Clusterfuck: Hostess bar visits by officials plunge Thailand into virulent third wave

Also in this edition: Thais accused of lèse-majesté and sedition for a peaceful protest start boycott of the legal process, and Red Shirts remember the dead from 11 years ago

Welcome to the weekly Secret Siam news roundup. If you haven’t subscribed, please do. Paid subscriptions really help support my journalism and fund more Thai translations of my work. If you prefer not to pay, you can still sign up for free editions.

To everybody who has already subscribed, thank you very much! Now onto the week’s news…


Thailand faces a coronavirus crisis due to the regime’s corrupt incompetence

Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha wished the kingdom a happy Songkran today and urged them to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus, without mentioning the escalating scandal of trips to hostess bars in Bangkok by senior government officials that plunged the country into a disastrous third wave of the pandemic. The crisis is so severe it is threatening the survival of his coalition.

After getting through the global pandemic with relatively few infections so far — but sustaining massive damage to the crucial tourism industry — Thailand is now seeing a surge in the particularly virulent “British variant” B.1.1.7 that could undo all the fragile progress of the last year.

The number of new infections announced earlier today was 985, the highest ever daily figure since the virus was first detected in Thailand. This chart by Thai PBS shows that numbers have been approaching exponential growth over the past week.

To make the situation even worse, the surge in cases came right before the long Songkran holiday when well over a million people had been expected to leave Bangkok to travel back to the provinces to see their relatives. The government is trying to downplay the severity of the crisis and was fearful of the consequences of ordering a nationwide travel ban, so didn’t tell people not to go back to their hometowns. This has led to chaos and confusion, and put more people at risk.

Several provinces, such as Chiang Mai, have put quarantine rules in place, and tens of thousands of people have cancelled their Songkran trips, but many are going ahead — the highways out of Bangkok have been thronged with traffic. This means the dangerous new strain of the virus could be spread widely throughout the country, with many elderly people now in danger. As Thai PBS says:

our seniors won’t be seeing their loved ones without being put at risk of COVID-19, the pandemic that has been crushing our holiday spirits for 2 Songkrans straight.

Ground zero of the cluster that caused the third wave is the Thonglor entertainment district, and in particular the notorious Krystal Club, a favourite party place where senior government ministers, top military and police officers, and businessmen pay extortionate prices to grope and smooch high-end hostesses.

Thai transport minister Saksayam Chidchob, the 58-year-old younger brother of Buriram godfather and political powerbroker Newin Chidchob, tested positive for the virus on April 7, along with several other MPs and officials in the Bhumjai Thai party.

Ministers who’d had contact with Saksayam had to go into self-isolation, including health minister and Bhumjaithai Thai leader Anutin Charnvirakul — who had been sitting next to him the day before his positive test without wearing a face mask — as well as deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, tourism and sport minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, agriculture and cooperatives minister Chalermchai Sri-on, and education minister Trinuch Thienthong.

The government’s head of public relations, Lieutenant-General Sansern “Kai Oo” Kaewkamnerd tested positive the same day too.

Japanese ambassador Kazuya Nashida and several embassy staff were also diagnosed with the virus. The embassy admitted Kazuya had visited Krystal on March 25, unconvincingly claiming:

After-hours meetings with people at informal venues is one of the duties of ambassadors and is therefore unavoidable. This, coupled with the fact that the ambassador is a senior, has rendered him susceptible to the infection despite him being in the club for only a short time

Following his positive test, Saksayam suspiciously began frantically denying he had recently visited Krystal. But Bhumjai Thai MP Kittichai Reangsawat, who also caught the virus, admitted he’d been clubbing with Saksayam in March. He said they had visited the AINU Bar and added: “I enjoy drinking and wanted to wind down.”

According to brothel tycoon and former MP Chuwit Kamolvisit, who regularly reveals information about Bangkok’s underworld of massage parlours and illegal casinos that the government and police want to keep hidden, two government ministers were seen in Krystal around the time of the virus outbreak. Chuwit — aptly described by the Coconuts website as a “pimp-turned-whistleblower”— said in a Facebook post that Krystal was nicknamed “Thai Khu Fa Club” because of the number of government ministers, MPs and officials who routinely go there to discuss billion dollar deals with businessmen while spending insane amounts of money on hostesses (the century-old Thai Khu Fa building at Government House is where the prime minister’s office is located).

“If they get a suite, the bill is never less than 100,000 baht,” Chuwit said, adding that there were no coronavirus precautions at Krystal and similar hostess clubs like Emerald where dozens of infections have also been reported.

Meanwhile, a photograph has been circulating on social media allegedly showing a senior official during a recent visit to Krystal, although his identity remains unknown and he doesn’t appear to be Saksayam.

One young woman who had been at Krystal as the virus took hold there and tested positive published a timeline showing visits to a dizzying array of luxury hotels and shops including Gucci, Hermes, Chanel and Prada — throwing high-society Thais into a panic that so many of their favourite places had potentially been contaminated.

As the scandal escalated, several MPs and anti-corruption campaigners began demanding that ministers release a timeline of their recent movements to show they hadn’t been at Krystal or other hostess bars. Royalist moral activist Srisuwan Janya proclaimed:

Ministers are expected to honour public moral standards and refrain from damaging the dignity of their post.

Interestingly, some of the demands to see a timeline came from MPs in the Democrat Party who are in the government coalition with Bhumjai Thai and Prayut’s Palang Pracharath Party.

Relations were already frayed among the three main coalition partners — Palang Pracharath contested a by-election in a formerly Democrat seat last month and won, and the parties have also quarrelled over how to handle demands for constitutional reform.

The Democrats — an odd alliance of royalist Bangkok pseudo-aristocracy and Southern gangsters — are still trying to pretend they are a moral force in Thai politics in an effort to save themselves from political extinction. Absurdly, given their long history of repeatedly allying with crooks and coupmakers, they are trying to take the high ground and dump on their despised coalition partners Bhumjai Thai, who they first joined forces with in 2008 after the military bribed and threatened Newin Chidchob into changing sides and abandoning Thaksin Shinawatra to support a government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva. That coalition even included Bhumjai Thai nominee Pornthiva Nakasai as commerce minister — a woman whose family owns the massive Poseidon “massage” brothel on Ratchadaphisek Road and who was so unqualified for the job that in her first meeting with US ambassador Eric John she “had to read all of her points from a text”.

It’s obviously ridiculous for the Democrats to pretend they only just found out how shady Bhumjai Thai are — especially when they have been implicated in dangerous rule-breaking too at a boxing event in Songkhla — but it shows how strained the coalition is right now that they have chosen to fight over this issue.

Senior Thai officials should presumably be expected to be model users of the government’s location-tracking contact-tracing smartphone app ThaiChana, but of course none of them are because it would reveal their lucrative off-duty dealmaking and fondness for partying in red light districts.

Saksayam, Sansern and others who have contracted coronavirus proved curiously reluctant to share their timelines. Saksayem dragged his feet, then published a timeline that was mysteriously missing his movements on March 27 and 28 and April 2 to 5. This timeline was then withdrawn and a revised version was published that still pretended he had been at work or at home apart from a dinner on April 1 with another brother in the Chidchob clan, police lieutenant general Permpoon. According to the timeline he just stayed at home for all of April 2 and 3.

Meanwhile a familiar Thai cover-up technique began — blaming subordinates. The public health chief of the Chidchob family stronghold of Buriram was ordered to personally give a press briefing last Friday to say that “three close aides to the minister had visited the Krystal Club on March 30 and the Emerald Club on April 1 with four other people” and they must be responsible for him getting infected. Saksayam’s lawyer Thiwa Karnkrasung threatened legal action against anyone who claimed the minister was lying.

No timeline has been released for any other cabinet minister, or for government spokesman Sansern.

Outraged by the mockery and disbelief on social media, Prayut announced he was considering legal action against anybody using the nickname “Thai Khu Fa Club” to describe Krystal. "I have ordered the legal team to consider whether it is against the law or not,” he told reporters.

The regime also sentenced the managers of Krystal and Emerald to two months in jail, in a remarkably speedy process by the glacial standards of the Thai justice system, and police announced that if the nightclubs were found guilty of staying open beyond the legal closing time, allowing solicitation for prostitution to take place on their premises, and operating without a licence — which it’s widely known that they did, routinely, for years — they would be shut down for half a decade. There was no explanation for why it was only the managers — Chawalit Puttarat of Krystal and Kanchit Sueborisutjai of Emerald — who were punished rather than the powerful club owners who are making the real money.

In a further embarrassment for the regime, police major general Sopon Sarapat admitted that 18 officers from Thonglor police station responsible for “patrolling public areas” had also tested positive for the virus. These are the police who are supposed to make sure that vast brothels, casinos and hostess bars packed with high-rolling businessmen and officials are not operating on their turf, but who instead take bribes from these establishments, and sometimes even own shares in them. Instead of enforcing the law while on patrol, they just collect protection money and freebies. How could any competent policeman patrolling Thonglor not know that there are huge hostess bars and underground casinos in the area, thronged with people every night?

Anyone who has spent any time in Bangkok’s shadier nightlife establishments knows that police drinking alcohol and enjoying the company of women is a common sight. In an amazingly incompetent effort to deny the truth, Sopon said:

Doctors suspected that while on patrol at these entertainment places the officers, although wearing face masks, might not be have worn gloves while performing their duties. They might then have been infected by touching their faces.

Meanwhile the government launched a special scheme to vaccinate Thonglor nightlife workers — last week 600 doses per day were reserved for them at a special inoculation centre at the Saeng Thip sports ground on Soi Pridi Banomyong 2, and this week enough doses to fully vaccinate 3,000 people will be sent to the district. This follows news last month that army chief Narongpan Jittkaewtae said golf caddies will be given priority for inoculations. The only reason to put nightclub hostesses and army golf course caddies in the category of frontline workers is that they have to service the sexual appetites of the elderly men of the Thai elite, who would be more likely than the young women to suffer severe consequences from contracting covid-19. So the regime has been protecting itself by vaccinating the sex workers they fraternise with.

With the regime focusing more on protecting its image and privileges rather than actually tackling the third wave of the virus, the situation is grim. People going home to the provinces from Bangkok have almost certainly spread it much more widely. Asked about the crisis at the weekend, deputy public health minister Sathit Pitutecha said: “We are not that confident. But we are doing our best.” 

What makes the crisis exponentially worse is that Thailand’s vaccination strategy has been a debacle. As I reported a couple of months ago, the regime was fixated on trying to exploit the pandemic to boost the imploding popularity of the monarchy and so chose a disastrous strategy of relying almost entirely on a totally untested royal company, Siam Bioscience, to produce vaccine doses under license from AstraZeneca. But there is no prospect of Siam Bioscience producing large quantities of the vaccine for months even in the most optimistic scenarios.

So the government also secured a few million doses of Sinovac, but even Chinese officials are now publicly questioning its efficacy. Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high rates of protection”, Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a conference in Chengdu on Saturday. Moreover, they are untested so far on dangerous variants like B.1.1.7 that is now running riot in Thailand.

The ineptitude of health minister Anutin and the Thai government in securing enough vaccine doses and inoculating people quickly was previously mitigated by the fact that the country had done a good job of containing the spread of virus, but now that a third wave is growing exponentially, and has ruined Songkran and done fatal damage to tourism businesses, hotels and restaurants that were desperately trying to hang on in the hope that things would improve this year, the full extent of their incompetence has been laid bare.

Global data shows that Thailand is among the worst performers in southeast Asia and has vaccinated only about 0.7 percent of its population, a shocking figure that is worse than Cambodia and even Myanmar, where the military’s crackdown on popular resistance following a coup on February 1 has caused chaos and severely compromised the ability of the health system to function. Thailand’s performance is comparable to its impoverished neighbour Laos, and only Vietnam and Brunei have done worse in ASEAN. Unlike Thailand, they are not facing a virulent new wave.

Even public figures and organisations usually supportive of the government are furious about the uselessness of the government’s vaccination policy, as Thai media including the Bangkok Post, Thai PBS and Thai Enquirer have been reporting. Federation of Thai Industries chairman Supant Mongkolsuthree said: “We have to admit the government is too slow in distributing vaccines.”

Amid the chaos, the regime is hurriedly setting up makeshift field hospitals in case there are thousands of severe cases of coronavirus, and the palace is still trying to use the crisis for propaganda. An embarrassingly dystopian photograph shared by the military showed soldiers wearing the blue cap and yellow neckerchief of the royalist Jit Arsa movement setting up some kind of primitive holding facility for coronavirus patients in Chiang Mai.

With more revelations likely about the nightlife scandal likely to emerge in coming days, plus rapidly rising coronavirus cases, vicious coalition infighting, and a growing realisation that the government has been useless throughout the pandemic, Prayut is facing the biggest crisis of his premiership. Unfortunately, thanks to his mismanagement, Thailand’s people are now facing a crisis too.


Lawfare

The plight of those charged with lèse majesté and sedition for joining the democracy movement in Thailand is becoming increasingly dire, as the regime continues to jail people who dare to show dissent, refuses to offer them bail, and even abuses and humiliates their relatives.

The situation has become so grim that 21 of the 22 defendants facing charges over the historic rally on September 19 and 20 last year, at which more than fifty thousand people crowded into Sanam Luang to hear speakers demand reform of the monarchy, have started boycotting the legal process because they believe they have no prospect of being treated fairly. Two protest leaders, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, are also on hunger strike to protest against the regime’s refusal to grant bail to those accused of crimes against the monarchy.

As I reported last week, there are increasing signs of division in the judiciary, and Supreme Court president Methinee Chalothorn is facing dissent from judges who think — correctly — she has sold her soul to Vajiralongkorn. But the treatment of the defendants in the trial over the Sanam Luang rally shows the regime is determined to make an example of them, in a “kill the chicken to warn the monkey” strategy.

As Thai Lawyers for Human Rights report, nine of the accused who are already in detention — Rung, Penguin, Anon Numpa, Patiwat “Morlam Bank” Saraiyaem, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, Chukiat “Justin” Saengwong and Chaiamorn “Ammy Bottom Blues” Keawwiboonphan — were brought to the court on April 8 along with 13 others accused of sedition who have not yet been jailed.

Their relatives were harassed and abused and prevented from listening to the court proceedings against their loved ones.

On the morning of 8 April, all of the relatives were initially forbidden from even entering the court building. There were court police who guarded the stairs and offered reasons why the families of the detainees should not go up to the 7th floor. It would be a waste of their time. They did not have permission to enter the courtroom and so going up to wait would be a waste of time. The officials informed the relatives that they had to go wait in the arraignment room. Some of the relatives sat down on the stairs of the court in order to express their disagreement with this request for their compliance.

After a significant period of time passed, the relatives were then able to pass through the door of the court and go up to wait on the 7th floor. The mother of “Mike” Panupong arrived later at 10:45 am and so did not go up along with the others. She had to wait on the steps of the court while security guards used their walkie-talkies to ask for permission for her to use the lift to go up to the 7thfloor. She brought eyeglasses for her son, but the court police informed her that she could not give them to him. She would have to go to the prison and send them inside through the prison officials.

On the 7th floor, the women’s bathroom was closed, just as it had been on 29 March.  Only the officials who worked at the court were permitted to go inside. Three layers of yellow metal fencing closed off the rest of the floor from the area by the lift. One security guard commented that, “We have brought the thickest fencing we have to close off this floor.”

Court police, court officials, and security guards patrolled and kept order inside and outside the courtroom. Some of the relatives sat down on the floor near the lift while others stood. There was a room with chairs and air-conditioning nearby, but permission was not granted for them to enter as that room was accessed by the same hallway as Room 704.

Faced with this abuse of their families, and the impossibility of having a fair trial and challenging archaic laws, 21 of the defendants in the trial withdrew their legal representation and began boycotting the process. Significantly this included 13 suspects who are not yet in jail, as well as eight who have been repeatedly denied bail. Anon Nampha, a well-known human rights lawyer who is now facing years in prison, wrote in a statement to the court:

Since the defendant was indicted, he has been denied the right to bail during his trial. He has been treated in various ways that degrade his human dignity. Even though the defendant is presumed to be innocent under the law, the judicial process has refused him justice from the very beginning simply because he has been accused of violating Article 112. He has been caged like an animal and denied the opportunity for bail. It is as though the judgment has been rendered in advance.

One detainee made a deal to get released, at least temporarily — morlam singer Patiwat, who promised not to join any more protests or criticise the monarchy. The Bangkok Post, which has become completely captured by anti-democracy elites, celebrated this development with the headline “Patiwat gets bail as protest cohorts stew.” Conditions in jail are so grim that it’s no surprise some people want to find a way out, and it’s remarkable that only one protester has made a deal so far. Patiwat is a respected performer, and a good Prachatai article about him is here.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to persecute anyone who dares to disagree:


Day of remembrance

On April 10, Red Shirts and democracy activists gathered at the Khok Wua intersection in Bangkok to remember the victims of violence 11 years earlier when grenade attacks on royalist military officers led to soldiers opening fire on unarmed protesters. More than 20 people died, and the events of that night have never been properly investigated by the authorities.

I’ll write more soon about my own investigations into what happened. In the meantime, just wanted to note that a colleague of mine, Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto was one of the people killed, and “Loong Hoon” — or “Uncle Cartoon” — a regular presence at Thai protests for more than a decade, has always done his best to ensure that what happened to Hiro and the others killed that night will never be forgotten in Thailand. He was there on Saturday.

I never met Loong Hoon, but we are both trying to make sure the memory of what has happened in Thailand does not get lost, so he is a hero of mine.

Best wishes for Songkran. That’s all for this edition. 🙏