Thai Opposition Targets Govt’s Handling of COVID-19 Crisis

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2021-02-19
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Thai Opposition Targets Govt’s Handling of COVID-19 Crisis Pro-democracy protesters display portraits of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha (bottom right) and his ministers during an anti-government demonstration outside the parliament, while MPs debate an upcoming no-confidence vote, in Bangkok, Feb. 19, 2021.
[AFP]

Thailand’s parliament on Friday wrapped up four days of debate on a no-confidence motion pushed by the opposition over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its vaccine strategy, and the economic fallout from the year-old health crisis.

However, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his nine cabinet members this weekend are expected to survive the second no-confidence vote brought against them since last February.

The government’s pandemic response was flawed, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in revenue last year from the country’s lucrative tourism industry, Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, an MP with the opposition’s Move Forward Party, said in parliament during debating this week.

“From tourism alone, which employed 8 million people in 2020, we lost 1.5 trillion baht (U.S. $50 billion) last year,” Wiroj said.

The government’s response to COVID-19 had caused “damage to the country,” Prasert Jantararuangthong, secretary of Thailand’s largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, said in early January, when the party was planning to introduce the latest no-confidence motion, Bloomberg reported at the time.

Prayuth had been slow in signing vaccine deals, which will delay the country in reopening its borders and prevent a recovery in the tourism industry, according to Wiroj.

“Prayuth and [Health Minister] Anutin [Charnvirakul] know well that every month the vaccine rollout is delayed, it costs people 250 billion baht (U.S. $8.3 billion). Every day Prayuth Chan-o-cha wastes his breath, the nation loses 8.3 million baht (U.S. $276 million) - daily,” the opposition lawmaker said during the debate.

Thailand is among five Southeast Asian countries that have yet to begin COVID-19 vaccinations. The others are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Prayuth, for his part, defended the government’s vaccine policy on the parliamentary floor.

“The government has never been slow, but vaccine delivery cannot be done at once. There are negotiations and signings of contrast. We have to be careful,” the prime minister told MPs.

“I’m concerned that too much talk on vaccine could affect the willingness of the providers to send us vaccines.”

Wiroj and others also criticized the government for relying heavily on coronavirus vaccines from one developer, in this case, Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.

“Why is the government risking the lives of all Thais while waiting for the AstraZeneca vaccine?” Wiroj said in parliament, according to the Reuters news agency.

Thailand signed a contract in November with AstraZeneca to acquire 26 million doses of the vaccine for 13.5 million people.

Prayuth later said he planned to order an additional 35 million doses from AstraZeneca, but didn’t give details about their expected delivery dates or whether they would be produced locally.

In November, Thailand also signed a technology transfer agreement with AstraZeneca to enable local drug maker Siam Biosciences to produce the vaccine.

The government said this week that the local company would produce the first batch of 26 million AstraZeneca doses.

Thailand also has a deal to buy vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech, but that order is for just 2 million doses.

The first lot of AstraZeneca vaccines was expected be ready in June.

In late January, Anutin, the health minister, said 50,000 emergency doses from the first AstraZeneca order would arrive by mid-February, but European Union restrictions on the export of COVID-19 vaccines delayed their arrival.

On Thursday, Anutin said that the first batch of the Sinovac vaccines order was expected this month and the first COVID-19 inoculation would happen immediately after.

“I can confirm herein that the first lot of 200,000 [Sinovac] doses will arrive in February and we will administer the first dose as soon as possible,” Anutin said at a press conference.

Deliveries of another two batches of Sinovac vaccines will be complete by no later than June, Anutin added.

Also last month, the minister said that with the AstraZeneca and Sinovac deals, the orders were enough to cover about 63 percent of the targeted population of 50 million who will be vaccinated.

Protesters demonstrate outside parliament

As lawmakers were concluding their discussions tied to the no-confidence motion, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters held a mock no-confidence debate outside parliament on Friday.

Protest organizers set up a big screen, on which they played the debate that was underway in the legislature.

They shouted anti-government slogans and banged on pots and pans to show their dissent, just like protesters in neighboring Myanmar, where a military coup toppled Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, on Feb. 1.

Prayuth is a former army chief and ex-head of a junta that seized power after he led a military coup against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. He was again installed as prime minister after a general election in 2019, but critics charged that the polls were skewed in the military’s favor through a new constitution that enabled it to hold onto power. 

Despite these protests and the accusations from the opposition, Prayuth and his ministers will survive the no-confidence vote scheduled for Saturday, Pittikorn Panyamanee, a PhD researcher at Chiang Mai University’s social sciences faculty, said on Friday.

“No matter how strong the evidence of whether the government mishandled the pandemic response, the parliament will vote in favor of the government. The parliament is a just a rubber stamp,” Pittikorn told BenarNews.

He was referring to how Prayuth’s coalition commands a parliamentary majority.

Worst economic performance in 2 decades

In mid-January 2020, Thailand became the first country outside of China to confirm a case of the novel coronavirus virus disease, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Thailand announced restrictions on travel and businesses last March, forcing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to go home.

Although the country had limited the spread of new coronavirus infections and allowed businesses to reopen, migrant laborers who had returned to their countries began coming back in late 2020 via illegal border crossings.

Until mid-December, Thailand had been among countries least affected by the global pandemic but the coronavirus caseload shot up after hundreds of new infections were detected around then, mostly among migrant workers at the country’s largest seafood market-complex in Samut Sakhon, near Bangkok.

The country has now recorded more than 25,000 coronavirus cases and a total of 83 virus-related deaths, although new infections have been on a downward trend this month.

Concurrent with the pandemic, Thailand’s economy contracted by 6.1 percent in 2020 – the worst performance in two decades – according to data released on Monday by the National Economic and Social Development Council.

The pandemic hammered the tourism, manufacturing and export sectors, data showed.

The council lowered its 2021 growth forecast to between 2.5 and 3.5 percent, from the 3.5-4.5 percent it projected last November.

Kunnawut Boonreak contributed to this report from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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