The Thai government and the Director of the National Vaccine Institute have hailed the AstraZeneca vaccine as the right one for Thailand and see the ability of a Thai firm to produce the vaccine in the kingdom as not only the best solution but also an opportunity for the country. An angry Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, this week warned that any ‘distortions’ or untruths in relation to the matter would see legal action.

The government has launched a lèse-majesté legal action against Progressive Movement leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, following a 30-minute video on Monday in which the former political party leader appeared to criticise the government’s vaccination strategy accusing it of being too reliant on a Thai company based in Pathum Thani which was recently praised by the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha and is partnering with UK Swedish firm AstraZeneca to produce its worldwide approved vaccine in Thailand. 

Progressive Movement leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, it has now been confirmed by two official government sources including the Digital Economy and Society Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, is to be charged with Lèse-majesté under Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code. This could see him facing a stiff prison sentence if convicted by a court after a 30 minute Facebook broadcast on Monday. In it, he criticised the government’s reliance on the AstraZeneca vaccine and Thai firm Siam Bioscience which is to manufacture hundreds of millions of doses here in Thailand under licence from the large UK Swedish concern.

It is reported that legal action against the leader of the Progressive Movement has been lodged on Wednesday following a furious statement on Tuesday and a warning from the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, after the government this week became aware of a Facebook LIVE broadcast on the social network.

General Prayut said that action would be taken against anyone publishing lies or distortions about the kingdom’s vaccination efforts to overcome the Covid-19 virus threat.

The news was confirmed on Wednesday by the Digital Economy and Society Ministry which usually means a report to the Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police for further action. The move came in a written statement from the ministry.

Progressive leader appeared to question Thailand’s reliance on the UK Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine

In the video broadcast titled ‘Royal Vaccine: Who Benefits and Who Doesn’t?’, which lasted about 30 minutes, Mr Thanathorn questioned the government’s strategy in its vaccination programme pointing out that up to recent weeks, only one vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, had been planned for use.

It is understood that Mr Thanathorn focused his message on the Thai firm Siam Bioscience based in Pathum Thani which, it was suggested by him, is supported by or linked to the Crown Property Bureau, the property arm of the Thai monarchy.

PM hailed Thai firm’s vaccine capability as an advance for the kingdom’s claim to be a medical hub

The government and Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha have for weeks now, cited the ability of the Thai firm to be able to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in the kingdom at a reported quantity of 200 million doses a year as an extremely positive outcome.

Last week, General Prayut went further and even hailed the development as an opportunity which showed that Thailand had taken advantage of the crisis to further progress the kingdom as an advanced medical hub.

In Mr Thanathorn’s video, he pointed to the sudden need, in recent weeks, to import the Sinovac vaccine from China which only covers the needs of 1 million people said to be within the medical sector, the very old and those most at risk.

Mr Thanathorn is reported to have said this on his controversial video: ‘Thailand pinned its hopes only on AstraZeneca which allowed local pharmaceutical manufacturer, Siam Bioscience, to produce its vaccine. The government had not held talks with other countries until January 3rd when it announced it will buy two million doses of vaccines from Sinovac which is a very small quantity, enough for only 1.5% of the population.’

Based on the broadcast, government sources are suggesting there are adequate grounds to charge and convict the young billionaire on numerous counts of lèse-majesté.

Prime Minister warned this week that caution was the country’s watchword on vaccines developed outside Thailand – no experiments on Thais

This week, the Prime Minister issued a strongly worded statement following concerns about the Pfizer BioNTech mRNA vaccine in Norway stating that the government’s clearest and strongest policy concerning Thailand’s vaccination rollout was one of utmost caution and that Thai people would never be used as an experiment for any vaccine.

Simultaneously, top officials at the Ministry of Public Health moved to assure the public that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe. 

This was further supported by reports, in the last 24 hours, that the Thai Food and Drug Administration will soon give the vaccine the green light.

Thanathorn barred from politics

Thanathorn, who was barred from Thai politics for 10 years last year when his Future Forward Party, which came third in the 2019 General Election, was dissolved after illegal loan facilities were advanced to it by the wealthy industrialist.

He has since founded an organisation called the Progressive Movement which had a disappointing outcome in the year-end local elections for provincial administrations. 

Mr Thanathorn is already facing the threat of criminal proceedings concerning the loan facilities advanced to the now-defunct Future Forward Party to fund its election expenses in 2019 as well as a probe by Thailand’s powerful Election Commission into the Progressive Movement which faces complaints that it is behaving much like a political party possibly leaving the progressive young politician in contravention of last year’s court order or in violation of the 2017 Constitutional Act on Political Parties.

Proceedings underway against political activist

On Wednesday, Tossapol Pengsom, with the Prime Minister’s Office in Bangkok, confirmed that charges against Mr Thanathorn are being pursued by his office concerning the Facebook broadcast.

‘We’re pursuing charges on computer crime and lèse-majesté for content that defamed the monarchy,’ he is reported as saying by news agency Reuters.

In response to the news, it is understood that Mr Thanathorn is to make a statement on Thursday although, on Wednesday, his colleague, former MP and co-leader within the Progressive Movement, Pannika Wanich had this to say: ‘It’s obvious that 112 is being used again as a political tool’.

Lèse-majesté law increasingly at the centre of anti-government protests and agitation since November

The spat between the government and the Progressive Movement leader and the commencement of lèse-majesté proceedings is coming at a time when the law protecting the monarchy from defamation, Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, is being placed front and centre of the ongoing student-led protest movement which relaunched its activities last weekend in Bangkok.

Former senior civil servant sentenced to 87 years for sharing Youtube videos critical of the monarchy

On Tuesday, a former Thai civil servant was sent back to prison when a court sentenced her to 87 years reducing the term by half to 43 and a half years because of a guilty plea for offences under the law. 

The woman, named as Ms Achan for her own safety, had been released in 2018 after serving 3 years and nine months in prison. She was held there while her case was being investigated having been denied bail. 

Woman must serve 43 and a half years while video maker got five years as court viewed publishing the content as a more serious offence

Ms Achan had shared Youtube videos critical of the monarchy produced by a hardcore anti-monarchy activist using the pseudonym Banpodj. 

The activist was subsequently jailed for five years, half of a ten-year sentence for pleading guilty while the court took the view that Ms Achan’s offences were more serious as she published the illegal material.

Ms Achan is reported to have been a C-8 grade government official working with Thailand’s Revenue Department. The highest level possible is C-11. 

Her prosecution and present prison term came about as a result of the protest activity which led the Thai Prime Minister to order the resumption of the use of Article 112 for Lèse-majesté in November last year.

It was to be used against protest leaders following violent rioting and disorder in Bangkok.

It had been suspended from 2018 to 2020 at the personal request of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Amnesty International says case of Thai woman the most severe Article 112 sentence to date

This week, Amnesty International said that Ms Achan’s case is the highest sentence to date following the 70-year term handed down to a Thai man in 2015 for sharing an outlawed video ten times.

The law, which provides for a jail term of 3 to 15 years has been interpreted stringently by the courts who often hand down consecutive terms. It was widened in its scope and coverage from 1957 along with the growing power and popularity of Thailand’s monarchy.

Currently, Thai lawyers for Human Rights estimate that there are 54 people facing prosecution before the courts including several young teenage protesters.

National Vaccine Institute boss defends Thai firm behind the AstraZeneca vaccine in Thailand

As to the controversy stirred by Mr Thanathorn, Dr Nakorn Premsri of the National Vaccine Institute has defended and praised the government on the basis of its foresight in forging a partnership with the UK Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

This vaccine has emerged as a good balance between safety and efficacy while also being easier to distribute in hotter temperatures than either the Pfizer or the Moderna jab which are mRNA type vaccines while the Oxford University developed AstraZeneca jab is termed a viral vector vaccine which triggers the body immune system.

AstraZeneca jab is up to 95% effective

It has similar efficacy rates quoted to be in excess of 90% with the most recent study giving a 95% outcome.

Dr Nakorn told the media that many other countries had lobbied to be a chosen partner for AstraZeneca.

He pointed out that the firm had obvious confidence in the Thai company Siam Bioscience which, with the help of the government, had spent ฿600 million preparing its facility in Pathum Thani to produce the vaccine for both the Thai and export market.

He also made it clear that the contract signed with the international pharmaceutical company was based on ‘non-profit principles’.

‘If the company wasn’t set up under the late King Rama IX’s initiative 10 years ago, we would not have this today. Please be confident that Thai people can access the vaccine,’ he concluded.

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Further reading:

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Top virologist Dr Yong defends the use of the Sinovac vaccine to protect frontline medical staff at high risk

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