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From Thaksin to Thanathorn – 20 years of political soap opera

Tim Newton

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by Tim Newton

New political parties are being registered at break-neck speed following the easing of the Junta’s ban on political activities. Most of the new parties will falter at the start line, unable to come up with the required minimum membership or capital to fund their campaigns. As new parties, they’re all going to have to fight for media space to get their message out and find a way to appeal to the grassroots voters, the young voters and, heaven forbid, turn some older voters, nailed to a ‘red shirt/yellow shirt’ political system.

None of this will be easy. They will need an adept team, with a thorough knowledge of the fickle social media game, some deep pockets and a charismatic leader with good hair!

But its all been done before, albeit in a different time with different challenges.

A young, virtually unknown telecommunication businessman, in his early 40s, burst onto the political scene in the mid 1990’s. Thaksin Shinawatra fell over a few times before he got up and kept standing for elections and, eventually, winning.

He stood in a general election at his first run as the new leader of the Palang Dharma Party in 1995. It won 23 House seats in the national vote, a long way from winning the election but at least a start, despite the party actually dropping 24 seats from the previous election.

It was start of the end for the Palang Dharma party, winning only one seat in the following general election. Thaksin left it to form his own political party called Thai Rak Thai, – “Thais Love Thais”, in 1998.

Learning from his early mistakes, from an outsider to a political juggernaut, Thaksin won a landslide victory in the 2001 election, winning 248 out of the 500 House seats grabs.

Four years later, Thai Rak Thai won as many as 375 seats in the 500 member Thai lower house, becoming the first political party ever to win an absolute majority.

Thaksin was a canny, modern politician who played the numbers, knowing that if he could get the support of the huge population base outside of Bangkok, he was guaranteed of a win. it didn’t go unnoticed by the Thai military and the cabal of Bangkok elites who were initially shocked by the success of this ‘upstart’. Less than two years later, they stepped in with a coup citing allegations of corruption and power abuses. Thai Rak Thai was later dissolved by a court order for electoral fraud. You’d think that would be the end of Thaksin Shinawatra. Not quite yet.

Thai Rak Thai morphed into a new political party, Pheu Thai, with Thaksin’s younger sister playing the role of puppet for her fugitive brother who was now living in self-imposed political exile to avoid facing a jail term in his home country. She had only been in politics for a month before the new Pheu Thai party won 265 seats in the next election – such was the power of Thaksin’s numbers game.

Really, all Thaksin’s supporters (who would come to be known as the red shirts) had to do was front up on polling day and they were almost assured of a win. Despite his protestations, Thaksin was still pulling the strings of the new Pheu Thai government – his weekly YouTube addresses left little for the imagination. By now, however, the party had become more about staying in power than providing good government. It fell foul of the authorities when the Rice Pledging scheme, basically unsustainable rice subsidies for the north and north-east agricultural communities, fell apart.

The Bangkok elite fought back, fronted by remnants of the opposition Democrats and Thaksin’s political foes. This opposition to everything ‘Pheu Thai’ had tacit backing from the Thai Military and supporters of the Monarchy. King Bhumibol was ailing and there were clear fears of a constitutional vacuum, despite the Thai monarch not having any official role in day-to-day politics since 1932. But the Thai monarch’s emotional power, cultivated during his reign by King Bhumibol’s own hard work and slick palace PR, was such that his eventual passing would provide political opportunists with a time of instability.

This is when the current Junta stepped in during May 2014, on the pretext of stopping the street protests and ending the political bickering between the red and yellow shirts. But it was as much about providing stability during the transition of the Thai monarch, a task that was handled with great dignity and sensitivity by PM General Prayut.

Since 2014, nearly four years ago now, there has been a gag placed on political activity, the Junta hoping that the past divisions may be magically forgotten and new faces would emerge, untainted by the past, to take on the task of a future Thai democracy – a democracy the Junta have already shaped with changes to the constitution.

Stepping up to the plate are plenty of new faces – up to 70 new parties so far – with promises of a new start, fresh policies, a look to the future, good times ahead.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The maths. No matter how much the Junta would like to control the result of the next election they will have to contend with a more politically-savvy population, increasingly better-educated and socially linked with new media. And most of these voters live outside Bangkok. To put it simply, there are still a lot more red shirts than yellow shirts in Thailand. So it appears unlikely that any Bangkok-based party, clinging to the old guard and ‘old ways’ could possibly get the votes required to form a stable government.

The most high-profile contender, at this very early stage, is a 39 year old car-parts billionaire. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, without being able to lay out his full political manifesto at this stage (due to the ongoing gag on political activity) has already stated that he wants progressive government, doesn’t support a military controlled Senate and has straight-out said he won’t support an ‘outside nominated PM’. He clearly has a team of young, hungry, aspiring idealists, eager to take their country into the new era.

How the gentlemen, mostly ageing men and ex-military, still in full control of the country, accommodate these new political parties, even though their ideologies are a clear departure from the ‘old ways’, will provide a foundation for the next 12 months of Thailand’s political soap opera.

 

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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for nearly 40 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented 3,900 radio news bulletins in Thailand alone, hosted 450 daily TV news programs, produced 1,800 videos, TV commercials and documentaries and is now the General Manager and writer for The Thaiger. He's reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue.

Opinion

PM takes over Thailand’s vaccine roll out. Public Health Minister found under bus – OPINION

Tim Newton

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OPINION

I went to register my name at a local private hospital in Phuket last Saturday for a place in the Covid vaccine queue. It was at the Bangkok Hospital Phuket. The first response from the reception area after the customary welcoming wai was “do you have insurance?”

I said yes, but that was not relevant to why I was here. I explained that I wanted to put my name on their Covid vaccine register as a former patient and enquire as to when they might expect to get deliveries of a vaccine.

The answer was clear. “I don’t know, nobody knows”. And, as far as we currently understand, that answer was correct.

For foreigners in Thailand, unless they happen to work for companies with “connections” or perhaps a public service that was earmarked in the first roll out of vaccines, the vast majority are doing more damage from scratching their heads at the moment.

We’ve contacted the Provincial Phuket Office in Phuket, and been told the same thing. Or “register at your hospital”.

The Thaiger has published numerous articles about the apparent vacillation of the government in regards to allowing private companies and hospitals to acquire their own stash of vaccines. First they could, then they couldn’t, then it was a “misunderstanding”, and then they could again, about 2 weeks ago.

But not ONE private hospital in Thailand currently has access to its own stocks of an approved Covid 19 vaccine. Not even unapproved vaccines, as far as we can tell. The Thai government are still putting up paperwork and red tape barriers preventing any private solutions to the country’s vaccine roll out.

Now I use the term “roll out” carefully. Because there hasn’t been a lot of rolling. There’s no doubt once the vaccines arrive on site there are plenty of front line doctors and nurses, and local organisers, who can efficiently and diligently administer the doses. That’s happened twice in Phuket and has now resulted in some 70,000 local people vaccinated. It’s happened in other places as well. But there’s certainly been no “military” precision (which you’d think these guys would be good at).

Somewhere between a current shortage of available vaccines, generally, and the Thai government being forced to sign off on any private orders, there has been no movement on the “private vaccine” front.

Dr Suwadee Puntpanich, a director at the Thonburi Hospital Group, told the Thai Enquirer that it’s currently “impossible for the private sector to bring in vaccines due to the government’s inaction”.

“We have sent numerous applications for vaccines to the Ministry of Public Health, to the minister, to the permanent secretary and have received no response”.

Given that the private medical sector would have contacts to negotiate and import drugs from international pharmaceutical companies, you’d think they’d be the government’s first phone call. But no. The government have established their own supply chains, dragging out the process until now we this third wave in Thailand and a vaccine roll out way behind peer nations and most of the rest of the world.

Last night the Thai PM decided to take control of the Kingdom’s vaccine roll out.

The Cabinet yesterday agreed to designate PM Prayut as the chief authority with responsibility for all decisions related to the pandemic. He will have sole responsibility for the country’s Communicable Disease Act, the Immigration Act, National Health Security Act, and the Medical Equipment Act, as well as several others. Critically, he will now be responsible for the procurement and distribution of vaccines, essential to combatting the outbreak in Thailand.

There has been some quite public friction between the PM and his outspoken Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul in recent weeks. This decision to take over the decision making in Thailand’s public health sphere is the equivalent to throwing his Bumjaithai party political partner under the bus.

Last week there was loud calls from opposition parties and social media for the resignation of the public health minister. Everything, from the shortage of hospital beds, the lack of vaccines, the decision to let Songkran go ahead, largely unfettered, and a slow reaction to the current outbreak have all fallen on the desk of Anutin.

The PM’s taking over of decision-making for Thailand’s public health at the moment may be an indication of strong, determined leadership. It’s also risky with Anutin pulling the strings on a rump of MPs that secured the PM his majority in the lower house following the 2019 general election.

A petition hosted on Change.org, demanding the resignation of Public Health Minister Anutin, has surpassed an initial target of 200,000 signatures. The target has now been increased to 300,000. 211,600 signatures have already been collected.

Also, as of this morning, the requests for signed paperwork from Thailand’s private hospital sector have remained unsigned.

 

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Tourism

Thailand’s 3rd wave wreaks havoc on the Tourism Restart Plan – where are we now?

Thaiger

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PHOTO: Empty beaches of Hua Hin - AJ Wood

OPINION by Andrew J Wood

Thailand Ministers ponder the next steps to re-start it’s massive tourism industry, initially set for July 1, 2021 in Phuket. The plan may need to be overhauled as Phuket struggles to immunise the whole island in the wake of the third wave of hotspots. Phuket, prior to the third wave had already secured more than 100,000 doses and planned to receive an additional 930,000 doses by June.

This would be enough for 70% of the population – the target needed to achieve herd immunity. The spike in Covid-19 cases has interrupted this plan, as vaccines must also be allocated to other provinces urgently to help fight the latest outbreaks.

Not deterred, the Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn said he plans to meet next week with all relevant agencies to discuss the reopening plan, previously set for July this year. Eighteen provinces have now been declared red zones, with a partial lockdown and stay at home order. The alert warning was also raised across the rest of the country to orange, in all the remaining 59 provinces many of which had previously been green and considered safe.

Deciding to ignore expert warnings, the government allowed the Songkran holidays to go ahead, even adding an extra day. However no mass gatherings or water splashing were allowed.

(Songkran is the Thai New Year celebration which typically lasts 3-4 days, leading to a mass exodus of cities like Bangkok).

Last year, due to Covid-19, the holiday was cancelled. As a result of the holiday this year, a few outbreaks in Bangkok allowed the virus to spread widely. The Bangkok outbreaks centred on entertainment places; restaurant-pubs and nightclubs around the Thonglor area, plus a high-society wedding at a new riverside hotel, whose guest list included a number of government Ministers and prominent business leaders.

The Covid virus from these few hotspots were quickly spread throughout the whole country, as people returned to their homes for the holidays. Unfortunately this was a perfect storm for spreading the virus. Up until this point, since the beginning of the pandemic, Thailand had only recorded 28,889 cases and 94 deaths as at April 1, 2021. Eighteen days later this has risen to 43,742 cases and 104 deaths. An increase in cases of 51%.

During my recent visit to Hua Hin, empty beaches were very much in evidence already with the third wave leading to mass cancellations. Some resorts, previously 70-80% occupied, saw domestic arrivals decimated. Already hurting from a lack of international visitors, this latest outbreak was a most unwelcome guest.

The question of re-opening Thailand to Tourism, starting with Phuket, has obviously taken a knock backwards.

“The key determinant is insufficient vaccines, we are concerned about the re-opening timeline. We still need to discuss the vaccine administration plan. If the herd immunity goal cannot be achieved, we may have to consider opening only certain areas in Phuket”.

However, to continue with the same plan, even with restricted zones, will not be easy as long as the country still has increasing new daily infections, said Minister Pipat.

“Most importantly, we still have to hear from other countries that we already started travel bubble negotiations with about their confidence regarding the same timeline.”

Like Hua Hin, hotels in the North reported cancellations of more than 70% with Chiang Mai a cause for concern and currently experiencing increased coronavirus cases. Prior to the pandemic, the province was a popular destination to celebrate Thai New Year.

Regrettably Minister Pipat is in self-quarantine after being in close contact with Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, who was diagnosed with Covid-19. The Minster fortunately has already received his first vaccination jab last month (AstraZeneca) and will remain in isolation until next week when all tests are complete (3 swab tests).

ANDREW J WOOD

Andrew J Wood was born in Yorkshire England, he is a professional hotelier, Skalleague and travel writer. Andrew has 48 years of hospitality and travel experience. He is a hotel graduate of Napier University, Edinburgh. Andrew is a past Director of Skål International (SI), National President SI Thailand and is currently President of SI Bangkok and a VP of both SI Thailand and SI Asia. He is a regular guest lecturer at various Universities in Thailand including Assumption University’s Hospitality School and the Japan Hotel School in Tokyo.

The content of this article reflects the writer and does not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of The Thaiger.

 

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

A Thailand Covid update that you won’t read in the news

Tim Newton

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Tim Newton goes through some of the moving goal posts regarding Thailand’s Covid situation RIGHT NOW. Vaccines for expats, what will happen after Songkran, provincial restrictions, new quarantine requirements. Reading the tea leaves and reading between the lines, Tim provides his personal opinions on many issues expats and foreigners in Thailand are worried about at this time.

 

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