Referendum games to heat up Thai politics, but should be welcomed

June 22, 2021: Some may not notice or mention it, but Thailand today has made a huge leap in the form of a parliamentary passage of the public referendum bill.

Aside from crackdowns on key figures, the country’s political divide has revolved around contentious constitutional points, whose proposed amendments can now be subjected to judgement of the real stakeholders, the Thai people, not politicians or activists who may have their own agendas.

The road is cleared today for Thai voters to have a real say. Political games will certainly come into play, but the process of referendum is far better than prospects of violence, abuses of certain aspects of the law, and distortion of certain sectors’ opinions as representing the “majority”. While the referendum that passed the current Constitution has been criticised for taking place under a military rule, the same cannot be said about future referendums, whose outcomes should be easier to accept.

Referendums can make Thai politics even hotter, but they should be welcomed.

June 21, 2021: Controversial singer Chai-amorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan is again at the centre of a major speculation as anti-establishment protesters plan activities that could hopefully snowball into another major rally on Thursday amid resurfacing charges of donation fraud.

He is said to be at odds with actress Inthira (Sine) Charoenpura who is known as a fund mobiliser for protesters. According to claims emerging from protesters themselves, Chai-amorn does not trust a person close to Inthira, thinking the man was dishonestly handling donations made through her.

The claims were reiterated in a Facebook post by a man known to be an anti-government activist, who is reportedly close to Chai-amorn and now is being accused of being a “spy.” The post has gone viral within both anti- and pro-government camps.

There are three things to be watched on Thursday, the anniversary of June 24, 1932, when Thailand, driven by Khana Ratsadon, changed its political system. 1. Will or how Chai-amorn be involved in anti-establishment activities? 2. Will and how Inthira be involved and, if she appears at an event, will she bring along the person whom Chai-amorn reportedly does not trust? 3. How will other top protest leaders react to claims that the person close to Inthira was abusing donations?

Why are Chai-amorn’s claims being taken so seriously? The possible answer is that he appears an undoubted hardliner or extremist who does not seem to have a hidden agenda. He was also close to Inthira before. In fact, they took a highly-controversial photo together before the man was caught for allegedly burning a royal portrait.

June 20, 2021: An overwhelming number of Thais conditionally agree with the government’s plan to “reopen” the country within 120 days, but are worried about vaccination implementation, graft related to labour migration, and education disrupted by COVID-19, according to Super Poll.

While the question of whether Thailand should reopen according to the 120-day timeframe announced by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last week has sparked a political debate, as much as 91.4 % of 1,069 Thais surveyed welcomed the idea on condition that the majority of the population must have been vaccinated by then. This is a big ask.

Meanwhile, more than 90% are concerned about illegal entry of foreign labour who may be assisted by corrupt officials, about crowded gatherings, and about the availability of the second shot of vaccine. Almost 95 % want the second dose to be provided for most, if not all, of the population within early next year, which is also a big ask.

Nearly 90% wanted serious state measures to account for educational lost time.

June 19, 2021: How many ballots should Thai voters have going into a general election? Should votes for losing candidates matter at all, and if yes, how? How votes should be counted? Is Pheu Thai favouring changes that put its biggest ally, Move Forward, in a disadvantage? Is Palang Pracharath plotting some numerical strategies that somehow would turn it into a “frenemy” of Pheu Thai?

These are among questions that will hound Thailand in the foreseeable future as the country ponders constitutional changes. Forget about the Senate for a moment. Sizes of election triumphs will matter a great deal when Thais go to the polls next time, whether the Senate will continue to have the power to join the House of Representatives to elect the new prime minister or not. It was close in the previous election, so the pressure on the Senate was not enormous.

Simply put, the Senate will find it extremely difficult to block a “landslide” House of Representatives coalition after the next election.

Which is why it’s more important than in the last election for parties to seek legitimacy through numbers this time. Proposed election rules that can make them win big will be embraced, whereas ones that could negatively affect them will be fought against tooth and nail. Already, rumours about Pheu Thai and Move Forward not seeing eye to eye on crucial election rules have emerged, along with speculation that Pheu Thai may agree with Palang Pracharath on issues of mutual interests.

There are two types of election rules: Ones that benefit big parties and ones that benefit small parties. Move Forward capitalised on the dissolution of the Thai Raksachart Party and some rules in the past election and thus became reasonably sizeable. It’s a threat not only to Palang Pracharath but also Pheu Thai, but while it fights Palang Pracharath ideologically, it battles for market share against Pheu Thai. Move Forward is understood to favour election rules that Pheu Thai does not like as they would benefit small or media-sized parties, not big ones.

June 18, 2021: A lot of people are asking “What’s Palang Pracharath thinking?” A more appropriate question, however, may be: Will the pros outweigh the cons in Thammanat Prompao’s controversial appointment?

The man’s ascent to the party’s powerful post of secretary general strongly suggests that Palang Pracharath is abandoning Bangkok, where Thammanat is highly unpopular, and will instead focus on the Northeast, where his influences and strategic as well as logistical knowhow can hopefully help the biggest government coalition camp steal many seats from Pheu Thai in an election.

It’s a high-risk but somewhat tempting gamble. Winning in Bangkok has proved to be rather insufficient politically, but hampering Pheu Thai in the Northeast might just cut it.

June 17, 2021: Any executive board change on Friday this week would go a long way toward determining the future of the biggest party in the coalition government, particularly if highly-controversial figures become more powerful.

One possible candidate for the party’s secretary-general post is Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thammanat Prompow, who has had to clear one legal or constitutional obstacle after another throughout his stormy political path.

Recently, the Constitutional Court’s ruling in his favour greatly affected Palang Pracharath’s rating because many people think his background is questionable. But the man is a great dealmaker whose former association with the Pheu Thai Party means he knows the biggest opposition camp inside and out strategically.

Today he said he would not mind becoming the party’s new secretary-general “if the party trusts me to do the job.” It’s a big gamble for a party already having image problems.

June 16, 2021: The embattled Thai prime minister may have given the biggest clue that he would stay on 120 more days at least, further cooling down speculation that a House dissolution is quite near.

Prayut Chan-o-cha’s broadcast and official announcement today that he intended to reopen Thailand in four months suggests strongly that he would want to stay in power to see it through.

After Prayut insisted the other day that he intended to “stay the course”, speculation that an early election could take place quite early has lingered, largely because of vaccine-related criticism against the government. But Prayut’s statement today about reopening Thailand included unequivocal intention that he wanted to be the one who implements the agenda, the kind that becomes heavily politicised in relatively stable countries, let along ones as divided as Thailand.

June 15, 2021: Britons were supposed to shout “Freedom” five days from now, but the coronavirus has other things in mind, and England’s plan resume business and social normalcy has been delayed by at least four weeks.

Concern over the Delta variant, first detected in India and believed to be responsible for the fact that infection numbers in England are creeping back up, is the biggest reason for the delay, which analysts believe would spark some political rebellion and refill Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s path with difficulties.

He was seeing a smooth political way ahead just a few days ago, but not any more. The variant has recreated or reinforced fears everywhere because it is considerably more infectious. England’s delay of the plan to lift all restrictions was meant to allow more vaccination which hopefully would shield the entire nation better.

Scenes of full-capacity sport stadiums will have to wait. Limited attendance is among tough measures in England’s lockdown. Some minor restrictions would be eased a few days from now, like the numbers of people going to weddings.

Now, people are hoping the four-week delay of the “Independence Day” would not be extended.

June 14, 2021: The prime minister knows the heat is growing, particularly in the mid of the current vaccine shortage uproar, but he insists he thrives on political hostility.

“The more they want to shoo me away, the more I’m willing to fight on,” Prayut Chan-o-cha said as he went in front of the Senate to defend the extra budget the government is seeking to combat the effects of the coronavirus.

He did say, though, that Thai voters “must choose wisely” in the next general election, a comment that must certainly fuel speculation that Thailand might go to poll sooner than expected. The context of the comment has to be considered carefully, however.

He said he wanted to “stay the course” so “people will stop talking about it”, but when Thai voters have to choose again, they must “choose wisely”. Is it defiant? Yes. But it also seems he did not totally rule out  an early election.

June 13, 2021: Perhaps the only one smiling more broadly than US President Joe Biden right now is the coronavirus, because a summit meeting of wealthy nations calling themselves “G7” seemed more concerned about China’s growing political and economic influences than how the world should sincerely join hands to fight an on-going global pandemic.

There are initiatives related to COVID-19 coming out of the meeting. There are pledges to work closer together, albeit among trusted allies. More money will be spent to fight the virus. But all of that have emerged at the G7 meeting with an underlying purpose of countering Beijing.

G7 leaders are leaving Cornwall with a US message that fighting China’s political and economic clouts is important. Here’s what CNN has to say on the day the summit is concluded: “The United States says it will be a lead partner in a new global, climate-friendly infrastructure program with its Group of 7 partners, part of President Job Biden’s larger efforts at the G7 summit to better position the US and its allies to compete with China in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.”

CNN said confronting China became a source of contention between the summit participants, but the news outlet went ahead to explain how the White House was aware of the importance of “presenting an initiative to” China’s own global infrastructure ambition, known as Belt and Road.

American politicians call the US initiative a “Build Back Better World” agenda, but any kind of competition between the world’s most powerful nations must be welcomed by the deadly virus which has proved time and again it thrives on human conflicts and unhealthy rivalries.

June 12, 2021: One fact of political life is that when a government wants to borrow, the opposition will attack. The Shinawatras should know that best.

A Bt2 trillion borrowing bill sparked a big controversy during the Yingluck government, and that is why Thaksin, now known as Tony Woodsome, should have thought twice before giving online sermon on how states should handle debts and spend borrowed money.

A Facebook page promoting Thaksin’s financial “wisdom” has published what was hailed as Thaksin’s valuable thoughts on when, where and how governments should seek to borrow and how the money should be used. The Facebook account, run by his loyal strategists, of course, has omitted to mention that during the Yingluck administration, more than half of Thailand’s top economists were up in arms in asking that government to opt for other means to get funding for infrastructure development instead of trying to push through a bill for Bt2.2 trillion loans.

It has to be stressed that the opposition to the Yingluck government’s plan did not come from just political rivals, but also a large number of neutral economists who expressed concern about potentially big problems that could arise from the bill.

Thaksin’s “wisdom” as described by the Facebook page can be summed up like this: “Borrow wisely and spend wisely. If not, disaster definitely awaits.” Another one of Thaksin’s mottos is that a government shouldn’t “strangle” its people with massive debts.

June 11, 2021: Almost one in every five Cambodians, or 16% of the population, has received a coronavirus vaccine shot, made in China of course. Only the wealthy state of Singapore, very close to the United States, can boast a better vaccination percentage in Southeast Asia.

In the middle of ASEAN vaccination rankings are Malaysia (about 7.6%) and Indonesia (6.6%), according to information provided by Reuters. Thailand stands at 4.6% and the Philippines at 4.2%. Laos and Brunei are closer to Cambodia than Thailand.

In Vietnam, where anti-China feelings are strong, only about 1% of the population has been covered, Reuters said. Chinese vaccines were approved less than a week ago.

Cambodia’s situation “reflects Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy in a region where competition with US influence is intense,” Reuters said. Phnom Penh is China’s close ally. Vaccines in Southeast Asia have been bought or donated. Prices and volumes vary, and diplomatic allegiance plays a big part in that.

The United States announced its first major donations related to COVID-19 to Asia last week. The US-China race to win hearts in Southeast Asia is widely welcomed, but what the world does not want to see is also taking shape really fast. The official war of words between Washington and Beijing over who is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to go from lab leaks to bioweapon experiments.

***Figures and percentages are from a few days ago, meaning they can change significantly now.

June 10, 2021: A plan by the Sports Authority of Thailand to broadcast live certain Euro Championship matches will most likely spark debate on how taxpayers’ money should be used at this time of national hardships.

Football fans will certainly welcome the broadcast. They even say the plan should have covered the curtain raiser of the month-long tournament which begins tomorrow (June 11) as well as all matches in the group stage.

If the plan, announced today by the SAT, goes ahead, it will cover just matches in the knock-out stage up to the final. Even this “limited” broadcast will almost certainly kick off a political storm, especially as the Prayut government has been criticised by its opponents for economic and monetary “mismanagement”.

June 9, 2021: They openly call it an anti-China bill in Washington. But whatever the real name, the rare bipartisan piece of legislation is set to sail through the US Congress in the coming days because it would counter Beijing’s growing technological and economic clouts.

The bill, requiring an obscene amount of money, would primarily activate massive investment in semiconductor manufacturing, boost scientific researches and developments, spur 5G innovations, respond to “unfair” Chinese practices like alleged intellectual property thefts and enhance space programs.

It’s a rare agreement between the badly-divided Democrats and Republicans that the bill must pass with minimum fuss.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the Chan-o-cha family has been dealt a blow with the National Anti-Corruption Commission voting to accept a case of asset misreporting by the prime minister’s younger brother, Senator Preecha Chan-o-cha, who will have to defend himself against the kind of allegations that have brought down some high-profile politicians. It’s a potentially explosive political case.

June 8, 2021: Journalists have always been taught that when you are attacked left and right, you are most likely doing the right thing. Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana is not a journalist, but the “pro-democracy” activist is being attacked left and right.

A hashtag “Give Bow to the Salim (the Elite)” was trending a few days ago. A Clubhouse talk was the last straw. Before that, she was already no longer a darling of anti-establishment protesters after criticising some of their idols who allegedly supported or promoted “fake news”, lambasting demonstrators who used or provoked violence to attract attention, and lamenting online bullying or intolerance of different opinions. Facebook posts are calling her a popularity seeker and a double-standard lady (for “not doing enough” when protesters were subjected to name-calling).

Her words have been embraced by the other camp as long as they are useful to them. But all in all, Nuttaa has been stuck in the middle thanks to her tough anti-coup stance and calls for fully-baked democracy which she insists is very far-off. Wait until she speaks up on those issues.

Her past political activities, being scrutinised by her former allies, are what her new fans refuse to mention. It’s extremely divisive, partisan politics in full swing in which the middle ground is a minefield that can blow anyone brave or naive enough to be on it sky-high. And make no mistake, what’s happening to Nuttaa is happening on the other side, too.

June 7, 2021: In a Facebook post that must have made many scratch their heads, Warong Dechkitvigrom, a leading man fighting anti-government protesters, has asked the parliamentary opposition to “do your job” and go to the bottom of the “fishy smells” regarding double-track railway projects in the North and Northeast.

“What are you doing? Please earn your salaries,” he told opposition MPs in the Facebook post, which stated that suspected irregularities might cost taxpayers’ billions of baht in the future.

Warong, whose political group Thai Pakdee is becoming a political party, said key opposition camps have been wasting their time chasing political topics like budgets of certain agencies and globally complicated COVID-19 vaccine supplies while ignoring cases that affect real well-beings of the Thai people and directly involve government politicians like double-track railway plans.

June 6, 2021: Chadchart Sittipunt’s lead in popularity among city gubernatorial candidates may have slightly declined in the latest Nida Poll, but he can take heart in the fact that, even so, top parties like Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharath, Move Forward, and Democrat are being left so far behind.

According to the poll, if the election took place today, he could win the support of some 23.8% of voters, compared with 5.3% for Pheu Thai, 2.8% for Move Forward or the Progressive Movement, 1.75% for Democrat and 1.2% for Palang Pracharath. (Chadchart’s support was 24.7% in April.)

Following Chadchart at 12.5% is former police chief Chakthip Chaijinda. (Chakthip’s support in April was 11.9%.

The Nida Poll surveyed 1,313 Bangkok eligible voters for three days last week.

Good news for the chasing pack is that Chadchart came “second” in the survey. The first place, 30.6%, is not his support, but they are the “silent power” who have not made up their minds yet. Another thing is political parties have not yet unveiled their candidates, whose nominations can alter public opinions significantly.

June 5, 2021: In a detailed announcement issued the day before, the American Embassy listed on-going and impending help for countries regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, with Thailand among them.

Aid to Thailand has come in the form of crucial equipment for hospitals and the public, donations and support for local programmes, according to the information titled “US support for Thailand to beat COVID-19.”

The information highlighted US intention to support Thailand’s response to the pandemic “at every level”. One part of the information, published online by the embassy’s website, said US “army medical scientists are collaborating with Thai counterparts to develop Thailand’s own vaccine candidates, intensifying efforts to protect Thais in the future.”

June 4, 2021: As rich countries continue to vaccinate themselves out of COVID-19 crises, medical facilities are facing the threat of being completely overwhelmed in Africa, where inoculation is also edging far too slowly to cope with a menacing surge.

The so-called “vaccine apartheid” is threatening the poor continent. In the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the World Health Organisation detected an “exponential rise” in cases last month. In Uganda, the case number has jumped 131 per cent in one week with reported outbreaks in schools, and many health workers have been infected. Angola and Namibia are also seeing a resurgence.

All these are happening as the continent is facing a shortage of vaccines and deliveries are almost at a standstill, according to the WHO, which is hoping things will improve in the coming months. Only 2 % of Africans have been vaccinated to date, getting at least one shot. That is compared with 11 % of the entire global population. Of the six countries that have not kicked off inoculation, four of them are in Africa.

Pleas for help are getting louder. Here’s what one of the region’s top public health officials has to say: “Perhaps this is a greater moral boding for those who are sitting on excess doses of vaccines, because, actually they want to be on the right side of history.”

The continent was never really in the world’s COVID-19 focus. It must be now.

June 3, 2021: Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Taiwan has avoided being seen as needing China for help. It was all right when things went well and the small country was globally applauded for extremely-low numbers of infections and deaths.

Taiwan’s current figures can be laughed off in any other country, but still, they were unimaginable just a few weeks ago. Some blame complacency. Others have also frowned upon anti-China politicians whose allegedly biased measures affected screening and vaccination.

The last few days have seen hundreds of infection cases recorded daily. Severe cases were also increasing and health experts think the gap between the actual number of infected people and the official figure can be wider than initially expected.

Taiwan-based observers have begun to scrutinise secessionist politicians for rejection of Chinese mainland vaccines as well as universal screening. Those powerful politicians were accused of being motivated by political purposes and trying to manipulate public opinions. They might have sought to avoid detection of too many cases that can harm public confidence in them.

June 2, 2021: Make no mistake, a race to pump vaccines into needy areas around the globe has to be good. Fresh enhancement of Sinovac’s status, though, will underline divisive world politics with China on one side and the United States on the other.

In other words, the “vaccine war” to win the world’s hearts will benefit everyone, but the long-term future will have to take care of itself.

The coronavirus vaccine race is so obvious and has enormous diplomatic and economic implications and ramifications. When more than 20 Norwegian people died after receiving an American vaccine, some mainstream English-language media reported the incident awkwardly, or too little, or too superficially. The same media outlets, observers note, would hype up any unfavourable information about Chinese vaccines.

Which is why the game is very on after Sinovac has won a high-profile green light.

So far, Sinovac has provided some 540 million doses in China and nearly 40 other countries, accounting for about a quarter of the total global supply, according to the company. A lot more is highly likely and China’s political competitors cannot sit still and enhanced distribution programmes are underway at this very moment.

June 1, 2021: Vaccines are definitely working in the West, where some countries are deemed by health experts as months, if not weeks, away from being able to emerge from the health crisis, but Southeast Asia is increasingly where the attention is on, with the word “new epicentre” now looking likelier than ever before.

A sharp rise, which in many cases involve new variants, in Southeast Asia has prompted new restrictions, factory closures and hectic vaccination programmes. On a per capita basis, new cases in Malaysia are equalling those of India and sometimes even have soared past them. Cases in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and East Timor have more than doubled in recent weeks.

Thailand’s death toll has risen ten folds over the past two months. Vietnam has been alarmed by a possible combination of Indian and UK variants, something having a far-greater airborne threat. Myanmar’s Indian border has reported a scary surge.

Calls for more global cooperation on vaccines are growing louder and louder, despite promising signs in the West. This is not least because the world’s economy in this globalised era depends on everybody’s survival. Restrictions, for example, will seriously hamper productivity and income of countries that appear safe from COVID-19.

 

 

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