BANGKOK: Efforts by public health ministry officials to persuade student activists to call off the rallies to help fight the Convid 19 virus spread in Thailand have received scant attention from protest leaders whose rhetoric on Saturday was more aggressive with calls for a constitution rewrite and to oust the government.

Thailand’s government parties appear to be adopting a carrot and stick approach to the growing student protests that have grown in strength throughout the country this week even gaining international media attention. On Sunday, the Minister for Public Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, warned that the Internal Security Act (2008) may have to be used to suppress the gatherings which pose a dangerous threat to efforts to contain the Convid 19 coronavirus in Thailand while his cabinet colleague, the Minister for Energy, Sontirat Sonthichirawong and Secretary-General of the Palang Pracharat Party called for dialogue between the students and parliament under existing regulations to address the concerns raised by the protestors.

On Sunday, the Minister for Energy Sontirat Sonthichirawong (left) called with talks with the students under the auspices of the Thai House of Representatives while the Minister for Public Health, Anutin Charnviraku (right), warned that the students may face legal action under the Internal Security Act 2008 if they continue to organise mass gatherings which presents a hurdle to Thailand’s efforts to fight the coronavirus.

Thailand’s Minister for Public Health, at the centre of the country’s fight against the coronavirus threat, signed an order on Sunday strengthening the powers of the government and various authorities to fight the disease, now classified as a threat to the public under Thai law.

The new provisions are understood to give powers to local authorities to close down venues and public spaces to prevent a spread of the disease should the government decide to use them.

At the same time, the Department of Disease Control in Thailand pointed out that it is now a legal obligation for anyone who suspects they may have contracted the virus or is aware of an infection to make contact with public health officials within three hours.

Health Minister suggests action against students under the Internal Security Act if they continue to dismiss warnings from health experts 

Significantly, the Minister for Public Health, Mr Anutin suggested that authorities may, at some point, use the Internal Security Act of 2008 to halt demonstrations and protests which have been gaining momentum this week at public spaces and college campuses throughout Thailand.

A week ago, senior officials with the ministry warned those organising the protests that they were putting the public at risk by calling for the mass meetings at this dangerous time.

Minster has been communicating with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister for Security

On Saturday, the minister said that he had made his thoughts known on the matter to the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and the Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan who is involved in handling security matters. 

He suggested that his ministry did not have the relevant powers to order the students to desist in their protests but could only advise and urge those involved.

He did, however, make clear that the Internal Security Act (2008) was a provision that may have to be used if the current situation persists saying that it was a matter entirely for the students to decide for themselves.

‘If they don’t listen to our warning, organisers must take responsibility if the protest leads to the spread of the disease,’ Minister Anutin explained.

Thailand has recorded its first death from the virus 

The Public Health Minister was speaking the day after Thailand recorded its first death from the Covid 19 coronavirus.

Dr Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoenchai, the Director-General of the Department of Disease Control, on Sunday told reporters that the deceased patient was a 35-year-old male retail worker who had been hospitalised on February 16th following exposure to Chinese tourists. 

The health official revealed that although he had later tested negative for the infection, the damage wrought to his vital organs had taken its toll and eventually took his life at the Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute on Saturday at 6.25 pm from multiple organ failure.

Prayut shows understanding for the protesting students but warns of  legal perils and danger

Earlier this week, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut expressed some understanding for Thailand’s protesting students but warned them that they were not listening to both sides of the story.

He urged them to find a balanced view.

‘The most important thing is the law. These children are the future of the nation. To judge what is right or wrong, they must be open to information. Listening to only one side will leave Thailand in a trap,’ he said.

Towards the end of the week, the protests had started to make news on international media outside of Thailand which is bound to ramp up if the numbers grow.

The PM warned that, ultimately, students involved in the ongoing protests may pay a severe price a long time after the protests have ended or even been forgotten about. 

The PM drew their attention to the prosecution and jailing of those on those on both sides of the political divide who have engaged in protests from earlier years of political crisis, some of whom received long prison sentences for their actions even up to a decade later.

At the end of the day, the prime minister observed that the law must be upheld at all times and in all respects because the rule of law is sacred

Rallies and protest have gained in momentum

The warning from the prime minister and other politicians seemed to be going unheard days later. The rallies during and towards the weekend have extended to more third-level institutions with swelling crowds.

The largest so far was held on Saturday at Kasetsart University in the Chatuchak area of Bangkok. The event saw thousands of people turn up with the ranks of students swelled by students from other institutions and also older members of the public.

Some reports described the protest as the biggest since the 2014 coup. The leader of the protest at the university described it as the biggest protest since the 1973 series of student protests against what was then termed a government dictatorship.

Calls for a rewrite of the 2017 Constitution

Various speakers called for a rewriting of the 2017 constitution to make it more democratic and criticised its drafting and the plebiscite in which the Thai public approved it in August 2016.

There were also claims that the 2019 election and decisions in its aftermath were not democratic.

Speakers referred to bigger protests being planned for next week and even talked about outsing the current government.

Cabinet minister calls for Parliament to listen to the students under Article 50 of house rules

On Saturday, Thailand’s Minister of Energy, Sontirat Sonthichirawong, and the Secretary-General of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party moved a motion to have the House of Representatives, through its speaker Chuan Leekpai, under Article 50 of the house regulations take steps to listen to the students and their demands using a moderator to conduct such talks.

The minister said he believed that the students had good intentions and that it was incumbent on all parties to talk and listen to each other so as to reduce potential conflict.

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