Covid Widens Thai Class Divisions

Pandemic produces deep contrast between wealthy and poor

Thailand’s class divisions have dramatically widened during the Covid-19 pandemic. With students returning to the streets, even with tight crowd restrictions in place after a three-month hiatus during the pandemic, public support is faltering for the regime of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and anger is rising over perceived incompetence in handling dramatically increasing case numbers, which have risen by 38 percent over the past week.

Thailand last year was near the top of the list of countries handling the pandemic well. It now finds itself third last, ranked 118th of 120 in the Nikkei Asia Covid-19 recovery index. Prayuth publicly took over personal control of managing the country’s response in April only to have Thailand hit with more contagious variants of the virus, with slow and haphazard rollout of the vaccine program.

The government has been betting big on the royally-owned Siam Bioscience's production of AstraZeneca, which is both late and providing far fewer doses than expected. Given the royal backing, the regime had little choice in supporting AstraZeneca as the primary vaccine when it was being pushed on them from above with demands they couldn’t refuse. The AZ option explains why Thailand was the only country to refuse to join the World Health Organization's COVAX scheme, and also why Prayuth and his government passed up options in 2020 to buy mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna that Thais are now clamoring for.

Well-informed sources in Bangkok say King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his cronies at Siam Bioscience expected they would be able to generate big profits selling AstraZenica throughout the region while also getting the government to give out AZ as a yellow ribbon-wrapped royal gift to the Thai people. The government and its taxpayers paid for most of the upgrades at Siam Bioscience, which had never produced a vaccine before.

“So between the King's greed and the Prime Minister's incompetence, Thailand's response to Covid-19 is failing on all fronts and the rapid uptick of Covid cases and deaths are proof of that,” said a longtime observe with a Thai NGO who asked to remain nameless. “Meanwhile, Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul has allegedly been seeking bribes from SinoPharm, which sidestepped him to go to another royal institute to distribute the vaccines.”

US pharmaceutical companies are said to have walked away from Thailand rather than contravene the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

“All this shows how very little ordinary Thai people's lives mean to those leading this quasi-military, quasi-royalist government," the source said. 

Only 4.5 percent of the population has been vaccinated amid criticism that well-connected elites, who are seen responsible for the outbreak by frequenting entertainment complexes and brothels, used connections to get vaccinated before the needy, vulnerable, and frontline medical workers.

With the prime minister and his entourage observed not obeying rules to wear masks at all times during the opening of the July 1 Phuket “sandbox” scheme to bring back foreign tourists, the pandemic has become the symbol of a great class divide.

Restrictions in place over the past 18 months have gravely weakened the economy. Thailand’s GDP contracted by 6.1 percent in 2020 with per capita GDP declining by US$ 600 from 2019 to 2020, according to World Bank data. The Bank of Thailand forecasts that 2021 GDP growth will be downgraded to 1.8 percent, an estimate made before reintroduced restrictions in response to the dramatic rise in Covid cases, now around the 10,000 per day level.

Thailand’s official unemployment rose to 1.96 percent, or 760,000, in the first quarter of 2021 although that figure is misleading. A further two million people are unemployed in the informal sector. Poverty is on the rise, up from 7.2 percent in 2016 to 8.8 percent in 2020. While aggregate household consumption grew, household consumption by the bottom 40 percent has shrunk.

At the same time, 38 of 50 of Thailand’s most wealthy families have increased their net worth. According to Forbes 50 Richest list, the Chearavanont brothers, of the Charoen Pokphand Group (CP), increased their wealth by US$2.8 billion, to US$30.2 billion over the past 15 months. Chareon Sirivadhanabhakdi of the Thai Beverage Group increased his wealth from US$10.5 to US$12.7 billion. The Chirathivat family, controlling the Central Group, increased their wealth from US$11.6 billion, from US$9.5 billion. Sarath Ratanavadi, of Gulf Energy Group and Advanced Info Services (AIS), increased his wealth to US$8.9 billion. Thailand’s healthcare tycoons all increased their wealth substantially. The Sincharoenkul family, behind the Sri Trang group, which manufactures rubber gloves, made the list for the first time. Bancha Ongkosit, whose KCE Electronics manufacturers printed circuit boards for the automotive sector, came onto the list, with the upswing in demand for electric vehicles. Thailand’s Stock Exchange Index rose 43 percent over the past year, helping to increase the wealth of most of Thailand’s elite families.

Over the past 18 months, economic activity has slumped dramatically, particularly in the SME, service and tourism sectors. Government-directed restrictions during the third wave of Covid outbreaks, since April, are starting to economically and socially devastate susceptible communities. In the fourth quarter of last year, there was some optimism the worst was over, and the domestic economy slowly began to normalize. The government tried to kickstart tourism, promoting domestic travel in the absence of foreign tourists. However, the outbreak from Thai workers returning from Myanmar in Mae Sot destroyed the local tourism initiative, and the Thor Lor entertainment complex outbreak over the April Songkran holidays led to restrictions that are gradually getting tougher, due to the linear growth in the number of daily cases.

In Bangkok, restaurants, micro-businesses, and tourist-based enterprises have suffered from periodic restrictions, depressed consumer spending, and the absence of both foreign and local tourism. With a new set of curbs starting with the dramatic rise in cases, and little relief from the government in the form of debt moratoriums and a co-payment scheme (Khon La Khrueng), that subsidized food to the value of Bt3,000 (US$91.84) during the last round, food stalls and vendors are suffering.

There are clearly visible signs of economic malaise all over the country. Empty factories and warehouses, closed shops, houses and land for sale dot the cityscape. More food banks are being opened by charities, trying to assist those who are struggling to feed themselves. Sex industry workers, estimated around 500,000, who as a group contributed US$6.4 billion, or 3.0 percent of GDP pre-pandemic, were not eligible for government assistance, as their vocation is deemed illegal. During the first outbreak, most used savings. During the second outbreak, many borrowed from friends or moneylenders, and this current outbreak is making many destitute. Workers in Bangkok and the main provincial city areas and tourism precincts have returned to their home provinces, looking for some economic activity to undertake to produce an income.

The same is occurring in many provincial cities, especially those that relied on tourism to survive. Some, like Hat Yai, which relied on Malaysian tourists, are virtually ghost towns in the city centers. It is only rising rubber prices that have kept the smaller towns buoyant.

The Prayuth government has attempted to balance economic considerations and public health in making decisions about restrictions. Large manufacturing concerns have not been under any restrictions during the pandemic, even though small and service businesses have been restricted, with many ordered to close last year for months on end. Many provincial hotels were forced to shut for months, with many never reopening.

Twenty percent of the economy was driven by tourism, with almost 40 million foreign tourists visiting Thailand in 2019. This has almost completely disappeared when international borders were closed in March last year. Later in 2020, the government promoted local tourism with travel and accommodation subsidies. However, outbreaks at the beginning of the year and during the April Songkran break sabotaged this initiative. The government has now started what is called the ‘sandbox’ scheme, opening up Phuket and later Koh Samoi, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai to international tourism under stringent requirements. Tourists have begun to trickle in by the hundreds daily, far short of the 109,000 daily international tourist arrivals before the pandemic.

The escalating pandemic has focused attention on the double standards applicable to the elite in society and the others. This has been evident in the vaccine rollout. The elite and privileged have been able to secure vaccinations well before many of the vulnerable. While people have been suffering, the grounds and infrastructure of the grand palace complex in central Bangkok have been enlarged, to become a city within a city.

Politicians have been perceived on social media as above the law. The regime now has critics from a much wider spectrum than before the pandemic, with discontent growing. There is speculation that the coalition government Prayuth had cobbled together is becoming much more difficult for him to control. There is growing disunity and distrust among the coalition partners. The major party, Phalang Pracharat (PPP) is currently in disagreement with Bhumjaithai (BJT), Democrats, and Chat Thai Phatthana parties over a number of issues.

At the same time, renewed student protests which began again on 24 June marking the 1932 anniversary of the end of absolute monarchy are still calling for Prayuth’s resignation minister. Protest numbers are still reaching into the thousands, even though there are strict restrictions on meetings. More than 60 students have been arrested during prior demonstrations under the notorious lese majeste section of the criminal code, which prescribes jail terms of up to 15 years on each offense. In a recent protest, a prominent former Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, who has been ordered to serve a prison sentence in two 2009 defamation cases against former prime minister Abbisit Vejjajiva, made an appearance.

The students are unhappy with the very limited proposed constitutional amendments and their earlier demands for the abolition of the 250-member military-appointed senate, and reforms to the monarchy to make it more accountable. This is after Vajiralongkorn took direct control of over US$30 billion worth of assets from the State Property Bureau, and placed two army units in the Bangkok region under his direct control.

In what was called a car mob, students in central Bangkok called on both the Democrats and Bhumjaithai parties to abandon the government and join the opposition to topple Prayuth. Hypothetically such a defection would give the opposition 321 votes – well above the 276 needed to topple Prayuth. He has senate firmly behind him, however.

Thailand is now in a much deeper era of class division, with the poor becoming poorer over the duration of the pandemic. The political parties that support the regime are under more pressure to abandon it. However, that would leave the political situation more unstable, given an election is unlikely with the current pandemic situation.

Currently, overt support for the student movement hasn’t expanded beyond the students themselves. The former red shirts are hesitant because of the army’s destruction of the movement after the 2014 coup, but economic desperation is bringing back political narratives among those who abandoned such talk for years after the coup.

This time there is much more awareness and open talk about how the poor and middle class don’t have a say. However, politically, there is little voice to espouse displeasure and economic hardship. This awareness and of the divide between the people and the elites will long outlast the pandemic and will play a role for years to come.

The author is a Southeast Asia-based development specialist and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel

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