Thailand begins mass vaccinations — at last — but policy remains chaotic

Also in this edition: Thais get bolder talking about who killed Rama 8, and the digital economy ministry spreads fake news about shutting down Facebook pages (including mine)

Welcome to the latest Secret Siam news roundup. Many apologies that this edition is later than usual — I was writing an article about Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was kidnapped and probably murdered a year ago, and it made me a bit unwell and I needed a few days to get better. I paused billing on my Substack so everybody who has paid to subscribe will not be charged for this week. Hopefully I’ll publish the article on Wanchalearm tomorrow.

Vaccination drive finally gets going

After months of delays, Thailand finally launched its mass vaccination programme on Monday, having finally received AstraZeneca doses from King Vajiralongkorn’s company Siam Bioscience.

The royal company held an awkward fake news conference last week with no journalists invited, to announce that 1.8 million doses had been produced and delivered to the Thai government.

The palace had originally been hoping to use the fact that a royal firm produced the vaccine for propaganda to boost the monarchy, but the debacle has been such an embarrassment that this plan imploded months ago. However, the royals did their best to get some positive publicity. Vajiralongkorn’s close ally Satitpong Sukvimol posed for photographs with AstraZeneca’s Thai president James Teague at the ceremony to announce the successful production of the first batch of vaccines.

Banking heiress Nualphan “Madam Pang” Lamsam, a friend of the king’s daughter Princess Sirivannavari, gave a speech at the event at which she said Thailand should be proud that it was chosen by AstraZeneca to produce the vaccine. Nualphan is “honorary director of corporate communications” at Siam Bioscience, but she has no apparent qualifications for the role apart from her friendship with the royals, and the company has been consistently terrible at releasing useful information.

As BBC correspondent Jonathan Head remarked: “You really have to hope this company is a lot better at making vaccines than it is at communication.”

It remains unknown whether Siam Bioscience is able to produce the doses promised. Public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul has not said whether all the vaccines Thailand is using were produced locally or imported, and according to Reuters, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines have been told to expect delays in delivery of doses made by Siam Bioscience.

News site Thai Enquirer has been reporting for weeks that production is well behind schedule, and editor-in-chief Cod Satrusayang wrote last week that the company has “become an international embarrassment”.

Besides the palace, the government is also trying to claim credit for the belated beginning of mass vaccinations. A ceremony was held on Monday at at Bang Sue Grand Station, which Erich Parpart of Thai Enquirer described as an “unnecessary and large gathering” that “has the potential to be a super spreader event”.

The Financial Times has published a detailed story on the vaccine controversy, noting that Siam Bioscience had no previous experience in making vaccines, that production seems to be behind schedule, and that it’s illegal to talk about this openly because the company is owned by the king:

There are indications that the Thai vaccine operation is not going smoothly. Since last week, authorities in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia have said that shipments of millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine made by Siam Bioscience had been delayed or reduced in size.

According to a Thai local doctors’ association, some vaccine doses were imported from South Korea to meet the June 7 deadline for Thailand’s national rollout. And many of those already vaccinated in the country received the Chinese-made Sinovac, which the government began importing earlier this year.

The FT quoted several experts questioning whether AstraZeneca had done enough due diligence before partnering with Siam Bioscience. Several people directly involved in the partnership have told me that in fact, AstraZeneca was extremely naive and didn’t realise what they were getting into. They are now trying to manage the debacle as best they can.

The New York Times has also published a story on Thailand’s unfolding coronavirus disaster, noting that inequality and impunity are at the heart of the problem:

For all the mask-wearing rigor and lockdown obedience displayed by many Thais, the abandon of a privileged few catalyzed Bangkok’s latest coronavirus outbreak, health officials said. The nightclub cluster also highlights the impunity of the rich in a country with one of the largest wealth gaps among major economies.

Although hundreds of thousands of Thais are now being vaccinated each day, the inoculation drive remains chaotic. There are multiple reports that the system for foreigners to sign up for vaccinations in broken, with the website not working and walk-in inoculations disallowed after yet another U-turn.

Meanwhile, to try to jump the queue, some Thais even pretended they were motorbike taxi drivers, as Coconuts reports.

The government is still scrambling to buy more vaccine doses. Prayut and Anutin say 25 million doses from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson will be arranged soon. There continue to be rumours that Prayut and Anutin are at war, with Prayut planning to lay the blame on Anutin for all the problems with the vaccination programme.

Prayut even gave a partial apology for the mess, one of the few times he has ever said sorry for anything. He told reporters:

I am sorry for those things that have upset everyone, we will do our best for all Thai people and there are a lot of people so there will be problems but we cannot deny our responsibility.

Anniversary of a killing

June 9 was the 75th anniversary of the death of King Ananda Mahidol, which is officially described as a mystery, although anyone who has studied the case in detail knows that Ananda was killed by his brother Bhumibol, probably accidentally.

To mark the occasion, the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration courageously published an image on social media in the style of Vajiralongkorn’s bizarre cartoons, making clear what really happened. Note the three goats — a reference to three innocent scapegoats executed in 1955 for conspiracy to murder Ananda.

Anonymous Thai cartoonist ไข่แมว also referenced the killing and the execution of the scapegoats, in an image showing how the bullet fired by Bhumibol led to three more deaths besides his brother.

Fake news

On June 2, digital economy and society minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn summoned representatives of Thai internet service providers to demand they block eight Facebook pages within 24 hours. One of them was mine, and the others are:

However, more than a week later, all of our pages are still accessible in Thailand. It’s not actually possible for Thai ISPs to block individual Facebook pages, because the platform uses https and so ISPs either have to block all of Facebook or none of it. The only way the Thai regime can actually get the pages blocked is by forcing Facebook itself to geoblock us, but so far they have refused to do so, although they do sometimes geoblock individual posts after getting a court order from the Thai authorities.

It’s not clear if Thailand’s digital economy minister just doesn’t know how the internet works, or if he realised ISPs couldn’t block our pages but demanded they do it anyway as a piece of political theatre.

Either way, the announcement that the pages would be blocked was clearly fake news — which the regime claims to be cracking down on.

Further reading

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

  • Thai royalists have often been mocked as minions — from the cartoon movies Despicable Me — and some now seem to be embracing it. The Nation reports that a group of people dressed as minions led by ultraroyalist former MP Nangnoi Assawakittikorn visited the Technology Crime Suppression Division on Thursday to demand action against people violating the lèse majesté law.