Royal rebuke for the Thai government over vaccine shambles

Also in this edition: The king reappears, but is trying to hide the giant Boeing 737 in his garden, and a new scandal engulfs the Thai judiciary

Welcome to the weekly Secret Siam news roundup. If you haven’t subscribed yet, 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…

Palace signals its anger over coronavirus debacle

The regime’s disastrously inept handling of the coronavirus crisis is going from bad to worse. Last week the government suddenly suspended plans to allow people to register to be vaccinated via the Mor Prom online platform. According to several sources, this led to a furious row between prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha and public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul in which they had to be held apart by aides to prevent them hitting each other.

Relations between the pair are now at their lowest point ever, threatening the stability of the ruling coalition.

Yesterday there was more confusion after the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced that public parks, museums, spas and beauty salons could reopen, only for the government to veto the plan later the same day and order them to remain closed for another 14 days. The continued closure of Bangkok’s parks has caused particular disappointment because there is little evidence that covid-19 can be easily transmitted outdoors.

This has led to chaos in the coalition. Commenting on yesterday’s disarray, Bhumjai Thai Party spokesman Paradorn Prisnanantakul told Thai Enquirer:

It’s not that they are even miscommunicating, it’s obvious that they have not been talking to each other at all.

The most significant development of the week was a surprise late-night Royal Gazette edict last Wednesday granting an institution controlled by Vajiralongkorn’s sister, the Chulabhorn Royal Academy, the power to import vaccines independently of the government. It was another sign of where real power lies in Thailand — at the stroke of a pen, the palace can override government policy and do whatever it pleases.

The government was totally wrongfooted by the news — in an interview the following morning, Anutin said he didn’t know anything about it.

The move was a clear attempt by the royals to win some propaganda points by appearing to be helping get Thais vaccinated as quickly as possible. As I have been reporting for months, since the start of the coronavirus crisis the palace has been seeking to use the pandemic to boost its prestige by trying to play a central role in the kingdom’s vaccination strategy.

But the plan to rely on royal company Siam Bioscience for most of the country’s vaccine needs under a deal with AstraZeneca has been a disaster. It meant that Thailand was left woefully short of vaccines this year as a virulent third wave spread through the country, and the situation is only going to get worse — it is clear by now that production is behind schedule and Siam Bioscience is not going to be able to supply the doses it promised this month.

A plan that was supposed to glorify the monarchy has instead become a debacle, and now the royals are scrambling to extricate themselves from the mess.

It’s inconceivable that Princess Chulabhorn would have intervened without the blessing of her brother, and the main significance of last week’s announcement is that the palace is now openly undermining Prayut’s government to try to salvage royal prestige.

Fuadi Pitsuwan, son of late former foreign minister and ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan, wrote that the move “highlights the royal frustration and the split among the ruling elites over how the Prayut government is handling the crisis” and was a clear sign of palace displeasure:

the royal move, exercised in this manner however well-intentioned, calls into question the political legitimacy of the government and its authority in the management of the crisis. It is a no-confidence censure and a royal rebuke of both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Minister of Health Anutin Charnvirakul.

Chulalongkorn University professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak also observed that:

this vaccine bombshell could be perceived as a snub to the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, particularly Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

The Chulabhorn Royal Academy says it will import another vaccine, Sinopharm from China, to make up for the shortfall in government stocks.

Faced with the worsening crisis, the palace is clearly willing to openly humiliate Prayut and his government to try to protect royal prestige. There is open warfare in the coalition and the royals are now signalling they don’t have confidence in the government. Prayut Chan-ocha is suddenly looking very lonely indeed.

The royals return

After weeks of feverish speculation about his health, Vajiralongkorn finally reappeared last Tuesday at a ceremony in the Amphorn Sathan throne hall to receive an oath from the decrepit Kasem Chankaew, a new member of the privy council. It was the first time that the king, queen and “noble consort” Sineenat Wongvajirabhakdi had been seen since the beginning of May.

The palace also released another of Vajiralongkorn’s cartoons to mark Visakha Bucha Day card, telling people to follow the principles of sufficiency economy — despite the fact that the king is notoriously profligate and spends money hand over fist.

In another odd incident, the “We Love Sineenat” Facebook fan page, which appears to have links to the consort, later published photographs showing Vajiralongkorn and Koi wearing tracksuits at a religious event on May 19, and then suddenly announced it was closing down. The page has now disappeared from Facebook.

Publication of the images failed to stop speculation about Vajiralongkorn’s health. In an extraordinary sign of the widespread lack of trust in the palace, social media was abuzz with claims that the photographs were old and had been released to try to trick people into believing the king is fine.

There is no evidence that this is true — whatever the reasons for his disappearance, it’s clear Vajiralongkorn is not facing a health crisis right now.

Hiding in plane sight

Last month I wrote about the Boeing 737 that King Vajiralongkorn has installed in the grounds of Amphorn Sathan Palace as a garden ornament. Updated satellite images now show that sometime between January and April, a roof was constructed over the plane. There is no obvious reason for doing this, apart from trying to hide the plane from satellites, but it’s already too late for that.

So not only does the king have a 737 with a fake registration in his garden, but he now appears to be trying to conceal it, which just makes the whole thing even more pointless.

In another eccentric edict last month the palace issued new rules limiting traffic speed and noise around part of the huge swathe of territory Vajiralongkorn has claimed for himself in central Bangkok. In the area around the old Royal Turf Club, which the king has reclaimed and reportedly wants to turn into a park honouring his father Bhumibol, speed is restricted to 50 km per hour, and loud noise has been forbidden.

The edict referred to the area as “901 Land” — a reference to the number that police and military used to denote Bhumibol. Vajiralongkorn is 904.

In trouble again

Checking my Facebook Messenger junk mail folder a week ago, I found an interesting document — a fake profile had sent me a summons to a court hearing on May 27 at which the Criminal Court would rule on whether to endorse a request from the digital economy ministry to demand that Facebook blocks my page within Thailand.

The story was covered by BBC Thai and Prachatai who confirmed that the summons was indeed genuine.

We don’t yet know what the ruling of the judges was, but obviously there is no chance they would have decided to overrule the government, so we can assume that Facebook has now been ordered to block my page in Thailand.

However, Facebook is not obliged to do what the Thai regime orders, and has rejected efforts to geoblock my page in the past. We’ll probably know within a couple of months what they decided to do this time.

Judges exposed

There is uproar among the Thai judiciary after news broke that US authorities are investigating Toyota for allegedly bribing senior judges.

The Law360 website reported that a grand jury has been impaneled in Texas to investigate whether Toyota paid judges to try to overturn a $350 million tax judgment.

The report says Toyota paid $18 million to the Annanon Law Office to bribe former Supreme Court of Thailand President Direk Ingkaninan and Supreme Court senior advisor Chaiyasit Trachutham to use their influence to persuade Supreme Court president Slaikate Wattanapan to rule in Toyota’s favour.

The report also names three attorneys at Toyota Motors Thailand who organised the bribery plan and then left the company in the middle of an internal corruption probe to set up a boutique law firm — Wichien Hirunmahapol, Sathit Tungjitpreechatai and Pornchai Saetachantana.

Direk and Chaiyasit have made outraged denials and have lodged a police complaint against Law360, journalist Frank Runyeon, and Toyota, claiming that they have been defamed. This is a common tactic in Thailand for people who know they are guilty but want to silence the accusations against them.

In fact, nobody has defamed them — the US authorities are investigating very serious charges against them, and they have no credible defence so are resorting to threats.

Further reading

A quick roundup of the other main things from the past week to be aware of:

  • Protest leaders Arnon Nampha, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok and Chukiat “Justin” Sangwong were at last granted bail today. Their release had been delayed by the fact they caught coronavirus as the pandemic swept through Thai jails last month.

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