By Michael James
Public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul must be wondering whether he has fallen under a bad astrological sign. Lacking any medical degree or public health administration experience, he has found himself at the center of the worst health crisis Thailand has seen in modern times.
Compounding matters, he has been maneuvered to the periphery of the circle of Thailand’s powerful elite where, as little as a year ago, he was considered to be on the fast track to be the country’s next prime minister.
When an announcement was published recently in the Royal Gazette granting permission for the Chulabhorn Royal Academy to distribute Covid-19 vaccines and related equipment, Anutin was forced to admit he knew nothing about it. Then, icing the cake, a Chulalongkorn professor observed publicly that the CRA’s move appeared to be a royal snub of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and, specifically, the inexpertise being demonstrated by the Ministry of Public Health.
One of Anutin’s worst gaffes occurred when photos of an overcrowded, non-socially distanced Bang Sue Grand Station vaccination center went viral with netizens in unison pointing out the potential for the government’s attempt to stop the coronavirus epidemic becoming a virus superspreader itself.
Anutin laughably downplayed the photos, claiming the Bang Sue station only appeared crowded due to bad camera angles.
Against a backdrop of growing public demonstrations, widespread criticism of the government, televised incidents of Covid-19 dead languishing in the streets, photos of overwhelmed hospitals and overcrowded vaccination centers, the regime appears to be floundering helplessly.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha intensified his government’s already draconian censorship regime by prohibiting “reporting news or disseminating information that may frighten people, or intentionally distorting information to cause a misunderstanding about the emergency situation, which may eventually affect state security, order or good morality of the people”. Although the courts quickly quashed this measure, it is clear that the government assumes its only course of action is to control the narrative because it is incapable of controlling the pandemic.
Prayut, realizing that he has been cornered by his own failures, and hamstrung by a high-profile monarchy, has been avoiding public appearances and encounters with a seemingly united press. Trying to shift the responsibility, he is claiming that other countries are having the same problems, although one would be hard pressed to find Covid-19 dead on the streets of Stockholm.
The elephant in the pressroom is the enormous devastation the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis is wreaking upon the Thai people. The economy is in it’s worst shape since the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, mortality rates from many causes are climbing (often due to lack of accessible health care), spousal abuse, child abuse, suicide and anxiety are skyrocketing, and people are definitely not happy.
Not long ago, Prayut’s mantra was “I will return happiness to the Thai people”. Just how far from the truth the prime minister’s predictions have consistently fallen is a measure of his government’s failure. The constant flip-flop in announcements meant to console the public about vaccine availability and new hospital care measures has accomplished nothing, except to undermine the administration’s credibility which is now at an all-time low.
The truly sad part is if, as demonstrators are calling for, reformation and reorganization of the power structures in Thailand were undertaken these failures could in large measure be avoided. This is most evidently true regarding management of the Covid-19 crisis. If a country like Sweden can succeed while retaining the majority of individual rights and freedoms and protecting their economy, Thailand can do the same.
Support for the government is extremely low and disintegrating on a daily basis. Rumors of a coup are appearing with increasing regularity despite aggressive censorship. This alone, if history is a predictor of the future, strongly suggests that a replacement for the current leadership is imminent.
The timing, which coincides with renewed energy of daily protests and the possibility of the third coronavirus wave reaching its natural maximum, coupled with the arrival of significant numbers of vaccine doses, could be auspicious in the view of those with a regime change in mind.
The timing also indicates that such change could be viewed more positively than if current events were not so perilous in so many ways. Replacing the current overwhelming sense of malaise and hopelessness with a breath of air, even stale air, could be met with enthusiasm not otherwise achievable.