The Thai military junta is ramping up the use of the draconian lèse-majesté law against critics, opposition politicians and dissidents.
The latest person to be charged with this authoritarian law is opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. His “crime” was to question the Covid vaccine policy of the junta, which has approved a contract between Siam Bioscience and AstraZeneca for the Thai company to produce the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine for sale in Thailand and South-East Asia. Siam Bioscience is 100% owned by King Wachiralongkorn and so far has had a poor financial record and no experience of vaccine production. The junta is also buying a small amount of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine.
Thanathorn estimates that most Thais will not begin to be vaccinated until the end of the year, unlike in neighbouring countries. In addition to this there will not be enough of the vaccine to cover the whole population.
Cutting down Thanathorn is part of a long process of destroying the official parliamentary opposition to the junta, which installed itself through a military coup, followed by sham elections. Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party was forced to disband by the junta’s courts and Thanathorn himself banned as an MP, mainly because his party enjoyed significantly popularity, especially among young people. This is at a time when Taksin’s opposition Pua Thai Party has shrunk to a shadow of itself after a war of attrition waged upon it by the military and the conservatives, which used coups and their courts to try to reduce Taksin’s influence among the electorate. The present junta hopes to stay in power for 25 years! [See https://bit.ly/3731MIZ ].
To add insult to injury, the vaccine produced by Siam Bioscience is being called “the gift from the King”, which it certainly is not.
Wachiralongkorn is the richest person in Thailand, but this has absolutely nothing to do with his abilities in any field. He is an intellectually challenged brutal playboy.
So lèse-majesté is being used to stop Thais questioning Covid policies. It is also being used to prevent discussion about reforming the scandal-ridden monarchy and campaigning for democracy. Scores of young people who led the recent protests against the junta have now been charged under this law. This is hardly surprising, as retired academic Thak Chaloemtiarana recently commented that the demand to reform the monarchy is a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the military.
I have argued for a long time that the monarchy is an important tool for the military in attempting to legitimise their rule and the lèse-majesté law is designed to protect this so-called legitimacy. The target of protests must be the military junta rather than the idiot king Wachiralongkorn. [See the myth of Wachiralongkorn’s so called power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL ].
In the eyes of the junta, criticism of the monarchy and the military is a much more serious “crime” than murder, rape or terrorism. A few days ago a 63 year old woman was sentenced to 87 years in jail (reduced to 43 years and 6 months) for sharing video clips criticising the monarchy!! She has already spent 3 years in prison awaiting trial.
The Thai junta and ruling class are truly a bunch of barbarians.
Yet the impressive youth protest movement seems to be stuck in a rut and unable to move forward to respond to these attacks on liberties by the military. Unless the movement regroups and takes a turn towards the working class by attempting to organise strike action and civil disobedience, it will lack the power to overthrow the junta. [See https://bit.ly/3p3LlnI ].
The impressive demonstration against the junta and the monarchy on 14th October 2020 shows how far the movement has developed and it has raised the level of struggle for democracy.
Large youth-led pro-democracy protests have hit the Thai military junta from August this year. Crowds of up to 50,000 gathered around the Democracy Monument in the centre of Bangkok on 16th August. On 19th September, an important anniversary of a military coup against an elected government in 2006, crowds swelled to over 100,000. On the 14th October, on the 47th anniversary of a mass uprising against a military dictatorship, crowds gathered in similar numbers and marched to Government House to demand the resignation of the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha. They also demanded the writing of a new constitution and the reform of the Monarchy.
This time the stakes had been raised by the military government, which insisted that the protest should be cancelled because the king had decided to visit a nearby temple. Protesters ignored the government and the numbers swelled to 100,000 by nightfall, when people joined after work. The government conscripted state municipal employees and soldiers to line the roads wearing yellow royalist shirts in order to welcome the royal cavalcade. The Thai ruling class treated the civilian conscripts like dirt as many were transported in open trucks and some even had to sit in dust carts. Many voiced their displeasure and some were seen making the 3 fingered salute used by the pro-democracy protesters.
Police allowed the queen to be driven through the demonstrating crowds and she was met with the 3 fingered salute and even a few middle finger gestures. The crowd shouted “my taxes!” at her.
The protests were organised by a group of mainly young people and university students, initially calling themselves the “Free People” organisation. They have now created a coalition calling itself the “Peoples’ Party” after the movement that led the 1932 revolution that successfully toppled the Absolute Monarchy. The new generation leading the protest movement has become acutely aware of the importance of the historical struggle for democracy. What marks this latest movement out from the previous Red Shirt movement for democracy ten years ago is that they are independent of any political parties. In fact the main stream opposition parties cannot keep up with the movement.
In the days following the August protest, secondary school students up and down the country staged “3 finger salute” protests during the compulsory flag raising ceremony before start of school. Often it was young women who were the most militant. The playing of the 8 am National Anthem at a number of mass transit rail stations was temporarily stopped for fear that people would raise the 3 finger salute. [See more about this in a previous post on this site.]
In the late evening of 14th October, the protest leaders decided it was safer to disband and regroup the next day at Rartprasong intersection, the site of Red Shirt protests in 2010. The junta talked tough, announced emergency powers, banned all protest and arrested some of the protest leaders. However, on 15th October thousands gathered at Rartprasong to defy the government. Prominent among the demonstrators were school students in their uniforms. Again women students were some of the most militant.
The next day (16th October) protesters gathered further down the road from the previous day because the police had blocked off Rartprasong. See below. As night fell the paramilitary riot police moved in, using water cannon, spraying the young people with water mixed with a liquid irritant. Many people were arrested. At time of writing, the movement is at a junction. Either they increase the pressure on the junta or they step back and risk losing momentum. One way to increase pressure is to try to get working people to take strike action.
The 3 fingered salute was borrowed from Hunger Games, and became a symbol of opposition to the military dictatorship during anti-coup protests in 2014. The present junta came to power through a middle-class backed coup in 2014. Elections were eventually held in 2019, but under anti-democratic rules and a reactionary constitution drawn up by the military. Despite losing the popular vote to anti-junta parties, the military appointed senate helped to propel the junta back into government with the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.
People are scandalised and fed-up by the behaviour of the new king, Wachiralongkorn, who spends his life with his harem in Germany and has changed the constitution in order to allow this life style and in order to amass even more wealth. It is the first time in decades that people have had the confidence to criticise the king in public, despite the fact that there are draconian laws against this.
The powerful military has traditionally used the weak monarchy as a tool to justify authoritarian rule. Many ordinary activists in Thailand believe that there is an Absolute Monarchy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The movement should not over-estimate the power of the king.
Since 1932, the Monarchy has had very little power in itself and is a willing tool of the military and the conservatives. Although the much welcomed criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long over-due day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy and a strong mass movement to topple the military is still needed.
The real people with power among the Thai elites are the army, high-ranking state officials and business leaders. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the king on TV, while exercising the real power in the land and enriching themselves. This is an ideological play, acted out for the benefit of fooling the public. The fact that it is in any way believable by many is a great example of what Marx called “alienation”. It is when we are feeling powerless that we are more likely to believe the nonsense fed to us by the ruling class.
The Thai Absolute Monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution and for a period the country was rule by anti-Monarchy civilians and generals. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, the Monarchy was revived and promoted by military dictatorships. The “return” of the Monarchy reminds me of what the historian Christopher Hill wrote about the restoration of Charles II after the English Revolution. He wrote that “Charles was called King by the Grace of God, but he was really King by the grace of the merchants and squires”. One could say that the Thai king is king by the grace of the military generals and capitalists.
At time of writing it is difficult to predict what will happen next. However, lessons from the 1970s and from the defeated Red Shirt protests ten years ago show that what is needed urgently is to expand the movement into the organised working class. The working class is the main location of our side’s power. The workplace is where the ruling class’ power is potentially weak. The lack of a significant organisation of the Left makes the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this. Unfortunately a call for a “General Strike” on 14th October was made without any concrete work being done among the working class and it never happened. Socialists know that it is far easier to make abstract calls for General Strikes rather than to actually do the necessary organisational work to bring one about in practice.
Socialists do exist in Thailand and it is the job of such people, no matter how small in number, to encourage the spread of radical ideas into the working class and to strengthen trade union struggles. This is best carried out if we attempt to build the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist party.
The protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 16th August 2020 was a great success with crowds of up to 50,000 people coming to show their anger at the continued parliamentary dictatorship of Generalissimo Prayut and the behaviour of king Wachiralongkorn. A month later, on 19th September, the anniversary of the military coup against the elected Taksin government in 2006, over 100, 000 filled Sanam Luang.
The protest was organised by the organisation “Free People”. It has 3 major demands: stop intimidating activists, re-write the constitution and dissolve parliament. People are fed up with the fixed elections, the appointed senators and the military designed “Guided Democracy” system in general. In addition to these demands, student activists and the lawyer Anon Numpa are now openly demanding the reform of the monarchy. People are angry about laws which prevent the monarchy being subjected to criticism and accountability. They are angry that he spends his time with his harem in Germany and changed the constitution to allow him to do this more easily. They are angry that he changed the constitution to bring all wealth associated with the monarchy under his centralised control. They want to curtail his privileges and power.
For the first time since the military and the Democrat Party murdered pro-democracy Red Shirts in cold blood in 2010, Red Shirt activists and older people joined the students in protesting. The Red Shirts had been specifically invited to come along at a student rally a few days earlier at Chulalongkorn University.
The movement needs to keep up the momentum and spread to all sections of the population, especially organised workers. Progressive trade unionists were on the protest, but organised workers need to come out it their thousands and be prepared to take strike action if necessary.
Many activist leaders face prosecution and the movement must insist that all charges are dropped immediately.
On the Monday after the huge protest on 16th August, secondary school students at hundreds of schools up and down the country defied teachers to staged “3 finger” protests against the dictatorship during the compulsory singing of the national anthem and flag raising before classes.
On Wednesday 19th, hundreds of school students demonstrated outside the education ministry after the minister had threatened them. He made an attempt to address the crowd of students but was prevented from doing so by shouts of “lackey of the dictatorship!” and loud whistle blowing. This particular minister was part of a reactionary whistle-blowing mob who helped the present junta come to power.
How did it start? The reasons why students started to revive the pro-democracy protests are that this new generation have seen that pushing for reforms within the parliamentary system has not worked. Opposition parties and politicians have been cut down by the military controlled courts. The junta were and still are blatantly using Covid as an excuse to try to ban protests. Anyone who speaks out is being intimidated by security officers and political exiles in neighbouring countries have been murdered by military death squads. The economy is a mess and youth see little to be hopeful for the future. In fact they share these feelings of anger and frustration with over half the adult population who voted against the military party in the last flawed elections. The difference is that the youth do not share the fear which is common among older activists who have been through military crack-downs.
It is not just university students. Secondary school students, often from more elite schools are joining in. LGBT activists have also taken part as open LGBT activists against the junta.
It is best to see the continuum of the pro-democracy social movement from after the 2006 coup with different groups popping up to take the lead. The youth are now taking the lead. [See “Role of Thai Social Movements in Democratisation” https://bit.ly/2aDzest ].
So far the most significant development is the establishment of the organisation “Free People”. The aim is to expand the movement to ordinary working people beyond students and youth. It has 3 major demands: stop intimidating activists, re-write the constitution and dissolve parliament. People are fed up with the fixed elections, the appointed senators and the military designed “Guided Democracy” system in general. [See Guided Democracy after the Flawed 2019 Election https://bit.ly/2Wm6bzI ].
Since the activist lawyer Anon Numpa stood up and raised a number of criticisms of king Wachiralongkorn, the underlying anger about the behaviour and arrogance of the new idiot king has come out into the open. People are angry about laws which prevent the monarchy being subjected to criticism and accountability. They are angry that he spends his time with his harem in Germany and changed the constitution to allow him to do this more easily. They are angry that he changed the constitution to bring all wealth associated with the monarchy under his centralised control. The extra demands from the Thammasart University mass protest on 10th August reflect a feeling that the monarchy should be reformed and its privileges cut back. These developments are to be welcomed.
Some political exiles abroad encourage the view that Thailand is an “Absolute Monarchy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movement should not over-estimate the power of the king. He has very little power and is a willing tool of the military and the conservatives, more so even than his weak father. Therefore suggestions that boycotting royal degree ceremonies would be enough to topple the regime are diversions. [See: “Absolutism” https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ and Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad? https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv ].
Although the much welcomed criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long over-due day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy and a strong mass movement to topple the military still needs to be built. Workers need to be involved. Events after the Second World War show that Thai military dictatorships can hold power without using the monarchy. We need a socialist republic in Thailand.
Recently, the human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Anon Numpa, addressed an anti-junta rally of young people and made open criticism of the idiot king Wachiralongkorn. He was dressed as Harry Potter, just to make the event more humorous. However, the content of his speech was deadly serious.
Anon criticised Wachiralongkorn’s habit of living abroad in Germany and using huge amounts of public funds for his personal use. According to Anon, Wachiralongkorn has also massively increased his power. However, as followers of this blog know, this latter view is not one which I share. [See Wachiralongkorn’s power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL Absolutism https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv ]
Such open criticism of Wachiralongkorn is to be welcomed and Anon Numpa has shown great courage in doing this. There will be top state officials, especially military officers, and rabid royalists among the public, who will want to persecute or prosecute Anon for his statements. It is important that as many people as possible in Thailand show him solidarity by also discussing the issue of the monarchy openly and in public. This will make it more difficult for the state to attack Anon.
In reality one of the important issues that has helped spark the latest round of youth protests against the military junta in Thailand has been the behaviour of Wachiralongkorn and this can be seen in many of the placards on the demonstrations.
Anon Numpa’s statement was couched in royalist and nationalist language. This was an attempt to protect himself. He said that he was criticising the monarchy in order to defend it. But it is doubtful that this will be enough to stop attacks on him by the state and the royalists.
One unfortunate aspect of Anon’s speech was the use of the word “Farang-Mungka”, a derogatory and racist word used to describe Westerners. In an era of Black Lives Matter protests, pro-democracy activists in Thailand need to be more aware about their racism.
If the increasing anti-monarchy feeling can be encouraged, it will weaken the military, who use the weak-willed monarch as a political tool. It will also help to make a republic more likely. However, we must never forget that republics can also be oppressive and just after the Second World War Thailand was rule by an anti-monarchist military dictatorship in the shape of Field Marshall Pibun.
The military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy.
It is encouraging that the youth groups who have been protesting against the parliamentary dictatorship run by the military have now officially stated that they want to expand their network beyond students and young people to include adults. Hopefully this will facilitate expansion of the movement into the working class.
LATEST (7th Aug 2020) Anon Numpa served with arrest warrant.
Anon Numpa and student activist Panupong Jadnok were arrested on 7th August 2020 and charged with a number of so-called “offenses” relating to peaceful anti-junta demonstrations. Other protest organisers were also served with warrants.
The authorities are trying not to draw attention to Anon’s comments about the monarchy, but the charges against him are serious.
At some point later in the day, Anon and Panupong were dragged off to police detention.
Crowds gathered outside the court and the police station and a “flash-mob” protest at the Sky-walk was organised the next day.
Later on the 8th August, Anon and Panupong were released on bail.
It is vital that more and bigger anti-junta protests are held in order to keep up the pro-democracy momentum.
10th August: Over 5000 protesters at Thammasart University demand key reforms to the monarchy including the right to criticise and the down-sizing of the king’s privileges.
Young people in Thailand have risen up against the “parliamentary dictatorship” of Generalissimo Prayut in a show of defiance in all the major provinces. As with the mass protests against racism, climate catastrophe and oppression around the world, the Thai university and secondary school students have been fearless in the face of the dictatorship’s emergency laws. These laws were enacted after the emergence of the Covid 19 pandemic, but are being used to extend the powers of the dictatorship. This is one of the issues that has made young people angry.
Other issues causing anger and discontent are the dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party, under false pretences of using the election law, the economic hardship caused by Covid, the continued harassment of dissidents, the manipulation of 2019 elections and the continued military dictatorship. Earlier this month, one dissident was arrested for wearing a T-shirt stating that he “no longer had any respect for the monarchy”. He was then sent to a mental institution. This has angered thousands of people. The behaviour of the present idiot-playboy King Wachiralongkorn has also caused anger which has overcome fear. [See https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv , https://bit.ly/2OUjN3N ].
The use of military death squads to eliminate dissidents sheltering in Cambodia and Lao has also caused anger. [See https://bit.ly/2CPrVQy ].
The protesters are demanding that the government resign, a new constitution be written and fresh elections held. A new constitution is necessary because the present one was written by the military junta to ensure its continued power. It stipulates that the senate is appointed by the military; another bone of contention among the protesters.
These latest protests are part of a continued opposition to the destruction of democracy since 2006. Like all mass movements there have been lows and highs, depending on the political atmosphere, the state of the leadership and the level of repression. The destruction of the pro-democracy “Red Shirts” was enabled through shooting protesters and deliberate retreats by the leadership. One of the former red shirt leaders, Jatuporn Prompan, has shown his conservatism by urging the students not to criticise the monarchy. Luckily the students are unlikely to listen to him.
The protests that greeted the 2014 Prayut coup were ground down by arrests and prosecutions by the junta, including the use of “attitude changing detentions”.
Key activists in the present protest movement have links to the best key activists from protests over the last decade. A Marxist “big picture” view of social movements describes various movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international movements. This “social movement” is constantly battling against “the system” which is controlled by the ruling class. [See Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Eds) Marxism and Social Movements. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL. 2014]. For the situation in Thailand see https://bit.ly/2aDzest.
The present wave of protests is led by new, younger students who do not carry the baggage of fear and repression from the past. The lessons from throughout the world, and from Thailand’s own history, point to the urgent need for today’s youngsters to get more organised and inject their enthusiasm and lack of fear into the trade union movement and the working class in general. If they do this, they will find a willing audience of people who are utterly fed up with the present junta but lack the confidence to come out and fight. The 14th October 1973 uprising against a previous military dictatorship was successful when thousands of ordinary working people joined the students on the streets of Bangkok.
Amid the reactionary military junta-backed “Monument Wars” against the memory of the 1932 Revolution against the Absolute Monarchy in Thailand, and amid the serial killings by military death squads of Thai dissidents in neighbouring countries, much nonsense is being talked about by some regarding the so-called power of the Idiot King Wachiralongkorn. [See https://bit.ly/3doELl3 on Monument Wars, https://bit.ly/3eTJGvt and https://bit.ly/2Vf3Usf on death squads].
One important question needs to be answered by those who advocate that Wachiralongkorn is all powerful. Is there an example anywhere in the world, now or in the past, where a powerful ruler can exercise his power while spending most of his life abroad? Think of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Kim Jong-un in North Korea today or various tyrant kings in the past.
Wachiralongkorn lives permanently in Germany, either in his Bavarian palace or in a 5-star hotel during lock-down, along with his servants and harem. He only makes short trips to Thailand.
Tyrants are very wary of leaving the country where they rule for fear of being deposed while abroad. To argue that Wachiralongkorn is an exception is just banal “Thai exceptionalism”. In other words it means closing your eyes to comparative studies and the scientific study of history and immersing oneself in mysticism.
The idea that Wachiralongkorn has been increasing his power is parroted by some Thais in articles published by mainstream new outlets.
When talking about “power”, it is important to understand that it is a concrete thing, not some abstract concept. Political power comes hand in hand with the “power to shape society and politics”.
There was never any evidence that former King Pumipon ever had such power. He never shaped Thai foreign policy or had any influence on the direction of domestic political policies. He could not order military coups because he did not control the military. Pumipon always went with the flow, at times praising Taksin and his government. Pumipon shared his right-wing conservatism with most of the military and bureaucratic elites. It wasn’t his ideas that influenced events. He had no influence on the policies used by the Taksin government to dig Thailand out of the 1996 economic crisis. The anti-Taksin movement which emerged much later was not his creation. The conservatives merely claimed they were monarchists in order to try to obtain legitimacy among conservatives. Pumipon once told the military not to buy submarines because they would “get stuck in the mud of the Gulf of Siam”, but no one took any notice of him. His “Sufficiency Economy” ideology was repeatedly quoted by the elites, but never acted upon by anyone. [See more here: http://bit.ly/2oppTvb ].
Wachiralongkorn is much less politically aware than his father, being completely uninterested in Thai society and politics. There is zero evidence that he is trying to wrestle power from the military in order to influence domestic political policy or foreign policy. [See also http://bit.ly/2kBwOlm ].
As I have previously written, “Wachiralongkorn wants the Crown, but not the job”. He isn’t interested in the slightest in Affairs of State. His only interest is in his own “affairs” with numerous women, some of whom have been promoted to high army ranks. He also once promoted his former dog to an air force rank. Wachiralongkorn’s so-called “power” is much more akin to that of a petty local Mafia boss who wishes to protect his wealth and his patch. It must be frightening for those in his immediate household circle to serve such a self-centred, vicious and erratic boss. But a WikiLeaks episode some years ago exposed the fact that many high-ranking generals viewed Wachiralongkorn with irritation bordering on contempt.
In order to be able to use the present and past king as a legitimising figure in their class rule over the population, the military and elites have to give them something in return. Since the image of the monarchy is there to protect the elites, the monarchy acts like a guard dog with all bark and no bite. But guard dogs need to be thrown a bone every day to keep them in line. The bone thrown to the Thai monarchy is the immense wealth given to them, the freedom for them to live their lives as they please, and the willingness of the elites to pamper the royal ego by grovelling on the floor in front of them and pretending to be under the dust of their feet. This latter bit of theatre is only for the benefit of ordinary citizens while real power is in the hands of the military.
Just like the top bosses of most religions who claim to speak on behalf of non-existing gods, the military claim to speak on behalf of the monarchy.
But in order to make this trick work well, the monarchy needs to appear to be worthy of some respect. Yet Wachiralongkorn’s personal life style makes this difficult. The military are unlucky because Wachiralongkorn has no idea how to behave in civilised society and he risks turning the Thai monarchy into a laughing stock with all his scandals. The generals who are running the present “parliamentary dictatorship” are demanding that Thai citizens grovel to this nasty infantile king. The Monarchy is dysfunctional and rotten to the core and many, many, Thais know this.
Those who focus on Wachiralongkorn let the military junta and their anti-democratic allies off the hook because they ignore the need to build a mass movement to overthrow the military and concentrate on an abstract symbol, which they claim is too powerful to even overthrow.
Thai military death squads are still operating in Cambodia and Lao. The latest Thai dissident to be disappeared is Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai pro-democracy activist living in exile in Phnom Penh.
Human Rights Watch reported that at about 5:54 p.m. on June 4, 2020, a group of armed men abducted Wanchalearm as he walked on the street to buy food in front of his apartment, and took him away in a black car, according to several witnesses and apartment security cameras. [See https://bit.ly/2MAdMIh ]
Wanchalearm is a prominent pro-democracy activist affiliated with the “Red Shirts.” He fled to Cambodia after Generalissimo Prayut’s May 2014 military coup. He continues to be politically active in exile, frequently making comments critical of the Thai government on social media. In 2018 a senior Thai police officers vowed to bring Wanchalearm back to Thailand one way or another.
Wanchalearm’s sister, who was talking on the telephone with him when the abduction occurred, heard him scream, “Argh, I can’t breathe,” before the call was cut off.
If Wanchalearm does not re-appear very soon, it is feared that he will have been murdered by Thai junta death squads. These death squads have committed previous crimes against Thai dissidents in neighbouring countries.
No one should be under the illusion that Thailand has returned to democracy, despite recent elections. The military is still very much in charge and the repression continues.
I have been struggling to find an answer to why South-East Asia has low Covid 19 infections and deaths compared to Western Europe and the USA [See https://bit.ly/2WFX00l ].
These are my preliminary thoughts and guesses on the matter. The possible causes are not necessarily in scientific order of importance.
The age profile of the populations in South-East is very different to Western Europe, with many more young people and far fewer elderly people in South-East Asia. This would affect mortality rates. Younger people may also catch the virus and only have mild symptoms which are not recorded.
Under-reporting of Covid 19 deaths? Without wide-spread testing we shall not know how many people caught the virus without becoming sick. However, we can see the death rates. Much of the “unexplained excess death rates” in South-East Asia may well be due to Covid 19. For example in April a Reuters study of data from 34 provinces in Indonesia showed that more than 2,200 people had died from Covid-19-like symptoms that were not reported as such. This indicates the number of victims in Indonesia is likely to be far higher than the official death toll of 895. There has also been under-reporting of Covid-19 deaths in Western Europe, for example in Britain, Italy and Spain. But under-reporting in some South-East Asian countries might be much greater.
Connectedness of countries to the world system of trade, investment and tourism is likely to be an important issue, since Covid 19 had to travel from China to other countries. According to the World Bank, before the pandemic, Western countries had many more international tourist arrivals than South-East Asia. In 2018 France had 89 million international tourists, followed by USA (80 million), Spain (83 million) and Italy (62 million). This compares to 38 million for Thailand, followed by 26 million for Malaysia, and 16 million for Indonesia. In terms of international flight passenger arrivals in 2019, major airports in the USA had the most. Heathrow airport in London had 81 million, while Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris had 76 million, with Bangkok having 65 million. At the same time many travelers in European countries cross borders by road and rail. Government policies also had an effect. In Britain just 273 out of the 18.1 million people who entered the UK in the three months prior to the coronavirus lockdown were formally quarantined. At least 1,800 private aircraft landed in the UK during lockdown without tracking or screening passengers or crew. So Western countries are more internationally connected than South-East Asian countries. It is interesting to note that the official figures for Singapore and Malaysia are highest for South-East Asia. These two countries have high connectedness to the world economic system. This connectedness issue may also be a factor which helps to explain why Covid 19 figures in Eastern Europe are lower than Western Europe.
The rate of “Obesity”, which is a high risk factor for serious symptoms and deaths, may be part of the explanation. Obesity in South-East Asia is much lower than in Western countries. Recent figures from the CIA show that obesity as a % of the population is 36% for the USA, 28% for the UK, 24% for Spain, 22% for France and 20% for Italy. The levels of obesity in Thailand are 10%, 7% in Indonesia and 2% in Vietnam.
The warm and moist climates of South-East Asian countries may be a factor which has limited the spread of the virus, although this is still a debatable point among scientists and health workers. Some research papers from Harvard University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropic Medicine have questioned the belief that warmer climates help to reduce the spread of the virus. Traditional flu does show peaks in winter and troughs in the summer. But some laboratory studies have shown that the corona virus is less effective in warm, moist atmospheres.
Effective government measures in terms of lock-down and contact tracing can only be attributed to the low level of Covid 19 infection and mortality in Vietnam, where there were draconian rules put in place from early on. The Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Cambodian governments had chaotic responses, which potentially might have put millions at risk. Singapore seems to have protected its middle-class citizens while sacrificing migrant workers who were locked up in un-hygienic dormitories.
The Cambodian politician Sam Rainsy has also suggested that immunity to Malaria and some genetic factors might also be responsible for low Covid 19 rates in South-East Asia [See https://bit.ly/3dRzMtW ]. But there is no scientific evidence so far to back this up.
Others have suggested that wide-spread wearing of face masks is an issue, but these masks are of limited efficiency and did not prevent the pandemic in China, where people also wore masks.
Some suggest that the lack of kissing and hand-shakes may be a factor. But same sex people touch each other in other ways in the region, often more so than in the West.
Despite what appear to be low Covid 19 infection rates and deaths in South-East Asia, the economic and social effects of government lock-downs and very weak social welfare support systems are causing a real crisis of poverty for millions of working people and this should not be ignored. This is also a serious issue in many poor countries of Africa and Latin America.
While I am very reluctant to tempt fate by making any conclusive remarks about the effect of the Covid 19 world pandemic on Thai society, there are indications that the spread of the virus and the death rates in Thailand are much lower than the figures from Western Europe and the USA. But the effects of the parliamentary military junta’s lock-down rules on the poor have been devastating.
The lower levels of Covid 19 deaths in Thailand are little to do with government measures. The figures are similar to other South-East Asian countries.
If we look at the number of deaths per million people, the Philippines has the highest at 6, followed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore with 3. Thailand’s figure is 0.8. This compares to the appalling figure of 598 for the U.K.
The lower proportion of elderly people in the population of South-East Asia may be a small factor, but this must surely be countered by the much higher levels of poverty and ill health.
Some research papers from Harvard University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropic Medicine have questioned the belief that warmer climates help to reduce the spread of the virus. Traditional flu does show peaks in winter and troughs in the summer. But the figures above mean that we have to wonder whether hot and humid climates and strong sunlight and UV radiation, together with more time spent outdoors, do have a significant effect on reducing Covid 19.
The extremely low Covid 19 figures for Vietnam show that the country’s draconian lock-down measures plus testing and tracking are also significant. So I do not advocate any premature lifting of lock down measures anywhere.
Of course, we must also be mindful of the quality of data from governments that hide the truth and record Covid 19 deaths under other categories due to lack of testing.
While the present levels of Covid 19 cases and deaths in Thailand are low, the threat of hunger and destitution among the poor is shocking. The closure of entertainment establishments, restaurants, street stalls, workplaces associated with the tourist industry, and many factories, means that millions are trying to survive on no income. This can be seen by the desperate queues for food and cash hand-outs from charitable organisations.
Meanwhile the government’s support for the unemployed is totally inadequate and shambolic. This shines a light on glaring inequality in society and the fact that Thailand does not have a welfare state. The rich and the elite continue to ride on the backs of millions of poor workers and peasants and the King and other royal parasites live in unbelievable luxury. Wachiralongkorn flies between his five-star hotel in Germany and his palace in Thailand, often ordering food and other items to be flown out to him in Europe according to his whims.
To add insult to injury, the military are still trying to spend millions from public funds on expensive weaponry.
The whole situation is made much worse by the fact that the conservative elites have worked hard to destroy a democracy that was moving towards building a more inclusive and equal society since 2006. Whatever the faults and crimes of the Taksin government, and there were many, Taksin’s policies reflected a more modern vision of an inclusive society with universal health care, job creation and improved education. The alliance between Taksin’s elected governments and the working class and peasantry was just too much for the conservatives. Hence we are now saddled with a parliamentary dictatorship led by the military [see https://bit.ly/2Wm6bzI and http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs ]. It is this parliamentary dictatorship which is causing such hardship for the poor during the world Covid 19 pandemic. Given that we will be going into a world economic depression on the scale of the 1930’s, the situation for ordinary Thais can only get worse.