Thai regime fighting for survival as outrage over coronavirus incompetence escalates

Also in this edition: Penguin's hunger strike is entering the danger zone, and Princess Sirivannavari is off on another disruptive holiday

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Prayut and Anutin make fools of themselves (again)

Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha had a bad day at the office on Monday.

As the virulent third wave of Thailand’s covid-19 crisis rages out of control, with new daily cases now consistently above 2,000 and the death toll rising rapidly, the disaster is mercilessly exposing the incompetence of the regime, in particular Prayut and his inept public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

The government has refused to order a decisive nationwide lockdown, fearing that this could further damage its already imploding popularity, so the tough decisions have been left to individual provincial administrations. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced new measures on Sunday including the compulsory wearing of facemasks outside of the house.

On Monday morning, after the new rules went into effect, Prayut’s social media team shared an image of him chairing a coronavirus response meeting at Government House at 11 am.

Everybody in the image was wearing a mask — except one.

The photo went viral with thousands of Thais commenting that Prayut was blatantly breaking the rules. His team made a desperate effort to scrub it from the internet, deleting the post from all official social media pages, but they were far too late to contain the damage.

Facing another public relations disaster, Prayut decided to agree to pay a fine of 6,000 baht for violating the Communicable Disease Act and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration regulations. His ally Aswin Kwanmuang, the Bangkok governor, arrived to personally collect the money. Aswin wrote on Facebook:

The Metropolitan Police commander, Dusit Police officers and I arrived at the Government House, and the prime minister assented to being fined.

Prayut could just have brushed off the incident without paying a fine or even acknowledging he had done anything wrong, which would be the traditional way a Thai grandee would deal with this kind of episode, but he seems to have realised that with public anger escalating at his government’s handling of the latest outbreak, there would be fury if he evaded paying the penalty for flouting rules that everybody else has to follow.

The fact that he felt he had to accept a humiliating public punishment demonstrates how precarious the government’s position has become after a litany of errors and misjudgements in their efforts to contain the coronavirus.

Instead of formulating a sensible vaccine procurement strategy, the government instead decided to try to boost the popularity of the palace by basing its plans almost entirely on the untested ability of royal company Siam Bioscience to produce 61 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine this year, with deliveries due to start in June. Aside from a relatively small number of Sinovac doses from China they have no other vaccine stocks, which means that Thailand’s inoculation drive began very belatedly and is proceeding at a glacial pace.

The government managed to make things even worse by failing to order a national lockdown ahead of the Songkran holiday as an outbreak of the virulent “British variant” B.1.1.7 that began in high-end Thonglor nightclubs spread rapidly in Bangkok. This failure to act swiftly meant that people going back to their hometowns for the holiday infected thousands of others all over the country. As the virus spread it became clear that preparations to deal with a large outbreak had been woefully inadequate, and there is a severe shortage of hospital beds.

Prayut admitted last week that the government had previously not been in a hurry to secure multiple kinds of vaccine from several sources because the government thought it had the coronavirus under control:

Initially, the purchases Thailand made were based on the situation at that time, when we were successful in containing the outbreak.

He also tried to claim that the regime had been wary of buying untested vaccines out of concern for the safety of the population, which was just a blatant lie:

Let me be clear. It's not that we acted too late or too little. Everything depends on the situation at a given time. We didn't want to subject people to risk when the vaccine was first produced.

As a result of its incompetence, the government is now having to desperately and belatedly scramble to secure millions of doses of Pfizer and Sputnik V vaccine to have any hope of hitting its target of inoculating 50 million Thais this year.

In another self-justifying televised speech last Friday, Prayut extravagantly praised the palace, claiming donations of equipment and aid from King Vajiralongkorn had helped save the country. In fact these donations don’t even come from the vast royal fortune, they are paid for with state funds. Throughout the pandemic, the regime’s focus on promoting royal propaganda rather than formulating a sensible and coherent strategy has made the crisis exponentially worse.

The opposition Move Forward Party has called for Anutin’s immediate resignation. Move Forward MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn told Thai Enquirer:

They did not spread out the risk when they were buying vaccines and there was a delay in the vaccination process. The lack of preparation also led to the shortage of hospital beds for infected people and they are infecting others at home and some have died while waiting.

As I explained in my recent article on the notoriously shady Bhumjai Thai Party, Anutin is totally unqualified to be health minister, and only holds the position because the Thai regime hands out cabinet posts as bribes to coalition partners and political factions with no regard for basic competence. Anutin established a political career after making large donations to Vajiralongkorn from the fortune amassed by the Charnvirakul family conglomerate Sino-Thai Construction in projects corruptly awarded by cronies like Newin Chidchob. He only has his cabinet job because Bhumjai Thai is needed to prop up Prayut’s coalition.

It has been a disaster for Thailand that coronavirus strategy is in the hands of incompetent political stooges like Anutin rather than credible technocrats, as BBC correspondent Jonathan Head observed:

A petition on calling for Anutin to resign is approaching 200,000 signatures. The website only came back online in Thailand last week after being blocked for six months over a previous petition calling for Vajiralongkorn to be made persona non grata in Germany. Anutin must be wishing it was still censored.

His response to the torrent of criticism has been almost as inept as his handling of the pandemic. On Monday he ordered officials at several public hospitals to tweet praise of his performance using the comical hashtag #ทองแท้ไม่กลัวไฟ — #TrueGoldDoesNotFearFire. This backfired spectacularly when the hashtag was hijacked by vociferous heckling.

Anutin then wrote a Facebook post which sought to absolve himself of any responsibility by putting all the blame on Prayut. He said government policy on the coronavirus followed a “single command” structure with Prayut firmly in charge and Anutin just loyally following orders as a subordinate. He continued to reject legitimate criticism, urging Thais to avoid “politicising” and “hyping” the crisis.

Anutin’s attempt to claim that everything is Prayut’s fault is the clearest sign so far of serious cracks in the coalition as it lurches from one debacle to the next.

From Dubai, Thaksin Shinawatra has been gleefully trolling the regime in Clubhouse discussions where he attracts a huge audience eager to hear the thoughts of “Tony Woodsome”. Last week he goaded the government by publicly offering to help secure more vaccines using his business skills and contacts:

Do you want me to speak to Putin so that we can bring in Sputnik V?

Pressed to respond by reporters at Government House, Prayut fumed:

I won't answer. Don't relay a question from someone who is not in the country. I don't know him. Just leave him be.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, told Thai PBS that the government’s blunders could rally far more people to join the protest movement:

People who feel insecure about their health or face financial crisis could ally with the anti-government movement even though they do not share its ideology. If infections keep rising and the shortage in beds continues, we are likely to see a popular rising.

The situation has become so serious that according to Cod Satrusayang at Thai Enquirer, Prayut is “seriously considering dissolving the house and calling snap elections”. Although it would be extremely reckless to go to the polls while the third wave of the pandemic has yet to be contained, Prayut may conclude that he could at least win an election that is held sooner rather than later. If he waits until 2023, his calamitous handling of the virus may have already shattered his chances.

Is the regime prepared to let Penguin die?

Jailed protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak has now been on hunger strike for more than 42 days, while his comrade Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul has been fasting for more than 28 days. There are grave concerns for Penguin’s health in particular, because the risk of death increases dramatically after about 45 days without food. Penguin’s mother has asked supporters to implore him to end his fast, in a campaign using the hashtag #เธอจะต้องมีชีวิตอยู่ — #YouMustLive. Prominent academics Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Prajak Kongkirati have been among those calling on Penguin and Rung to resume eating rather than risk dying.

But both Penguin and Rung have said that while they are grateful for the concern, and respect those pleading with them to stop their hunger strike, they are determined to continue. In recent court appearances, Penguin has been extremely weak and confined to a wheelchair.

The risks to Penguin and Rung are magnified by the fact that the coronavirus has been spreading in Thai prisons, and in their weakened state the disease could kill them.

Prison officials confirmed at the weekend that activist Chukiat “Justin” Sangwong — who is famous for mocking Vajiralongkorn by regularly turning up to protests wearing a crop top and a headband in the colours of the German flag — had tested positive for covid-19 in Bangkok Remand Prison.

In the days before his diagnosis he had shared a cell with Penguin, Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boontararaksa and Chaiamorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan among others. Officials say all the others have tested negative so far, but at least eight detainees and one prison guard have caught the virus.

(The Bangkok Post’s reporting on the story showed its journalists are severely confused about why Chukiat is nicknamed Justin, claiming it derives from “his penchant for the signature style of American singer Justin Timberlake”. In fact, the name has been a codeword for Vajiralongkorn ever since Justin Bieber was famously photographed in a crop top in 2017, and has nothing to do with Justin Timberlake at all.)

In an opinion article published by Nikkei Asia, two of the best known academics focusing on Thailand, Tyrell Haberkorn and Thongchai Winichakul, said the lèse majesté charges against protest leaders were baseless:

These activists have not actually insulted, defamed, or threatened the monarchy. Instead, they have dared to call for an open and frank discussion on the place of the monarchy in Thailand —particularly with respect to its relationship with the law, the judiciary, the military and its assets.

They called on the regime to grant bail to Penguin, Panusaya and all political prisoners:

As each application for bail is denied, it becomes more evident that preventing citizens from openly discussing the monarchy and its role in the Thai polity are to the authorities more important than the lives of citizens. Parit, Panusaya and all the other political detainees must have their bail rights restored.

Prayut himself said last week that he was concerned about Penguin’s health but insisted that judicial decisions must not be swayed by a hunger strike. But if the regime really does allow Penguin to starve to death it will face widespread condemnation in Thailand and around the world, something the government may be unwilling to risk.

There was some positive news last Friday when Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Pai were finally granted bail. This was a surprise because the regime regards both as hardcore anti-monarchists and had previously refused multiple bail requests. The decision may be intended to prepare the ground for giving bail to Penguin and Rung too without acknowledging their hunger strike influenced the decision.

Seven other activists also remain in jail on lèse majesté charges — Chukiat, Ammy, Anon Nampa, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, Piyarat “Toto” Chongthep, Phromsorn Weerathamjaree and Parinya “Port” Cheewinkulpatom.

Port, a musician who was part of the Faiyen political folk band, has been extremely ill for years, and this prevented him from escaping to asylum in France with his comrades in 2019. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights published an excellent article about him last week, translated by Ann Norman.

Meanwhile, a campaign calling for the release of detained protest leaders has been launched by artists using the hashtag #วาดความยุติธรรม — #DrawTheJustice — and regular protests are also being held at Government House and the Supreme Court, with activists and relatives of the detainees standing silently for 112 minutes.

Sirivannavari shuts down Sail Rock

With questionable timing as most of the kingdom tightened travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, Princess Sirivannavari set off last week to Koh Samui on another diving holiday in southern Thailand. Orange flags bearing her royal crest have been raised around the island, and there is a heavy security presence with five naval vessels anchored off Crystal Bay.

Sail Rock between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, widely regarded as the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand, has been closed to all other boats, with local diving companies told to stay away during her trip.

Sirivannavari has been sharing images from the holiday on her private Instagram account.

Because international tourism is still shut down due to the pandemic, and fewer domestic visitors have been holidaying in the area in recent weeks following the latest outbreak of the virus, Sirivannavari’s latest trip has caused less disruption than previous holidays.

A trip to Phuket and surrounding islands with a large entourage of high-society friends at New Year in 2020 caused chaos with fishing boats, ferries and tourist cruises banned from large swathes of the sea. Thousands of people complained on social media using the hashtag #ปิดเกาะ — #IslandShutdown.

Sirivannavari’s latest holiday shows she hasn’t learned and doesn’t care about inconveniencing others. She is still ordering large areas of the sea to be closed just so she can enjoy herself without having any unwanted commoners nearby. For dive companies that are barely hanging on during the pandemic, being barred from Sail Rock for days is another bitter blow.

Sirivannavari may feel she deserves a holiday after the hard work of writing her latest book, The Princess’ Dog Diary 2, about her beloved Yorkshire terrier Perfume. It was launched at the Mandarin Oriental on April 17.

More details about Perfume, for anybody who is interested, can be found in my article last month on Thai royal dogs.

More protests promised

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand hosted an interesting panel discussion last Thursday with veteran Red Shirt leaders Jatuporn Prompan and Nattawut Saikua as well as student activist Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon.

Jatuporn recently reentered the political fray with a new protest group that seeks to unite formerly opposed Red and Yellow factions to work together to bring down the government. He has urged the student democracy movement to abandon its demands for reform of the monarchy and focus solely on toppling Prayut.

“Prayut is the main problem,” he insisted during the discussion, adding that Thailand could decisively move forward once the “dictator” was gone.

Jatuporn’s views have been widely rejected by the new generation of activists, who believe — correctly — that Prayut is just a puppet and real change will never happen unless the royals are forced to stop meddling in politics.

In her comments, Mind said she welcomed Jatuporn’s initiative and that the protest movement can accommodate diverse views, but she made clear that student activists will not change their minds about reform of the monarchy. Nattawut said the Red Shirts are fully behind the students.

All agreed that once the latest coronavirus outbreak is contained, mass protests will resume.

Police joyride backfires

Finally, there was more embarrassment for the Thai police last week after an excruciating video was shared on TikTok by the wife of an Udon Thani officer, showing a joyride in a police Bell 429 helicopter.

Her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Akkarapol Yeekoh, was demoted and transferred to an inactive post after the video — which was filmed in September 2019 — was widely shared on social media. Udon Thani police commander Major General Pitsanu Unhaseri said in a statement he had set up a committee to investigate the incident.

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