Prayut govt stuck in self-made trap

Prayut govt stuck in self-made trap

People receive Covid vaccines on May 30 at CentralWorld. Spiralling infections and jab shortages may lead to political upheaval. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)
People receive Covid vaccines on May 30 at CentralWorld. Spiralling infections and jab shortages may lead to political upheaval. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)

Thailand's multi-layered crises from persistent virus infections and vaccine shortages to economic damage are building up into a potential political upheaval. The ravaging Covid-19 crisis is worse than the infamous Tom Yum Kung economic crisis in 1997-98. This time, the military-predominant government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is stuck in multiple traps of its own making. Getting out of this predicament means the pandemic situation is likely to get a lot worse before any hope of recovery and way forward can be found.

For perspective, Thailand's economic crisis in 1997-98 -- which culminated with the floating and forced devaluation of the baht 24 years ago today -- was catastrophic in its time. It began with a financial sector crisis, compounded by central bank mismanagement and government incompetence. As the economy nosedived, finance firms and banks were shuttered, some merged and sold to foreign entities, while many professionals became unemployed. The knock-on effects convulsed the real economy, putting lower-rung workers out of jobs and forcing them to seek social safety-nets upcountry.

Back then, Thailand could resort to external borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while global demand provided a reprieve for Thailand with a much cheaper baht to export its way to recovery. Along the way, the government of Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned in November 1997 to own up to his role in the crisis and make way for an alternative team within the parliamentary process.

This time, Thailand has to rely on its own resources and ability to survive. As adverse pandemic effects are worldwide, the global economy has suffered correspondingly. There is neither a quick exit for Thailand nor a swift recovery for its economy. Instead of stepping aside for a more effective leader to handle and get the country through this pandemic, Gen Prayut has vowed to carry on and on.

The first trap Gen Prayut and his backers have set is to rig the rules after seizing power to stay for the long haul. As it stands, the 2017 constitution, which is going through a minor amendment rather than a genuine process of political reform, is set up to keep Gen Prayut in power indefinitely unless his backers prefer an alternative. Electing the prime minister in the 750-strong parliament has to rely on the vote of the 250-member Senate, which was effectively appointed by the Prayut-led junta.

Continuity in office can be a boon if the leader has a plan that works well for the country. But setting up himself to rule for years with poor performance and zero vision could be calamitous for Thailand.

Other traps came with the Covid-19 pandemic. To be fair, the Prayut government's performance was comparably exemplary during the virus containment stage last year. But in that time, it had to come up with a vaccine strategy. Yet it entrapped itself and put Thailand's public health on the line late last year by locking up an exclusive manufacturing deal between AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience, a local pharmaceutical company which had never made vaccines before. Thailand was supposed to make hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca vaccine shots for its people and others in the region.

This could be perceived as the Prayut government's singular bet and demurring at other vaccines, including the United States-made Pfizer and Moderna, which are now seen as the most potent in terms of efficacy. Stuck with the AstraZeneca bet coupled with production and delivery delays, the government needed to import more and more Sinovac vaccines from China. Because of the government's misguided deal-making, Thailand's main vaccine at this time has become Sinovac rather than AstraZeneca.

Getting stuck further, it turns out Sinovac's efficacy might not be enough to deal with new virus mutations, particularly the Delta variant. As several million Thais who have been inoculated with Sinovac are deemed to be vulnerable to the Delta variant, there is a desperate need for effective alternative vaccines. When a third vaccine was suddenly allowed to come in through the Chulabhorn Royal Academy (CRA), it was Sinopharm, another Chinese vaccine. Seen as more effective and approved earlier by the World Health Organization (WHO), Sinopharm is administered at a cost of around 1,000 baht per shot, resulting in price inequality between the two Chinese jabs. Meanwhile, private medical facilities are scrambling to procure US-made vaccines to offer commercially for profit, although none has arrived.

Thailand's vaccine saga keeps going from bad to worse. Mounting questions have met few answers. For example, to what extent is Thailand's lack of highly coveted US-made vaccines attributable to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? The FCPA prohibits US companies from making payments in cash or in kind to foreign officials. American companies and their managers are liable to both jail terms and fines for under-the-table tea money.

To be fair, AstraZeneca also operates under the United Kingdom's similarly draconian Bribery Act. As a British company, AstraZeneca should be given the benefit of the doubt in view of the law to be above-board in its manufacturing deal with Siam Bioscience. Perhaps the Thai government also can be seen to have put its eggs in the AstraZeneca basket in order not to have to rely on rival vaccines. If so, this would be a government policy blunder and miscalculation, at the expense of the risk to public health.

Other questions that still need answering include how and why Sinovac became the main Thai vaccine. If it has to be Chinese, then why not Sinopharm? That a Thai conglomerate is a business partner and investor in Sinovac makes the outcome smell fishy. If Sinopharm can be imported at short notice, then why not other vaccines that are more preferred, namely Pfizer and Moderna.

These questions are forming the tip of the iceberg in Thailand's suspicious vaccine fiasco. The virus, vaccine and variants are increasingly politicised, representing a microcosm of what's wrong with and what's happening in Thailand, from mismanagement and allegations of vested interests to crises in public health and safety, politics and the economy.

As the virus runs its course and more vaccines make their way to Thailand, it would not be surprising if the coronavirus pandemic ends up being a powerful catalyst for the kinds of changes and reforms that are overdue in Thailand.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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