First it was a charge against a teenage rapper, next the threat of defamation suits against celebrities trolling the Thai government over its stalling vaccine roll-out, then finally a ban on all media reporting “false messages” over the coronavirus response.
Thailand’s notoriously thin-skinned prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, appears to have become especially sensitive to his critics as the coronavirus runs rampant, sinks the economy and exposes his administration to accusations of incompetence over its vaccination campaign, even from his one-time fans.
Since April, a third wave of infections has left nearly 4,900 people dead, with daily cases hitting a record 18,000 over the weekend. On Monday there was another record, with 178 people dying of the virus as more restrictions were imposed across over half of the country.
Critics lay much of the blame on the country’s stuttering vaccination programme. Just 3.8 million Thais have received two jabs, a fraction of the country’s 70 million population.
Anger is visible on Bangkok’s streets.
On Sunday hundreds of protesters in cars and on motorcycles took part in a “car mob”, driving around central and northern Bangkok and honking their horns to demand Prayuth’s resignation. They were met by riot police deploying water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas.
Among the protesters calling for the prime minister to stand down was property heir Tanat Thanakitamnuay, one of the leading ultraroyalist figures whose street movement in 2014 ended in the coup that brought Prayuth to power.
A photograph of Tanat that went viral showed him holding a placard with the words: “[The government is] so stupid that us ‘Salim’ have changed our hearts.”
“Salim” is political slang for the establishment-supporting middle-classes who have – at least until now – largely refrained from supporting a growing student-led protest movement calling for reform of Thailand’s army-dominated politics.
Critics blame Prayuth for failing to procure enough vaccines and for the country’s initial reliance on the Chinese-made Sinovac jab. With concerns mounting over the efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine, which uses an inactivated form of the Covid-19 virus, the government is now scrambling to secure mRNA jabs such as those made by Pfizer and Moderna.
Images of people collapsing on city streets unattended or being treated in hospital car parks as the public health system is overwhelmed have shocked and angered the public.
Instead of apologising, authorities have gone into attack mode.
Police last week warned they would pursue defamation charges against anyone who posted online criticisms of the government’s vaccine efforts or the efficacy of vaccines.
An emergency decree on Friday also banned the dissemination of “false messages” that cause panic, misunderstanding or confusion – an order the media says is an attempt to muzzle reporting of the virus outbreak.
The general vs celebrities
As the virus grips the country, an unpopular government has pitched itself directly against Thailand’s army of influencers.
In mid-July an official from the prime minister’s office filed a defamation charge against Danupa Kanaterrakul, a sassy 18-year-old rapper popularly known as “Milli”.
She had tweeted a sarcastic reaction to Prayuth’s public pledge to forgo three months of his salary amid the economic downturn.
“Wow, we’re so grateful,” she said of the multimillionaire general’s promise, earning her a 2,000 baht (S$82) fine.
But in the age of the influencer, celebrities are not going quietly.
“There is a severe crisis of faith in this government,” singer and television host Unpuwanat Khunpalin told This Week in Asia.
“The government hasn’t answered any questions to the public, there are only lame excuses with no logic,” he said.
Unpuwanat supported Prayuth’s power grab as army chief but has since changed his mind, one of an increasing number to have expressed buyer’s remorse.
“We all need to move in the same direction. We all need to do it for each other,” he said.
As the public anger mounts, the government is doubling down with its message that the enemy is the virus, not the administration.
“I’m still moving forwards ... it is not time for me to leave,” Prayuth said in a televised interview on July 30, batting away any thoughts of an end to his seven-year stay in office.
Experts say only a shift in support from the all-powerful Thai monarchy could dislodge Prayuth.
Unwilling to give an inch, Prayuth’s government is trying to put out criticism.
One of the prime minister’s senior advisers – Sonthiya Sawasdee – lodged a legal complaint in late July against 20 celebrities whom he claimed had defamed the government on social media.
“People can express their opinions so long as they are beneficial to the country,” he told reporters.
But Thailand’s famous are in defiant mood.
Nisamanee Lertworapong, a fashion blogger with 840,000 Instagram followers, appeared at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument dressed as Katniss Everdeen, the main character in the Hunger Games movies, flashing the famous three-finger salute with the word “truth” taped over her mouth and crossed out. “We’re under a regime where truth cannot be spoken,” the caption read.
Famous people had a duty to “promote freedom of speech in our country”, television star Sirilapas “Mew” Kongtrakarn told This Week in Asia .
She was recently pulled as a host of a talk show on Channel 7 because of her outspoken views, but says she will carry on calling out the government while sick people go untreated or without vaccines.
“Every minute that Prayuth is in power, someone dies,” she said.
“We’ve lost enough because of him. How much more do we have to lose?”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.