Thailand's Covid failures spark further angry protests

BANGKOK – In an air charged with monsoon pressure and discontent, Bangkok riot police released rubber bullets and tear gas. Tanat Thana...


BANGKOK – In an air charged with monsoon pressure and discontent, Bangkok riot police released rubber bullets and tear gas. Tanat Thanakitamnuay, the descendant of a real estate family, stood on a truck, where he had lambasted Thai leaders for their botched response to the pandemic.

Then a hard object, possibly a tear gas canister, hit his right eye, tearing his retina. Mr Tanat, who once backed the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth Chan-ocha, now prime minister, to power, said the August 13 injury cost him his vision in the eye.

“I might be blinded but now I’m stronger than ever, I see things more clearly than ever,” he said. “People have known for a long time how incompetent this government is. Covid is just more evidence and proof. “

Thailand, which not so long ago was considered a wonder containing viruses, has become another example of how authoritarian pride and the government’s lack of accountability fueled the pandemic. This year, more than 12,000 people in Thailand have died from Covid-19, up from less than 100 last year. The economy was devastated, tourism almost nonexistent and manufacturing slowed.

Anger is spreading, and not just in the streets. Opposition lawmakers in parliament tried to pass a vote of no confidence in Mr Prayuth, accusing his government of wasting the months ahead that Thailand had to fight the coronavirus. That effort failed on Saturday, although some members of the prime minister’s coalition briefly stirred speculation they might support his ouster.

This summer’s already late vaccine rollout was further hampered by manufacturing delays. A company with no vaccine manufacturing experience, whose dominant shareholder is the King of Thailand, has been awarded the contract to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine nationally. The government’s failure to ensure adequate imported supplies made matters worse. Only about 15 percent of the population is fully immunized, and social inequalities left the rich young ahead of the older and poorer people.

Anti-government protests, which now occur daily, are increasingly desperate and security measures more aggressive. In August, at least 10 protests were forcibly dispersed. At one o’clock, a 15-year-old boy was shot and is now in intensive care. Police denied firing live ammunition.

“People used to say they don’t go out to protest because of Covid, but now the thinking has changed to ‘You stay home and you will die anyway because of the government’s inability to care people, “” said Tosaporn Sererak, a doctor who was once a spokesperson for the government overthrown in the 2014 coup.

More than a dozen civil society groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued a letter on Wednesday urging authorities to exercise restraint.

“We are disturbed by the disproportionate response of riot police to provocations by protesters,” read the letter to Mr Prayuth. “We are also concerned about the arbitrary detention of protest leaders who have recently faced new criminal charges and have been denied bail. “

Mr Prayuth, who led the coup seven years ago as army chief, has concentrated power in his own hands, arguing that increased executive powers are needed to fight the pandemic.

He tried to suppress public dissent by instituting a state of emergency and criminalizing some critics. Hundreds of people have been arrested in recent months for sedition, for computer crimes and to criticize King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, which is against the law.

Prominent politician accused of insulting the monarch after asking why Siam Bioscience, the king’s company, got the contract to produce vaccines for Southeast Asia when it did not manufacture them previously.

At least a dozen leaders of protests that started last year, demanding the resignation of Mr. Prayuth and reforms of the monarchy, are now locked up, awaiting trial. Some have contracted Covid-19 in prison. On Tuesday, a United Nations official expressed concern that jailed protesters were not receiving adequate medical treatment.

Sureerat Chiwarak, the mother of Parit Chiwarak, a leader of the protest, said her son was infected in an overcrowded Bangkok prison. Mr Parit told his mother there were many more cases of Covid in prison than official figures indicated.

Some people say, “Why don’t you surrender, they have your child in their hands, they put him in jail,” Ms. Sureerat said. “No. Children are fighting for equality, why do I have to surrender?”

With the lifting of some of the Covid lockdown measures in Bangkok on Wednesday, the protest movement is gathering momentum, even though the crowd has not matched the tens of thousands who gathered last year.

“When the government is authoritarian, it thinks it can censor the media, it thinks it can prevent the people from demonstrating,” Rangsiman Rome, an opposition MP, said. “But people continue to protest every day, demanding change. “

During last year’s protests, which were peaceful, riot police have shown great restraint, despite their long history of shooting of demonstrators.

Their response this summer has been harsher, with protests often being quashed before they can unite. Police now regularly deploy rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons containing flaming chemicals. Protesters respond with their own arsenals, including flamethrowers and slingshots.

Opposition figures say the urge to confront the police during a pandemic is a sign of widespread desperation.

“The people who supported the government have also been infected, which makes them rethink and wonder why they have to suffer like this,” Rangsiman said.

On August 29, two anti-government protests merged in Bangkok. The first was a gathering of hundreds of cars and motorcycles. After a period of intense honking, they dispersed.

The second, smaller and angrier rally formed in a business district. Motorcyclists used paper to cover their license plates and helmets to hide their faces. Other protesters hid behind balaclavas. No one wanted to speak openly about why they were there.

Tear gas began to flow before dusk and police fired jets of purple water, presumably to mark protesters. Low bangs reverberated and smoke filled the air as protesters hurled projectiles. At nightfall, small fires were burning. On Saturday, riot police set up shipping containers to prevent a rally, while a smaller protest escalated into violence.

Mr Tanat, the protester who was partially blinded last month, enjoys the privilege that has divided Thailand into a small group of haves and tens of millions of have-nots, a division that has fueled political unrest for years. He said some of his wealthy friends had also started attending rallies, hopping on their drivers’ motorcycles to get there rather than being driven in their usual Rolls-Royces or Maybachs.

But most of the protesters belong to the struggling class that has been further impoverished by the pandemic. Nipapon Somnoi said her son, Warit Somnoi, 15, had offered to drop out of school to help the family, but she would not allow it.

The boy found himself at a demonstration in mid-August. Video footage, which she can’t stand watching, shows the moment a bullet hit her neck and, as confirmed by a scan, lodged in her spine. Police reiterated that security forces did not use live ammunition. Ms. Nipapon said she didn’t know what to believe.

Her son has been in a coma for over two weeks. She fears that because her family is neither rich nor famous, her fate will be forgotten.

“Sometimes I think a tear gas canister could buy six to eight doses of a good quality vaccine,” Ms. Nipapon said. “The state keeps saying that we are a democracy, but it only listens to its own voice. “

At the end of last month, she sat in the hospital, stroking her son’s face, asking if he could hear her.

“There were times I called out his name and saw his eyelids move,” she said. “There were tears flowing. But I do not know.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Thailand's Covid failures spark further angry protests
Thailand's Covid failures spark further angry protests
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