Epic fail — Thailand's mass vaccination drive halted due to production shortfall at royal company
Also in this edition: The king pretends to cook, Facebook shuts off translation after an accidental slur, and the ruling party may make a notorious criminal its next secretary-general
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Vaccine shambles goes from bad to worse
Within a week of its launch at a ludicrous ceremony at Bang Sue Grand Station, Thailand’s mass vaccination programme has already gone completely off the rails.
On Friday, the Social Security Office announced that inoculations for insured company employees at 45 Bangkok vaccination centres would be suspended until June 28. Over the weekend, scores of hospitals all over the country cancelled appointments and said vaccinations would be delayed. On Monday, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced that inoculations at 25 non-hospital vaccination sites for people who had booked via the Thai Ruam Jai website would be suspended from Tuesday.
The reason for the chaos is not in doubt. King Vajiralongkorn’s opaque company Siam Bioscience, which had been due to deliver 1.5 million more doses on Monday, is unable to do so.
General Nattapon Nakpanich, operations chief of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration, told a news conference on Monday that no doses would be delivered this week.
Siam Bioscience celebrated the delivery of the first batch of 1.8 million doses on June 2 in a bizarre ceremony with no media invited, presided over by Vajiralongkorn’s right-hand man Satitpong Sukvimol with a speech from banking heiress and socialite Nualphan “Madam Pang” Lamsam, a close friend of the king’s daughter Princess Sirivannavari.
But the comments from Nattapon show that production is already running at least a week behind schedule, and in fact delays at Siam Bioscience are significantly worse than that, because the company is postponing the promised delivery of millions of doses to Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines as it scrambles to meet its domestic obligations in Thailand.
Taiwan has been told that doses from Siam Bioscience that were due to have arrived by now will be delayed by at least a month. According to president Tsai Ing-wen:
The problem is that the goods that were supposed to have arrived in June have not. Now Thailand's epidemic situation is serious and they are giving priority for vaccines to be used in Thailand.
Officials in the Philippines say the first batch of vaccines from Siam Bioscience has been delayed a month, and the amount they will receive has also been cut, while the Malaysian minister in charge of the inoculation programme, Khairy Jamaluddin, said last week: “Yes, we are expecting some delay.”
So not only has Thailand’s mass inoculation programme collapsed within a week, but the kingdom is also damaging its international reputation by reneging on promises and hoarding doses for itself, all because the Thai regime decided to entrust the manufacture of vaccines to a royal company with no experience in this field to try to boost the prestige of the increasingly hated monarchy.
To make the situation even worse, no government minister dares admit there is a problem at Siam Bioscience because they are terrified of offending Vajiralongkorn.
Prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha, public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul and other senior figures continue to try to deny reality and — incredibly — are still claiming there is no vaccine shortage, even though Nattapon has already admitted no doses will be delivered this week, the Medical Services Department said the “second batch of AstraZeneca’s vaccine will be delivered a little late”, Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang said the required doses had not been received on time, and the Rural Doctors Society predicted the latest chaos in a Facebook post on Saturday “because there are insufficient doses”.
Ministers are resorting to a combination of outright denial of obvious facts and frenzied finger-pointing, blaming everybody else apart from Siam Bioscience (and themselves) for the mess.
Over the past couple of days, Anutin absurdly claimed there was no shortage of doses and distribution was just delayed because they were awaiting approval from the Department of Disease Control. He also blamed the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration for causing the confusion by allowing too many people to book appointments to be vaccinated.
Somehow managing to come up with even more ridiculous excuses than Anutin, labour minister Suchart Chomklin claimed the sudden suspension of social security inoculations had absolutely nothing to do with any shortage and was just because technical improvements of the system were needed, such as fixing “poor ventilation at some vaccination stations and inconsistencies in the lists of eligible people submitted by companies”.
He has now claimed inoculations are ready to resume, but since no doses are available this is clearly just another lie.
Thai Enquirer editor-in-chief Cod Satrusayang described the public spat between the Ministry of Public Health and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration as a “national embarrassment” and said: “Prayut should do the right thing and resign.”
The lack of clear information from the government and Siam Bioscience is causing mounting anger and exasperation. Youwanush Kongdan, director of the private Namarak Hospital, took to Facebook to vent her frustration:
I am making an appeal to the government that it should give people the facts and communicate with them in a straightforward manner. If you have sufficient vaccines, please say so. If you don't have enough vaccines, you also should say so and tell people when the vaccines will come. People will accept that.
She was later contacted by subordinates of Anutin who demanded that she remove all mention of him from her social media posts.
Namarak Hospital’s post telling people they should ask the public health minister for the reason for the vaccine shortage was duly changed to instead say they should contact “related state agencies”. As usual, ministers are more interested in preserving their reputations and saving face than telling the truth and fixing the problems.
The main victims of the government’s incompetence are the elderly and vulnerable who need the vaccine most but are finding it almost impossible to get.
Plenty of wealthier and younger people have managed to arrange to be inoculated, often with the help of their employer. As Hathai Techakitteranun of Thai PBS observed:
The vulnerable in society are being left behind, as some people, who are not members of high-risk groups or any state agencies, have received their jabs, leaving many who registered online perplexed as to how they have manipulated this.
Most schools reopened on Monday, despite widespread anxiety among parents. In Bangkok, public parks, museums, beauty clinics, massage venues and tattoo parlours were allowed to reopen too — two weeks later than planned due to more lack of coordination between the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the government.
But residents who headed to parks on Monday morning found they were still closed, with gates chained shut and security guards sending people away.
In yet another sign of regime incompetence, the thailandintervac.com website where foreigners were supposed to sign up for inoculations has never worked from the start, plagued with bugs and problems, but as I reported on Sunday it was also a major security risk because the names, addresses, passport details and phone numbers of people who signed up were not secure and could be easily accessed by anybody.
Richard Barrow, who does a great job of helping foreign residents navigate the intricacies of Thailand, tweeted about the same issue a day later, and soon afterwards the website was temporarily closed and he received an apology from the Ministry of Public Health claiming the problem had only “occurred for 10 minutes”.
This was clearly just another lie, because I had reported the problem 24 hours earlier, which is a lot longer than 10 minutes.
The vaccine chaos and the escalating animosity between Prayut and Anutin (who nominally heads the junta party’s main coalition partner Bhumjai Thai on behalf of its real leader Newin Chidchob) are fuelling speculation that the government will be unable to last a full term until 2023 and will collapse or call elections sooner.
Prayut told ministers last week to speed up public projects as the government “has only one year left in office”. Top officials later tried to backpedal — last Thursday deputy leader Prawit Wongsuwan dismissed talk of an early dissolution of parliament, and Prayut reversed his previous comments on Monday and said the government would serve its full term.
But as Thai PBS reports, the “signals point to an early election in Thailand”:
Prawit, who is also deputy PM, has reportedly instructed party MPs to prepare for an election — possibly next year though without setting a specific date. Coalition partners Democrat and Bhumjaithai are also thought to be gearing up for an election.
Sources inside AstraZeneca say Siam Bioscience is expected to fall even further behind schedule in coming weeks, and although the regime has gone on a belated buying spree to secure 25 million doses from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — after months of claiming that Siam Bioscience could meet the vast majority of the kingdom’s needs — there is likely to be a deepening shortage for several months before they are delivered.
The government’s position is looking increasingly precarious, and it’s clear the vaccine shambles is only going to get worse. The coalition is falling apart. But that doesn’t mean there will be any genuine political change in Thailand anytime soon. If Prayut and his cronies become too unpopular, Vajiralongkorn will just jettison them and install a new batch of puppets.
More fake news
The palace released a new set of propaganda photographs on Saturday allegedly showing King Vajiralongkorn and his official consort Sineenat “Koi” Wongvajirabhakdi working hard in the kitchens of Amphorn Sathan Palace to cook food for medical workers treating coronavirus patients.
As usual, the pair were dressed in matching outfits — tracksuits, aprons (some with the slogan “so cute”) and even chef’s hats. There was no sign of Queen Suthida.
There were several odd things about the images. Vajiralongkorn’s eyes were closed in every single photograph. The pictures appear to be heavily photoshopped — the king’s skin looks silky smooth with not a wrinkle to be seen. And one image shows what appear to be misshapen royal toes.
The palace statement said that among the meals cooked by the royal couple were noodle soup with braised pork and meatballs, noodle soup with braised chicken and bitter gourd, rice with steamed pork rib and fingerroot, pork omelette with minced fingerroot, and stir-fried chicken with yellow curry paste and fingerroot. It claimed fingerroot — known as krachai in Thai — had significant medicinal properties (it’s also widely believed to be an aphrodisiac but the palace didn’t mention this aspect).
Of course, the notoriously lazy Vajiralongkorn wasn’t really doing any cooking — the photos were just staged. Ironically, they were released just a day after Prawit Wongsuwan demanded yet again that officials crack down on fake news.
Meanwhile, the latest royal conspiracy theory buzzing around on social media is that the king wasn’t actually present at recent royal events, with a body double used instead.
As I reported last month, Vajiralongkorn vanished from view for most of May, sparking gossip that he was seriously ill or even dead, and even after he reappeared many Thais believed the images were fake or doctored. This has now led to feverish speculation that somebody else is being used as a stand-in for the king at royal events and ceremonies.
Online sleuths say he has suddenly become shorter than Suthida, and have even been comparing the shape of his ears to support their theory that a body double is being used.
There is absolutely no evidence that the speculation is true. But the king’s appearance does appear to have changed significantly — he looks shorter and fatter and his posture is curiously stooped. He certainly doesn’t look well.
The most interesting thing about the conspiracy theories is that they show how little trust most Thais have in the honesty of the palace. Many want to believe the king is dead, and are seizing upon any apparent evidence to support this theory, however outlandish.
Lost in translation
The translation function for Thai-language posts on Facebook and Instagram remains disabled, to the frustration of many. The reason is that on Suthida’s birthday on June 3, the automatic translation of a Thai Rath post on Instagram referred to a “royal slut” instead of “royal salute”.
It’s not the first time a social media mistranslation has caused uproar among Thai royalists. Facebook apologised in July last year after an English-language Thai PBS post about the king’s birthday was mistranslated in Thai as saying people were celebrating his death.
Facebook has declined to say when automatic Thai to English translation will be restored after the latest mishap.
Party of crooks
The Palang Pracharat Party holds its annual general meeting in Khon Kaen on Friday, with a reshuffle of the executive committee expected.
Incredibly, as Thai PBS reports, deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister Tamanat Prompow may be installed as party secretary-general, replacing Anucha Nakasai:
Thammanat has won the trust and backing of “Big Brother” Prawit, who apparently believes his protégé will help the party win the next election thanks to his many connections and allies.
Tamanat spent four years in jail in Australia for smuggling heroin, something he had tried to deny until journalists found the court records. He then changed his story to say he was innocent because the substance seized by Australian police was flour, not heroin.
He served another three years in jail in Thailand over the rape and murder of a male academic, before being eventually acquitted.
He has a fake PhD from the Calumus International University, a bogus diploma mill — the thesis had five authors and was only 12 pages long including footnotes and references.
Despite all this, Thailand’s ruling party regards him a charismatic vote winner, and doesn’t appear at all ashamed about promoting this crook to ever more senior positions.
Phatanachai Sakawi, president of the Blind Society Association of Thailand, has reported another blind person for lèse majesté for sharing a comment critical of Suthida, Prachatai reports. In an interview he said he wasn’t concerned that the accused might suffer in jail, because “that person was once a boarding school student, so being in prison is just the same as boarding school”. It’s the second time that Phatanachai has accused a fellow blind person of lèse majesté. Nurhayati Masoh, a 23-year-old blind Muslim woman, spent a year in prison in 2018 after Phatanachai complained to police that she had shared an article by Giles Ji Ungpakorn on Facebook.
A grim milestone has been reached — according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the number of people facing lèse majesté charges in Thailand is now at least 100.
US-based writer and translator Peera Songkünnatham has published a haunting article on a court appearance by protest leaders, highlighting the pettiness of officials and the injustice and inequality of the system.
Pravit Rojanaphruk’s latest column argues that university hazing rituals that continue to lead to the deaths of young Thais are an inevitable result of the autocratic culture promoted by the regime.
At the weekend I wrote about my friend Wanchalearm Satsaksit and the nine other Thai dissidents who were abducted in Southeast Asia over the past five years. The article was a bit late because I found it very difficult to write, so apologies for that.
That’s all for this edition. Thank you for reading! 🙏