A protester shouts at police at Democracy Monument during a demonstration demanding Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha be held accountable for the government's perceived failure to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, Bangkok, August 7, 2021. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

BANGKOK – When Thai Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul met with Pfizer company representatives in Bangkok in late 2020, the businessman-cum-politician declined to place a Covid-19 vaccine order because in his words the shot was not yet proven effective on “yellow-skinned people”, according to government sources familiar with the meeting.

In January, US vaccine-maker Moderna proposed to build a Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing facility in the government’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) industrial zone, created to lure high-end foreign manufacturers, but Anutin’s office did not deign the shot-making proposal worthy of a written reply, according to the same government sources.

Before that, in September, the minister committed to buying just three million doses per month from AstraZeneca, a revelation only recently made public in leaked documents that has raised vital questions about government claims it has enough vaccines to inoculate 70% of the Thai population by the end of 2021. The amount has since been upped to five-six million per month.

Instead, Anutin’s ministry placed a belated vaccine order with China’s Sinovac, paying on the high end of the private vaccine maker’s sales price range, according to the same sources. It has been lost on few local observers that Sinovac is 15% owned by the Charoen Pokphand Group, among Thailand’s richest and most politically influential “five family” business groups.  

Fast forward to the present, Thailand now faces an acute, if not tragic, shortage of effective Covid-19 vaccines, an early failure to diversify supplies that is costing the kingdom dearly in livelihoods and lives. Since April, Thailand has morphed from a global Covid-19 containment success story to a world-class basket case exemplifying the risks of laxity, myopia and possible corruption.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (R) with Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (L) while arriving at Thai Government House for a weekly cabinet meeting on March 16, 2021, in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Vachira Vachira

The kingdom has in recent days notched record-breaking daily infections and deaths, which hit new highs of 21,379 and 191 respectively on August 6. The fast-spreading contagion is deflating hopes for an economic rebound and raising harder questions about the nation’s underlying financial health as local banks absorb massive losses and investors start to dump wholesale the baht.   

The shift from success to failure has rocked Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government as public discontent with the perceived fumbling of the health crisis reaches a breaking point. A July 7-8 public opinion poll conducted by local paper Thai Rath found that less than 2% of over 100,000 respondents had “confidence” in the government to manage the crisis.

A new eruption of street protests, most recently staged on August 7 in Bangkok, is giving rally cry voice to those Covid-related grievances.

That, in turn, is tearing at the ruling coalition’s cohesion, a widening schism that has put former top soldier Prayut and construction tycoon-cum-politician Anutin at unspoken but increasingly bitter loggerheads as their respective camps point to the other as chiefly to blame for the health catastrophe.   

Politicized accusations are flying fast and furious. One well-placed source close to Prayut claims Anutin’s camp has withheld crucial health-related information from the premier, firstly to cover his ministry’s missteps and motivations in earlier vaccine procurement policies, and subsequently to score political points at the premier’s expense as the crisis has deepened.

Source: Reuters Covid Tracker / Screengrab / August 10, 2021

Anutin, whose Bhumjaithai party holds significant clout as the second-ranking party in Prayut’s umbrella coalition, clearly sees himself as a future prime minister – an ambition his proponents appear to be pushing by pillorying Prayut as chiefly responsible for the country’s dire viral straits and with claims that more business-minded leadership would better manage the crisis.  

Tom Kruesopon, a private businessman and advisor to Anutin, told a recent Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) webinar entitled “Thailand’s vaccine strategy: What went wrong?” that Prayut had long ago taken all of Anutin’s power to manage the pandemic and that the premier has surrounded himself with bureaucrats and medical experts he pungently described as “idiots.”

Kruesopon suggested the “private sector” should be more involved in managing the crisis, a dig at Prayut’s military background, and said at least one Thai tycoon who heads a conglomerate with 360,000 employees would order vaccines “tomorrow” if the bureaucracy allowed. The corporate reference, while not explicitly named, likely referred to the CP Group, analysts say.

Kruesopon said he has taken to donating the government “body bags” to deal with the crisis.     

Hospital workers carry a coffin with the body of a woman who died from the Covid-19 coronavirus in the southern province of Narathiwat, July 11, 2021. Photo: AFP / Madaree Tohlala

To be sure, Prayut took command control of the pandemic last year with the emergency formation of the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), a multi-agency body he created and still chairs that earlier was widely credited including last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) for successfully keeping Covid-19 at bay.

He also leads the CCSA’s vaccine procurement committee, which was formed in April and notably excludes Anutin.

Prayut was clearly in command control in a June 16 address, made when cases had just started their upward spike, that said the nation would be “fully opened” in 120 days. That optimistic forecast now looks quixotic, if not deluded, as hospitals overflow with Covid patients, authorities race to set up makeshift field hospitals to handle the infectious surge and ambulance sirens retrieving those succumbing to the disease ring out across the capital.

The premier’s proponents argue that Prayut has inherited a crisis that Anutin’s business-first mindset largely created, not least through his earlier alienation of Western pharmaceutical companies – and perhaps the US government – that with their superior mRNA vaccines now hold the difference between life and death through shot shipments to preferred nations grappling with the Delta variant.

They claim Anutin preferred dealing with a Chinese company with a checkered background to guard against potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations that would arise from any foul play in dealings with US companies. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a prominent Thai commentator, has suggested there could have been “criminal negligence” in earlier vaccine procurement decisions, though no smoking gun has emerged yet.

Other Prayut advocates note that the aligned Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not Anutin’s Ministry of Public Health, played the lead role in brokering the recent emergency shipment of Pfizer vaccines from the US that are now being administered to frontline health workers amid indications of “breakthrough” Delta infections among those inoculated with Sinovac’s shot.  

Recent opinion polls have shown Thais are highly hesitant to take the Chinese-made, CP Group-invested vaccine, which until now has been the main one available to ordinary Thais. The CP Group had earlier put itself front and center in promoting Sinovac shots for slum communities in Bangkok but has gone mostly mute as questions about the jab’s efficacy against the Delta strain spread far and wide.

Thailand’s Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (C) with a batch of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine at Suvarnabhumi airport in Samut Prakan province, Thailand, on Feb 24, 2021. Photo: AFP via Bangkok Post / Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

The wider government’s proponents say much of the criticism benefits from 20-20 hindsight as the kingdom seemed well-covered earlier this year with its AstraZeneca production agreement with the royally owned Siam Bioscience diversified with China’s Sinovac – both of which have only recently proved inferior to Moderna and Pfizer’s mRNA shots. Nor are Siam Bioscience’s stumbles in hitting vaccine production and export targets readily blamed on the government.

With the blame game spreading like a virus, Thailand is clearly a victim of its earlier Covid-containing success and the laxity it engendered across various agencies, ministries and offices. It has also suffered from bureaucratic rules and regulations that have stymied decision-making including in vaccine procurement, bringing out the worst in the bureaucracy’s pass-the-baht ethos. 

Covid-19’s politicization, however, is not likely to lead to political change any time soon. Prayut has insisted throughout the health crisis that he will serve his full four-year term, meaning through 2023, and not yield to rising calls for his resignation. Neither his Palang Pracharat nor Anutin’s Bhumjaithai likely wants snap polls amid twin health and economic crises that would inevitably cede major electoral ground to the opposition Peua Thai and Move Forward parties.  

Some have speculated Prayut could consider a “self-coup” that ousted his coalition partners – namely Anutin and his Bhumjaithai and possibly on vaccine-related corruption grounds – and retake the absolute powers he wielded as a coup-maker premier to more decisively steer the government’s Covid-19 response. Prayut’s limited power as a democratic leader was laid bare by a recent court decision nullifying his gag order on Covid-related “false” or “panic-causing” news.   

One top-level government source plays down any coup scenario, noting a democratic reversal would likely lead to US and EU sanctions and thus further limit the kingdom’s access to the Western-made mRNA vaccines the government is now belatedly and desperately seeking to secure. That means Prayut and Anutin will have to live with each other politically, even as a growing number of Thais die amid all the back-biting and finger-pointing.