Protesters hold a sign that reads 'The longer you stay, the more devastation to the country, please resign' as they take part in an anti-government demonstration at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on July 18. (Photo: AFP)
Many Thais are in uproar over their government’s woeful mishandling of a situation that could have led to the spread of Covid-19 in a seaside province. Worse still, officials have sought to blame locals and place the onus on them to contain the spread of the virus that causes the potentially lethal disease. Earlier this month it transpired that a member of an Egyptian delegation of air force personnel which visited Thailand briefly and was allowed to travel freely tested positive for the coronavirus. The 31-member delegation spent a day in the seaside province of Rayong in eastern Thailand where they visited a shopping mall and other public places. The infected Egyptian airman, who was being treated as a VIP, was allowed to leave the group’s quarantine hotel for a shopping trip in Rayong city, the province’s capital. Hundreds of unwitting locals are believed to have come in close contact with the Egyptian officer.
Yet not only did the government refuse to take responsibility for the fiasco but officials said they expected locals in Rayong to ensure that the virus would not spread. The province’s governor called on residents who visited the same shopping mall or stayed near the hotel where the Egyptian delegation was put up to report to the authorities. Failing to do so would result in a fine of 20,000 baht (US$630), he said. The mall was promptly closed down along with nearly 130 schools across the province for fear of a renewed outbreak of Covid-19. In general, Thai authorities have been strictly enforcing Covid-19 rules. During a three-month lockdown and various curfews nationwide, at least 35,000 Thais were arrested and charged with criminal offenses for breaking the rules. Yet no Thai official has faced any disciplinary action over the incident in Rayong as the government has largely washed its hands of the affair. Senior officials blamed both the Egyptians and the Thai staff at their hotel. “They [the Egyptians] were told to stay inside their rooms when they arrived in Thailand. The hotel too should have stopped them from stepping outside,” Suwanchai Wattanayingcharoenchai, chief of the Disease Control Department, argued. Yet such excuses do not wash with many Thais. “This is so typical,” an irate citizen commented on social media. “They [the government] mess up and we have to suffer the consequences.” Those consequences also include a further blow to the province’s tourism industry, which is a key source of revenue for many locals. On the resort island of Samet in the Gulf of Thailand, there have been mass cancellations in the wake of the revelation that the Egyptian officer who had tested positive for Covid-19 recently visited the province. “On Samet we were so strict with social distancing measures,” Rungrojtawee Popet, who runs a seaside bar on the island, told a Thai news outlet last week. “But one person destroyed the entire province.” During the three-month closure to tourism on the island between March and July as part of the nationwide lockdown, around a third of local hotels, bars and restaurants went bankrupt, Rungrojtawee estimated. The lockdown was lifted on July 1 but the island’s tourism business is now facing another uphill battle. “The government let their guard down even though citizens like us were fully on guard,” Sirinthip Tappamongkolsup, president of the Koh Samet tourism association, was quoted as saying. “Tourism operators waited for months to reopen. Everyone is struggling and lacking income because the government was sloppy and gave privileges to foreigners, resulting in disaster,” Sirinthip said. “Who will take responsibility for this?” It is unlikely to be the government. Although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha issued an apology of sorts last week for the fiasco, he went on to chide the Thai media for reporting on the incident in the first place. “Where did the panic come from?” Prayut asked journalists at a news conference. “What caused people across the country to be moved to the point that they don’t want to come out? Tell me.” The prime minister, who has long had a fractious relationship with the media, asked reporters to “tone down” the coverage of the affair. “If you keep adding more fuel to it, then it will always turn out like this,” he suggested. Thai authorities have been clamping down on critical voices. Two activists were arrested on July 15 and charged with violating the emergency decree, which has been in place for months to afford Prayut sweeping powers, ostensibly to deal with the pandemic. The activists were detained for planning to hold up banners condemning Prayut as the politician’s motorcade was about to pass by during his visit to Rayong province last week. Prayut, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, has been in charge of Thailand ever since at the head of a military-allied government. One of the signs of the two protesters read: “The longer you stay, the longer the country will be screwed up.”
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