18 July 2024

The release of Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob’s timeline has failed to dampen public curiosity about his movements before he tested positive for COVID-19. Even after he launched legal action against two social-media users for suggesting he may have caught the virus at a nightspot in Bangkok’s upscale Thong Lor area, rumours about his nightlife habits are still raging.

Thai PBS World takes a closer look at the details in a bid to shed light on this controversial case.

Saksayam, 58, is the highest-ranking official to have contracted COVID-19 in Thailand. Latest reports suggest he is still receiving treatment at Buri Ram Hospital in Buri Ram province, the political stronghold of the Chidchob clan. His late father, Chai Chidchob, was first elected as a Buri Ram MP in 1969 and held onto the seat for decades, also serving as House speaker for three years. Saksayam’s elder brother, veteran former politician Newin, also remains hugely influential in the Northeast province, where he has been dubbed the “Baron of Buri Ram”.

Timeline of Saksayam’s infection 

On April 6, rumours began circulating that a Cabinet member known for his love of the nightlife had contracted COVID-19. Saksayam – who has officially declared himself single – quickly emerged as the main suspect. Speaking to media that day, he denied the rumours, saying he would already be out of action if infected. Asked if he had already received two doses of vaccine, he nodded.

The interview took place at Bhumjaithai Party headquarters in Bangkok, where a merit-making ceremony was being held to mark the party’s anniversary.

At 2pm, Saksayam flew out of Bangkok to Buri Ram on a private jet. By the time he landed at Buri Ram Airport at 3.45pm, the province’s communicable disease committee had declared Bangkok an infection red zone. On landing, Saksayam headed to Buri Ram Hospital to get tested.

The result came back negative.

The next morning, the minister sought another COVID-19 test at Buri Ram Hospital, and this one came back positive.

He was not, however, the first person in Buri Ram to test positive during the third wave of infections, which started earlier this month. Confirmed COVID-positive before him were two women – one of whom was a dancer at a pub in the Thonglor 13 area.

The rise and fall of Saksayam Chidchob, Thailand’s first COVID-positive Cabinet minister

Saksayam Chidchob was previously best known as the “nominee” of his older brother, veteran politician Newin. However, last week he landed himself in trouble by becoming the first Cabinet member and highest-ranking government official to test positive for COVID-19.

Reading between the timelines

The 28-year-old dancer’s timeline shows she worked at the pub on April 1 and 2, before her days off on April 3 and 4. On April 5, she caught a van from Bangkok to Buri Ram with four fellow workers. At 11.30am, she reached the Chang Arena, the home stadium of Buriram United, and picked up food boxes before checking into a motel. Newin is the owner of the football club.

In the afternoon, the dancer visited two drug stores to buy medicine because she felt ill. Worried she might have COVID-19, she finally turned up at Buri Ram Hospital at 2.30 pm for a test. Doctors admitted her, pending the result. At 8pm, the test came back positive for COVID-19.

Saksayam, who mainly works in Bangkok and uses the Bangkok-based Praram 9 Hospital, was listed as the fifth person to test positive for the third wave of COVID in Buri Ram.

Questions about Saksayam’s case

Despite huge public pressure, Saksayam has declined to offer a detailed timeline of his movements prior to getting infected. He insists he has already provided information to health authorities, who have the duty of revealing it as part of contact-tracing measures to curb the outbreak.

At about 10pm on April 8, the Buri Ram Public Health Office released the first version of his timeline, only to revise it a few hours later after Saksayam protested it was not accurate.

The revised document had more details about Saksayam’s whereabouts between March 23 and 25. Also changed was the time given for his return home on March 24 – moved back from 7pm to 6.30pm. However, no details were offered for April 2 and 3 – the dates the public was curious about. The timeline merely said Saksayam was at home on these two days.

Thai Govt facing backlash as third wave of COVID threatens to engulf Thailand

COVID-19 has been around for more than a year already in Thailand. Since it began spreading in early 2020, experts have been warning about more dangerous waves of infection to come. Yet, when the third wave finally hit this month, the government was seemingly caught ill-prepared. “We are not that confident.

Discrepancies also emerged in two press conferences on Saksayam’s case given by the Buri Ram Public Health Office on April 7 and April 9. While both suggested the minister must have caught the virus from his staff, the first press conference suggested that three of his staffers including a driver had visited a Thong Lor pub together.

Two days later Buri Ram public health chief Dr Pichet Puedkuntod turned up in person at the second press conference to dismiss the information. According to Dr Pichet, Rawit – a 35-year-old Transport Ministry official – visited Krystal Club Thonglor 25 on March 30 and The Emerald Thonglor 13 on April 1. On April 4 he took a COVID-19 test, which came back positive a day later.

Rawit’s close circle included Saksayam, his driver, and four policemen working in his team.

Though Rawit learned he was COVID positive on April 5, news of his infection surprisingly failed to reach those in his close circle on the same day. The four policemen tested positive on April 6. Saksayam and the driver tested positive on April 7.

As of press time, the Facebook page of the Buri Ram Public Health Office was not displaying Saksayam’s timeline.

Bhumjaithai MP Kittichai Reangsawat, who also tested positive for COVID-19, has come out to deny reports that he recently hung out with Saksayam in Thong Lor.

Former politician Chuvit Kamolvisit – dubbed Thailand’s “massage-parlour king” – claimed on social media that a minister had contracted COVID by French-kissing a star at a Bangkok nightspot. Chuvit did not reveal the identity of the minister.

Who has been punished?

In the wake of the outbreak at Thong Lor pubs, Thonglor Police Station superintendent Pol Colonel Duangchote Suwancharas was transferred to an inactive post. Duangchote is married to the daughter of former national police chief Pol General Patcharawat Wongsuwon.

A court also sentenced the managers of Krystal Club and the Emerald Thonglor to two months in jail for violating disease-control regulations.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk