BANGKOK — Opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit said on Thursday the public has every right to question the government’s efforts to secure a coronavirus vaccine through a company owned by the palace.
The former Future Forward Party leader was speaking at a press conference in response to the government’s attempt to prosecute him with the royal defamation law, or lese majeste, for raising his concerns over the transparency of the vaccine deal. A woman sentenced to a record 43-year jail term for lese majeste was also denied bail by the court on Thursday.
“Prayut has always used the royal institution to hide the inefficiency of his administration, saying that he is loyal to the monarchy and protecting it,” Thanathorn said. “Is this not why many people are raising issues with the monarchy institution?”
He added, “The person bringing up the monarchy in the vaccines issue is not me, but Prayut.”
Government representatives on Wednesday filed police complaints against Thanathorn, accusing him of making 11 separate counts of “insulting” the monarchy in his Facebook Live video posted on Monday, in which he questioned why Siam Bioscience was granted a monopoly in the production of COVID-19 vaccine in Thailand.
The company is wholly owned by the Crown Property Bureau, who in turn answers directly to King Vajiralongkorn, without any civilian oversight.
“Is it right or not, that by raising issues with the government like this, I am being accused of these crimes? Will other people critiquing the government also be accused in the same way?” Thanathorn said today. “Is criticizing the government tantamount to being an enemy of the monarchy?”
Lese-majeste is punishable by up to 15 years in prison per count. Although the letter of the law only bans insults or threats made to the King, Queen, Heir Apparent, and Regent, the offense has been routinely used by the authorities to silence any discussions about the monarchy.
Thanathorn said that the secured doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines account for only about 21 percent of the population. He also said the government’s timeline for vaccine distribution is lagging behind other countries, such as Israel’s.
“Since Thailand is acquiring and distributing vaccines at a slower rate than other countries, what do you think will happen to our economy? Having vaccines is like having a light at the end of the tunnel, and finally being released from the terrible economy caused by COVID,” the politician said.
“But as of today, we are still in the tunnel,” he went on. “As long as not enough Thais have gotten vaccinated, we are still in the dark.”
Thailand has secured 2 million doses of vaccines from Sinovac, a private firm in Beijing where a Thai-Chinese conglomerate owns 15 percent of its stock. The government said another 61 million shots will be manufactured by Siam Bioscience per a tech sharing agreement with British pharmaceutical AstraZeneca.
Several transparency activists have questioned why a company with no prior experience in making vaccines was given such a lucrative deal, reportedly worth 6 billion baht.
“There is only one major deal for acquiring vaccines, and it is a private company. A private company, therefore, wants profit,” Thanathorn said. “When we raise issues about vaccines that don’t cover the population and are slow in being distributed, we have to ask if the government is extending benefits to one private company.”
Apart from the lese majeste, Thanathorn was also slapped with a complaint on Computer Crime Act violation for allegedly spreading false information about the vaccine agreement. The cybercrime charge carries a maximum penalty of three years in jail.
A court on Thursday also denied a bail release to a former civil servant who was given a record prison term of 43 years and six months for lese majeste earlier this week.
The appeal court said there is a possibility that the defendant, 64-year-old Anchan Preelert, may flee the country due to the lengthy jail term she received. The court also said the crimes she was found guilty of “hurts the emotion” of many Thais.
“The behavior in the case causes damage to the revered and worshipped institution of the monarchy. It hurts the emotion of the loyal subjects,” the court said in its statement.
Anchan reportedly filed for a bail release on Wednesday. She is now being imprisoned while the court deliberates on her appeal.
She was convicted on Tuesday of 29 counts of lese majeste for posting audio clips to Facebook and YouTube with comments deemed critical of the monarchy. The jail term handed down to Anchan – which was already halved from the initial punishment of 87 years in jail – is the harshest sentence associated with lese majeste in recent history.