchadaphisek Road in protest at his continued detention.

She pleaded with the court to grant her son bail before he loses his life:

Please be a witness to this. I am just a woman, a mother. My child has not committed a crime, he just thinks differently. He has not received justice, and he is now gravely ill.

But the court announced it would not rule on the bail request until May 6 — by which time Penguin could be dead. Later on Friday he was taken from prison to Ramathibodi Hospital as his health continues to deteriorate. Doctors have warned he may face irreversible organ damage. The hashtag #saveเพนกวิน — #savePenguin — has been trending on Twitter all week.

Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul is also entering the danger zone after fasting for more than five weeks. Nine people are being held without bail as they await trial on lèse majesté and other charges— Penguin, Rung, Anon Nampa, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, Piyarat “Toto” Chongthep, Chukiat “Justin” Sangwong, Chaiamorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan, Phromsorn Weerathamjaree and Parinya “Port” Cheewinkulpatom.

Activists brought a petition to the court with 11,035 signatures calling for the detainees to be given bail, but officials refused to send anyone to accept it. In the end, protest leader Benja Apan scattered the pages on the steps outside the court building.

Anger at the plight of Penguin, Rung and their comrades is starting to boil over, with the REDEM protest group, which tends to be more radical than other elements of the movement, now openly targeting royalist judge Chanathip Muanpawong who has repeatedly refused to grant bail to the detainees.

Chanathip has a notorious record of harsh sentences for people accused of defaming the monarchy, and was responsible for the infamous decision to jail elderly grandfather Ampon Tangnoppakul in 2011 for allegedly sending four SMS messages insulting the royals. Ampon was sentenced to 20 years in prison and died in jail in 2012. The harshness of the sentence appalled many Thais, especially as the prosecution had been unable to prove that Ampon was the person who sent the SMS messages.

In a tweet last week, REDEM — which is the latest rebranding of the Free Youth group — shared images of the judge and his son, and in a slogan borrowed from the Hong Kong democracy movement, vowed: “If we burn, you burn with us.”

On Sunday, REDEM organised a rally by motorbikes and vehicles from Victory Monument through the streets of Bangkok to the Criminal Court. Images of Chanathip were plastered to the sign outside the building, under a large portrait of King Vajiralongkorn, and protesters pelted them with tomatoes, eggs and pig blood.

Following the formal end of the protest, some hardcore activists refused to disperse and there were clashes with police. One person was arrested.

Several other activists have gone on hunger strike in solidarity with the detainees. Lertsak Khamkongsak of the People Go Network has been fasting for more than a month, and labour activist Patchanee Khamnak announced on Sunday that she too would start refusing food. Declaring her support for Penguin and Rung, she said:

They are this country's future but are being bullied by the Thai judicial system to the point of losing their humanity and are almost losing their wellbeing.

We are going to fight together for our fundamental freedoms, so that the truth will become apparent to the world.

With anger and despair mounting among Thai youth, a new Facebook group called “ย้ายประเทศกันเถอะ”, or “Let’s Move Country”, has attracted more than 600,000 members within just a few days, with Thais sharing information on how they can leave the country and live abroad. The hashtag #ย้ายประเทศกันเถอะ has also become the top trending topic on Thai Twitter.

The creator of the Facebook group, a businessman who owns seven restaurants and pubs in Bangkok, told Thai PBS that the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, and the unfairness of the justice system, had caused many Thais to start seriously considering moving abroad:

I believe it’s the hopelessness in this country that got so many people joining the group, but this doesn’t mean we don’t care about our country. We can leave responsibly and continue to push for positive change from afar.

The Swedish embassy in Bangkok infuriated Thai officials with a Facebook post saying that for those thinking of moving to another country, Sweden would be a great choice because of its respect for human rights, strong tradition of equality, and support for innovation. Natapanu Nopakun, deputy spokesman at the Thai foreign ministry, hit back with several annoyed tweets.

Transgender model Pepper Hananya, who has tens of thousands of social media followers, announced she had escaped to Canada to seek political asylum after facing lèse majesté charges in Thailand for sharing a video of a speech by protest leader Anon Nampha.

Most leading activists have made clear that they will not try to flee the country, but the fact so many Thais are actively talking about going abroad shows the widespread despair at the state of the kingdom.

Coronavirus debacle causes coalition strains

Daily deaths from the coronavirus hit 31 on Monday, the highest ever in Thailand, as the virulent third wave of the pandemic continues to spread throughout the country. Daily cases have also risen above 2,000 again, raising concerns that the outbreak has still not been brought under control.

There is widespread fury at the government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic, in particular its disastrously inept vaccine strategy which prioritised palace propaganda over swiftly procuring sufficient doses, and the failure to order a national lockdown ahead of the Songkran holiday last month.

The latest outbreak began in high-end nightclubs in the Thonglor district where wealthy businessmen and officials — including transport minister Saksayam Chidchob — flirted with expensive hostesses without taking any coronavirus precautions. It was then spread all over Thailand by people going back to their hometowns for Songkran. Meanwhile, vaccine rollout has been glacial because of the regime’s decision to rely mostly on AstraZeneca doses produced locally by royal company Siam Bioscience, which will not be ready until next month at the earliest.

To make matters worse, the government tried to blame the public last week for the latest outbreak. An official government order detailing new measures to combat the pandemic said the virus was spreading because of “the majority of citizens relaxing their attitudes towards the situation” and failing to exercise caution.

The ongoing debacle of the government’s handling of the crisis has caused worsening friction in the ruling coalition, with prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha seeking to blame health minister Anutin Charnvirakul for past mistakes, and Anutin hitting back by saying all decisions were ordered by Prayut:

I’m a subordinate of the prime minister, who is the one with supreme power and responsibility. I follow the PM’s policies and orders and always report to him.

Prayut formally took charge of the government’s response to the pandemic last week, sidelining Anutin. The friction has led to speculation that the coalition could collapse later this year.

There are also strains with the Democrat Party, which threatened to rebel over plans by Prayut and his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan to put notorious minister Tamanat Prompow in charge of coronavirus relief efforts in southern Thailand. The south is traditionally a Democrat Party stronghold, and the proposal to give an important role in the region to Tamanat, a shameless gangster who spent four years in jail in Australia for smuggling heroin and has considerable expertise in vote buying, was a blatant attempt by Prayut’s Palang Pracharat Party to steal support from their coalition partner. Prayut was forced to abandon the plan because of intense Democrat Party opposition.

Palang Pracharat deputy leader Paiboon Nititawan insisted the coalition was still strong, telling Thai Enquirer:

There may be disagreements in terms of policy but we can talk about those. There are no arguments or anything of that sort.

But there is a real possibility the coalition could crumble if the government can’t get the latest coronavirus wave under control.

Meanwhile, an outbreak of the virus has been reported at the Interior Ministry, and at least 11 cleaners and groundskeepers at Government House have also tested positive.

Monarchy tightens its grip on military

Paul Chambers, one of the leading experts on Thailand’s military, has published a useful analysis of the mid-year reshuffle and the stalled progress towards reform of the armed forces and reducing the bloated number of generals. The most important point is that the Thai military remains totally under Vajiralongkorn’s control — as Chambers says: “In 2021, the palace continues to dominate Thailand’s military.”

Streckfuss gets a reprieve

David Streckfuss, one of the leading international scholars focusing on Thailand and an expert on the lèse majesté law, has been issued a new work permit and visa, ending fears that he would have to leave the country which has been his home for 35 years. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, Streckfuss was suddenly fired by Khon Kaen University in March, after police had visited the campus and said he was “too political”. He has now managed to get a work permit via his employment at the Isaan Record, an excellent news site covering northeastern Thailand.

Trapped in a gilded cage

Finally, for those who haven’t seen it yet, I published a major new story at the weekend with exclusive details on the life of Queen Suthida and her lonely existence in the Swiss town of Engelberg, where she has lived for most of the past few years. It’s extremely difficult trying to penetrate the secretive world of the Thai royals in their European hideaways, but I was able to speak to some sources with direct knowledge of what goes on inside Hotel Waldegg. Among the revelations was that Vajiralongkorn may have fathered a son with a member of his harem, which could increase the uncertainty over royal succession.

That’s all for this edition. Thank you for reading! 🙏