Thais Increasingly Turn Against Prime Minister

Continuing protest, Covid mismanagement, other issues weigh on government

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, with protesters besieging his residence, with Covid-19 cases seemingly out of control amid widespread charges of corruption and favoritism, and with the economy shrinking, is losing the confidence of his inner circle and under growing pressure to resign as members of the cabinet blame each other for the crisis, informed sources in Bangkok say.

Where previously the unrest was centered in the so-called Isaan area in the country’s rural northeast, with its poverty-stricken citizens allied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the disillusion is more and more spreading to the middle classes and the students in Bangkok, partly because of outrage and a belief that high-ranking members of the junta have been enriching themselves through the distribution of vaccines from China, which are widely held to be ineffective.

“The people and even doctors are now up in arms in a belief that their lives are being put at risk with low-quality Chinese vaccines instead of mRNA ones, and criticizing the government for wanting to enact decrees to protect themselves from legal charge,” a source said.

 Prayuth “is too much a liability for the regime,” another source said. ”I don’t know who will replace him but that person must answer to the palace,” and to a parade of squabbling factions including that headed by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwong, the source said. King Vajiralongkorn, who is enormously powerful despite growing disenchantment with him, will have the final okay if Prayuth is to be replaced.

“I have also heard the rumors and it is possible that the palace may see him as a liability,” said another source, given the growing unrest on the streets of Bangkok, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas in an effort to block protesters from moving closer to Prayuth’s residence. “Still, I think Prayuth will hang on. He remains powerful. But his possible replacement would come from the palace inner circle or the privy councilor.” 

There is also speculation that the 67-year-old Prayuth, in an attempt to stay in power, could dissolve the parliament before the end of the year and call another general election, two years after the most recent one, which was hugely controversial.

Prayuth, the former chief of Thailand’s armed forces, came to power in a 2014 coup d’etat, the 12th successful one since the army overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932. There have been at least another half dozen unsuccessful ones, both the successful and unsuccessful ones an indication of the military’s view of its right to run the country.

Since the 2014 coup, Prayuth has engineered a long series of maneuvers to stay in power including rewriting the Constitution to protect the military and limit the franchise, banning political gatherings, and arresting and detaining politicians aligned with the democratically elected government previously headed by Yingluck Shinawatra. She and other politicians aligned with her brother, Thaksin, fled the country after the coup. Military forces have been accused of engineering the disappearance and probably deaths of opposition figures who escaped to Laos and Cambodia.

The opposition Pheu Thai Party aligned with the Thaksins won 136 parliamentary seats, the most in the 2019 general election, despite the junta’s attempts to rig the vote. The second-biggest success was enjoyed by the Future Forward Party with 90, which would have given the opposition a parliamentary majority, only to have the military change the rules to keep its surrogate Palang Pracharat Party and Prayuth in power as they have continued to herd an unruly bunch of splinter parties to keep them in line.

Courts later disbanded the Future Forward Party, which was especially popular with Thailand’s youth, and ordered its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, arrested.

Despite these moves, the government has been under growing pressure for weeks over its handling of the coronavirus, not least because it put its bets on the AstroZenica vaccine licensed to Siam Bioscience, which is backed by Vajiralongkorn and who many believe is profiting from the vaccine production. As Asia Sentinel reported in July, it is believed that Vajiralongkorn and his cronies expected they would be able to generate big profits selling AstraZeneca throughout the region.

Siam Bioscience had never produced a vaccine before and botched the job. The shots have been late and have provided far fewer doses than expected. Cases have zoomed upward, by 146,000 cases in the last week, an 11-percent rise. Total cases now number 863,000, with 6,600 deaths.

The government has responded to the health crisis with lockdowns over the past month, which along with previous restrictions has exacerbated economic problems even as the coalition’s component parties Bhumjaithai and its two allies, the Democrats and the Chat Thai Phatthana, squabble with Palang Pracharat over political issues.

Meanwhile, hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients suffering from the virus with desperate authorities resorting to sending some of those stricken back to their hometowns by train as they attempted to alleviate the burden on Bangkok’s overwhelmed medical facilities. Financial aid in the form of one-time payments has been paltry, averaging about Bt2,500 (US$75).

Disillusion with the junta has been growing on several fronts, not least over the economy, which has long been mismanaged since the coup. With 20 percent of the economy driven by tourism, with almost 40 million foreign tourists visiting Thailand in 2019, the industry has imploded and taken millions of jobs with it. After 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 revised its relatively benign 2021 forecast downward in March from 3.4 percent to 2.2 percent, reflecting the impact of the Covid third wave. Although official unemployment remained at 2 percent in the first quarter, it is actually far higher as the unofficial economy has been hit hard, especially in the services sector.

Prayuth and other top officials have shot themselves in the foot by appearing not to obey the rules to wear masks at all times during the opening of the July 1 Phuket “sandbox” scheme to bring back foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, as protests have become a daily affair, the army again barricaded roads on August 13 at the Victory Monument in Bangkok with freight containers to stop the Tha Lu Fah movement in a protest against falling fruit prices, which are hurting farmers. News reports said participants walked along the same route they had taken on Wednesday on their way to Prayut’s residence. As police fired rubber bullets, the protesters countered by throwing firecrackers at police. A hard-core group of stragglers stayed behind to engage in running skirmishes with police, according to news reports, attempting to set fires until heavy rain snuffed them out and caused both sides to seek shelter.

Authorities have warned that any form of protest breaches emergency regulations and said that they were pressing charges in 300 cases against people involved in recent demonstrations, according to local reports.

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