Outrage reaching boiling point as virus rages out of control

Also in this edition: Police crack down ferociously on large democracy rally, and film director Apichatpong condemns the regime in award speech at Cannes

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Thailand faces vaccine shortage as Delta variant runs rampant

With daily cases of coronavirus hitting successive record highs above 10,000 and no sign the latest wave of the highly contagious Delta variant is even close to being brought under control, a bombshell document leak has highlighted the government incompetence that has brought Thailand to the brink of disaster.

On Saturday, Isra News published a leaked letter to public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul from Sjoerd Hubben, AstraZeneca’s vice president for global corporate affairs. The letter, sent on June 21, contains several revelations that show Anutin’s handling of Thailand’s vaccine procurement strategy was even more shambolic than previously known.

From the tone of the letter, it’s clear that Anutin was already feuding with AstraZeneca last month, demanding more vaccine doses. The key paragraphs in the letter are:

Based on our best ability to forecast monthly supplies while the supply chain is still very new, we believe that in an average month with uninterrupted manufacturing Thailand MOPH will receive approximately five to six million doses, depending on the drug substance yield.

I hope you will be pleased that this is nearly twice the volume we discussed during our meeting on 7 September 2020, when your team estimated that Thailand's healthcare system required approximately three million doses per month. At that time, we also explained the opportunity for the Government of Thailand to procure more vaccines at no profit through the COVAX Facility, which together with the direct purchase agreements constitutes AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine supply strategy.

There are some jaw-dropping revelations here. The first is that the Thai government was so complacent that last September they believed three million doses per month would be enough. While it’s true that the virus was under control in Thailand at that time, as the chart above shows, one obvious lesson from the pandemic is to expect the unexpected and prepare for the worst. Why would they not have sought to secure enough doses to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the population as soon as possible?

By January, Anutin had increased his estimate of how many doses Thailand needed. In an open letter to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit — who is facing lèse majesté charges for totally legitimate criticism of the regime’s calamitous vaccine strategy — he said:

Let me confirm that the purchase of 61 million AstraZeneca doses and 2 million Sinovac doses are the best choice for Thais and Thailand.

But this was still far below the number of doses needed to achieve herd immunity.

The government has repeatedly used the excuse that it wanted to secure vaccines at minimum cost, to avoid burdening taxpayers. Anutin said last November that the government was budgeting just six billion baht for vaccines, an absurdly low amount in a country with a 2021 defence budget of 223.4 billion baht.

The pandemic is an infinitely greater danger to Thai national security than any conceivable military threat from an external enemy, and it’s unforgivable that the regime was trying to fight the virus on the cheap.

Moreover, the regime appears to have failed to understand until far too late that even though Thailand appeared to have contained the virus last year, this required closing the borders and strangling the crucial tourism industry which millions of Thais depend upon for their livelihoods. The only way to safely reopen the country to foreign tourists was to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the population. By the time they planned the Phuket sandbox they had belatedly realised this, but it’s extraordinary it took them so long. There is no excuse for not seeking more doses sooner.

The letter also says AstraZeneca advised Anutin to procure more doses via the COVAX scheme, as all other southeast Asian countries had done. This would have allowed Thailand to start receiving doses from the first quarter of the year, months before it finally began its inoculation programme. But the public health ministry declined to join the scheme, again citing reasons of cost.

So by trying to save money on vaccines, a country that spends grossly inflated sums on its bloated military and profligate monarchy now has to spend billions more baht in a last-minute scramble to try to secure more doses from other sources, and is unlikely to get delivery for months. The cost to Thai businesses now that hopes of an early reopening have been dashed runs into trillions of baht.

As I’ve been reporting for months, there’s another key reason besides cost that Thailand rejected COVAX and formulated a strategy involving massive overreliance on AstraZeneca — instead of focusing on vaccinating the population as quickly and cost effectively as possible, they also wanted to grab the opportunity to glorify the monarchy. The regime thought the Siam Bioscience deal would allow them to pretend King Vajiralongkorn had come to the rescue of the country, and rebuild collapsing faith in the monarchy.

The leaked letter has also finally given us some clarity on production capacity at Siam Bioscience. The royal company has been totally lacking in transparency, with “honorary director of corporate communications” Nualphan “Madam Pang” Lamsam, a banking heiress and friend of the king’s daughter Princess Sirivannavari, failing to provide any useful information. But we now know Siam Bioscience had been forecast to produce about 180 million doses this year, with Thailand getting a third, and the rest going to other countries.

Since deliveries only began in June, with Thailand receiving six million doses, then to receive the full order of 61 million by the end of the year, the country would indeed need to receive at least nine million doses a month. AstraZeneca said in public statement on June 28 that Siam Bioscience was indeed on track to produce 180 million doses by the end of the year.

But what AstraZeneca is telling Anutin privately is very different — in an average month, Thailand will receive just five to six million doses. This means Siam Bioscience is producing, at most, 18 million doses a month which means between July and the end of December it will have produced at most 108 million doses, way below the amount forecast. Production is at least a third lower than expected, and probably about 40 percent below target.

This is also consistent with the fact that Thai officials said last Friday that AstraZeneca told them the delivery of all 61 million doses promised would probably be delayed from the end of this year to next May.

It’s not a big surprise that production at Siam Bioscience is significantly lower than initially forecast. As AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot explained in an interview in January:

A year ago, we didn't have a vaccine. When you do that, you have glitches, you have scale-up problems. Therefore, the yield varies from one to three, by the factor of three.

In other words, production at new facilities can vary wildly. Especially at first, some facilities can produce three times more doses than others relative to capacity. Clearly, Siam Bioscience is currently a low yield facility.

This has implications for all the countries contracted to receive vaccine doses from Siam Bioscience, not just Thailand. So what AstraZeneca appears to be doing, as the fairest solution, is to maintain the agreed share of each month’s production rather than the absolute amount. Thailand will get a third of monthly production, and the other countries will get their agreed share. All of them will get fewer doses this year than they had ordered.

This appears to be the source of the dispute between Anutin and AstraZeneca. Thailand is demanding the agreed amount, while AstraZeneca is telling them production is not sufficient to give them that amount so instead it will give them the agreed share of production.

One final point worth noting is that Thailand only finalised its order for the second batch of AstraZeneca doses — 35 million of them in May, long after all other countries in the region had finalised their orders. This suggests more incompetence and lack of urgency.

Anutin wrote back on June 30, in a letter also leaked to Isra News. Note that it’s marked “MOST URGENT” but it took him five days to write it.

It’s an extraordinary letter. Remember that AstraZeneca signed an agreement with Thailand committing to transfer the technology for making vaccines — which will be immensely beneficial to the country for years to come — and seeking no profit from the deal. In return, Thailand agreed that Siam Bioscience would supply doses to other countries in the region.

In the first paragraph, Anutin directly threatens AstraZeneca — the company that partnered Siam Bioscience and gave it the knowhow to make vaccines:

Our collaboration will remain as long as our mutual benefits between the Royal Thai Government and AstraZeneca are reached.

Worse, it’s an empty threat, because Thailand can’t just stop cooperating with AstraZeneca. Siam Bioscience can’t make any doses at all unless it gets the necessary inputs from AstraZeneca.

Anutin then demands 10 million doses a month:

Thailand is facing a rapid surge of COVlD-19 infected cases, we need more vaccines to address the situation and accommodate the new national vaccination target, in which our Prime Minister has committed to secure at least 10 million doses per month for his people. In this regard, we are expecting to receive more than one-third of the supply from AstraZeneca as mentioned in your letter or at least 10 million doses per month for our domestic use, hence a more constructive and serious discussion on this matter is urgently required.

This is amazing — he’s saying that because Prayut Chan-ocha has decreed the country now needs 10 million doses a month, as a result of failing to secure sufficient doses previously, AstraZeneca just has to comply with the dictator’s wishes. Asking AstraZeneca to be constructive after making a demand like this is just adding insult to injury.

This is not how a credible government behaves. It just shows the desperation of a regime trying to cover up its own mistakes, and a public health minister watching his hopes of one day become prime minister evaporate.

If production at Siam Bioscience is way below target, then getting 10 million doses a month means withholding doses from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Maldives and Brunei.

Does Thailand need these doses more urgently than the other countries Siam Bioscience is contracted to supply? No. The situation in Thailand is bad and getting worse — thanks to the missteps of the regime — but other countries are facing a much worse crisis.

Here’s a chart of new coronavirus cases per million people, to adjust for different population sizes. I had to leave the Maldives off the chart because the situation there is so dire it skews the dimensions of the graph.

Malaysia is facing a particularly grim situation, and as the The New York Times reported a couple of days ago, Indonesia has become the new global epicentre of the pandemic in terms of total daily new cases. Thailand has no credible justification for stealing vaccine doses other countries have signed contracts to receive.

Last Wednesday, Thai officials said the government had “agreed in principle” to put export limits on AstraZeneca doses to ensure the country has sufficient supply. Since then, nothing has happened, so it may just be a clumsy bluff to try to put pressure on AstraZeneca.

But if the regime really does go ahead with the plan, denying desperately needed doses to ASEAN allies like Malaysia and Indonesia, it could spark a serious diplomatic crisis and raise tensions in the region.

As Thai Enquirer editor-in-chief Cod Satrusayang wrote:

It could have disastrous consequences for the country not only in terms of our relationship with our neighbours but with how the country is perceived going forward.

The production problems at Siam Bioscience are a massive blow to Thailand because it’s become clear that the Chinese vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm have limited effectiveness against the Delta variant — that’s one reason why the situation is so dire in Malaysia and Indonesia. When it became clear earlier this year that Thailand was not going to get enough AstraZeneca doses quickly enough, the regime pivoted heavily to Chinese vaccines, with the government importing more than 10 million Sinovac doses and the Chulabhorn Royal Academy offering Sinopharm shots.

This has been another disaster — more than 600 medical workers who were double-jabbed with Sinovac have still become infected. So the regime has changed its strategy to offer a booster AstraZeneca dose to medical personnel who are already fully vaccinated with Sinovac, and to “mix-and-match” doses in the general population, with an initial Sinovac jab followed by a second AstraZeneca shot. But this means Thailand needs even more AstraZeneca doses than previously forecast, and the only way to get them is by stealing from its neighbours.

There’s a further explosive element to this debacle of course — the fact that Siam Bioscience is a royal company. Instead of boosting the prestige of the monarchy, involving Siam Bioscience in vaccine production has been another disaster for Vajiralongkorn’s image, not just in Thailand but across the region. People in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines will know that they are facing a shortfall in vaccine doses because the Thai king’s company is failing to produce as many as expected.

The vaccine shortage leaves Thailand in a frighteningly perilous position. Just a month ago, hopes were high that the Phuket sandbox heralded the start of a gradual reopening of the country during the second half of the year. That seems wishful thinking now.

Instead, the kingdom is likely to be plunged into ever stricter lockdowns as it the regime struggles to halt the spread of the Delta variant. Many thousands of businesses already on the brink of collapse will not survive.

The daily death toll is already at record levels. Crematoriums are struggling to cope. The mortality rate is likely to rise because there was no systematic effort in Thailand to prioritise the elderly and vulnerable. Instead, government departments and private companies were able to secure doses for their staff regardless of age or risk profile, leaving many of those in the greatest danger still desperately in need of being vaccinated.

The vaccine allocation system is riddled with corruption and cronyism — as Erich Parpart of Thai Enquirer pointed out last week, Buriram has received a disproportionate number of doses, and it’s no coincidence that the province is the powerbase of Anutin’s political patron, the notorious godfather Newin Chidchob.

Because of this mismanagement, as the Delta variant rampages through the country, many of the most vulnerable have no protection.

It’s difficult to see how Prayut and his government can survive this fiasco. The regime has never been more unpopular. Even conservatives who used to staunchly support the government are increasingly demanding political change. As Chulalongkorn University professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote in the Bangkok Post last week:

As public anger mounts with fast-spreading calls for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's ouster, the Covid-19 pandemic is becoming Thailand's political game-changer more than anyone could have anticipated.

Instead of the youth-led political movement or the parliamentary opposition's demands for reform, fundamental political change in this country will likely cascade from the Prayut government's gross mishandling that is claiming lives, inflicting daily hardships, and causing unhappiness nationwide. 

But although Thitinan is correct that the government looks doomed, his prediction of “fundamental political change” is probably fanciful. While Vajiralongkorn and the military remain in control of the country, a more likely scenario is that they will pull the plug from the Prayut regime at the opportune moment, and install an even more authoritarian alternative, pledging to clean up the mess. Already, coup rumours are swirling in Bangkok, and ultraroyalists like Arnond Sakworawich are openly calling for military intervention.

They will probably wait a while longer before they make their move — if they do it too early they will just have to deal with all the same problems, so the strategic moment is when things are as bad as they can get — but there seems little chance Prayut’s government will survive until the 2023 elections.

Police crush biggest protest since March

Thousands of protesters took to the streets on foot, in cars and on motorbikes on Sunday in the biggest protest against the regime since March, defying a tightened ban on public gatherings announced in the Royal Gazette two days earlier.

They piled mock body bags at Democracy Monument to symbolise the rising coronavirus death toll, and protesters dressed in mock hazmat suits tried to march on Government House. They were met with a ferocious police response as they tried to dismantle barricades blocking their route, attacked with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas. Several people were wounded including three reporters hit by rubber bullets. Police arrested 16 people.

Anti-monarchy symbolism was less overt than at previous large rallies, with the protesters focusing on the coronavirus crisis, which was a good strategic move. But the symbolism of one large banner showing Prayut as a dog beneath a King of Spades playing card was clear.

Protesters also brought a big guillotine, and plenty of abuse was directed at a large banner of Vajiralongkorn.

There was outrage after foodpanda tweeted that it was firing a delivery driver for taking part in the protest, accusing him of terrorism, leading to a mass boycott, with the hashtag #แบนfoodpanda trending on Twitter and several restaurants announcing they would no longer work with the company. foodpanda drivers also held a protest in Chiang Mai.

In response, foodpanda backtracked, claiming the tweet was sent without management approval and the rider would not be dismissed.

But on Monday evening, police arrested him for alleged lèse majesté, claiming he had tried to set fire to a portrait of the king. According to activist lawyer Arnond Nampa, it’s not clear where he is being held.

Following the protest on Sunday, #ล้มราชวงศ์จักรี — #AbolishTheChakriDynasty — became one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter, in the latest bout of mass anti-monarchy hashtag activism.

The surprising size of Sunday’s protest, and the fact it seems to have widespread public support, highlights the strength of anger in Thailand at the regime’s appalling handling of the pandemic.

“Please wake up and work for your people, now”

Acclaimed Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival on Saturday for his new film Memoria, set in Colombia.

In his acceptance speech he launched an attack on the Thai regime’s handling of the pandemic:

I am lucky to be standing here, while many of my countrymen cannot travel. Many of them suffer greatly from the pandemic, with the mismanagement of resources, healthcare, and vaccine accessibility. I want to call out for the Thai and Colombian governments, and the governments of countries in a similar situation, to please wake up and work for your people, now.

Missing army dissident stripped of rank

Last month, in my article on Thai dissidents kidnapped and probably murdered in other Southeast Asian countries, I wrote about the case of Chaloemsak Ruenmongkon, an officer in the elite Thai red-beret special forces who fled the country in 2018 after being accused of lèse majesté and disappeared soon afterwards. An announcement in the Royal Gazette last week said Vajiralongkorn has now stripped him of his rank. It’s highly likely he was kidnapped and murdered during his escape in 2018.

Other news

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