The Thai government is using the controversial lese majeste law to target critics of the monarchy after they demanded clarity about the role of a company owned by the king in the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The situation is not likely to help save the palace’s reputation or silence its critics.
By Umair Jamal
In Thailand, the debate over the timely availability and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine has become politicized as the country’s monarchy faces accusations of using a deal with AstraZeneca to shore up its legitimacy and improve public opinion of the king.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a leading opposition politician, has criticized the government’s coronavirus vaccine strategy by saying that it is too reliant on a company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
In response, the government has decided to charge Thanathorn under the country’s harsh lese majeste law—a move that indicates a surge in the state’s attempts to punish anti-monarchy critics.
However, the government reaction may prove counterproductive as growing political repression is unlikely to help save the palace’s reputation or silence its critics. Over the past year, Thailand’s growing pro-democracy movement has made unprecedented demands to curtail the power of the monarchy and the charge against Thanathorn will only embolden the ongoing protests.
What is AstraZeneca’s deal with Siam Bioscience?
Siam Bioscience, which is owned by the Crown Property Bureau, a group that manages billions of dollars in investments under the king’s personal control, agreed in October to manufacture AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for domestic use and supply to Southeast Asian countries. The contract also involves Thailand’s Siam Cement Public Company (SCG), in which the king is the main shareholder.
According to the agreement, Siam Bioscience will produce 200 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca this year. Around 26 million of the 200 million dosses are allocated for Thailand while the rest can be exported across Southeast Asia.
However, Siam Bioscience’s exclusive hold on the production of AstraZeneca for Thailand has raised questions about transparency and prompted allegations that the company was given unfair advantage.
AstraZeneca deal with Siam Bioscience drives controversy
Apparently, offering Siam Bioscience exclusive rights to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine may have been an attempt to boost the collapsing reputation of the palace. “Palace and government officials thought if they portrayed the vaccine as coming from a firm owned by Vajiralongkorn and founded during [his father] Bhumibol’s reign, this would be great for propaganda… So they ensured Siam Bioscience alone got the deal with AstraZeneca to produce the vaccine, and they ignored other possible vaccine sources,” said journalist and activist Andrew MacGregor Marshall.
However, the plan to shore up the king’s reputation by offering a COVID-19 vaccine with palace’s blessing “has now gone disastrously wrong and the debacle is likely to do even more damage to the reputation of the monarchy and the regime,” added Marshall.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Thanathorn said that offering Siam Bioscience exclusive rights to distribute the AstraZeneca vaccine in Thailand was “an attempt to shore up the popularity of the monarchy” and that “the vaccine was not given by the king.”
Many of Thailand’s neighbors, like Myanmar and Indonesia, are already vaccinating frontline workers. Siam Bioscience is not likely to start production until June and the timeline could be further delayed.
As the palace faces major reputational risks, Thai courts have charged Thanathorn with lese majeste and demanded that he completely remove all social media posts criticizing the country’s coronavirus vaccine policy.
Thanathorn booked for asking the right questions
Speaking at an event titled “Royal Vaccine: Who Benefits and Who Doesn’t?” Thanathorn said that Siam Bioscience not only lacks experience in vaccine making but was also awarded the contract because it is owned by King Vajiralongkorn.
“Why choose Siam Bioscience as the vaccine producer? Or was [Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha] just currying favor with somebody?” Thanathorn asked.
Thanathorn also criticized the government for using taxpayers’ money to support Siam Bioscience, claiming that the company has accumulated major losses over the years.
What does the use of lese majeste say about the government’s approach to vaccine criticism?
The move to charge Thanathorn with lese majeste, known as Article 112, comes amid an alarming increase in cases of alleged royal defamation in Thailand. Since November, the government has charged at least 54 people under the law including politicians and student activists. In mid-January, a Thai court sentenced a woman to 43-and-a-half years in prison for criticizing the monarchy on social media. It is the harshest sentence ever given under Thailand’s notorious lese majeste law.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, criticized the sentence, saying “Today’s court verdict is shocking and sends a spine-chilling signal that not only criticisms of the monarchy won’t be tolerated, but they will also be severely punished.”
James Buchanan, a scholar of Thai politics based at the City University of Hong Kong, wrote that in addition to filing new cases under lese majeste, authorities “seem to have been ordered to clear a backlog of historical cases, which were put in limbo after the king instructed the law not to be used anymore.”
Perhaps the government is aware that the growing controversy over the monarchy’s role in COVID-19 vaccine plans could potentially cause another political challenge. The government’s attempt to double down on critics of the vaccine procurement disaster is only going to make the situation worse as anti-government protesters focus on Thanathorn’s charge.
“Thanathorn distorted facts and caused misunderstanding among people,” Suporn Atthawong, a minister in the prime minister’s office said, adding, “He violated the monarchy, which upset Thai people who love and protect the monarchy.” In a separate statement, Prayuth said that “Everything [Thanatorn] said was misinformation, no facts at all. I will have anyone who disseminates misinformation prosecuted.”
Responding to the government’s decision to charge him under lese majeste law, Thanathorn said “The more you try to discredit me or harass me with charges, the more it makes you look suspicious. Why does the state have to go these lengths to defend a private company?”
InThanathorn’s case, the charge under lese majeste reflects the government’s broader strategy to suppress the ongoing pro-democracy movement and dampen growing public criticism of the royal family. As Sunai of Human Rights Watch told Voice of America, authorities “are using lese majeste prosecutions as their last resort… in response to the youth-led democracy uprising that seeks to curb the king’s powers and keep him within the bounds of constitutional rule.”
It is unclear how government thinks that forbidding the public from asking important questions and demanding accountability will resolve Thailand’s perpetual political crisis.
After finding out that he would be charged under lese majeste, Thanathorn made exactly the same point: “When we are questioning the fact that the Thai public would receive low vaccination coverage and receive it late, or whether or not the government has given preferential treatment to a certain private company, this is what I got back. This is what I got.”