Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan sends a gloomy account of the situation in Thailand as the coronavirus “pandemic” winds down.
Thailand, land of the no more smiles
by H. Numan
I’ve got bad news and I’ve got bad news. Which do you want to hear first?
Let’s start with the bad news. Thai International Airlines is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. The airline has been very badly managed, long before the Chinese Virus struck. Countless efforts have been made to revive the company. You can read as: every executive lined his pockets. Thursday the axeman will arrive. The government stated it will not support Thai Inter. The decision of the shareholders should have been reached last Friday, but they asked for an extension.
It’s a pretty big deal here. You can see that because… everybody pretends it is not a big deal! Loss of face, you know. If KLM goes belly up, the Dutch would be up in arms. Thais are the most chauvinistic people on the planet. Their national pride goes down, and it’s not really important? Come on!
Thai International is the national carrier. A long time ago, one of the very best airlines in the world. The food was excellent and the service superb. The problem was that they didn’t make any profits. Why? Well, everybody working in Thai Inter got free flights. And their family members. And friends. And the royal family (always first class, of course). And their staff. And the friends of the royal staff. And most government officials. And their friends. You get the idea, I think. That can work in a well-managed company in a strong economic climate. It doesn’t most of the time. Thai Inter was never well managed to begin with.
That was no problem when Thai Inter was a government-run airline. After privatization this continued and became a serious problem. One of many. They did cut costs, but that took much of the shine off the airline. The last time I flew Thai, it showed. Food was not too bad — but that comes from me. In other words: from a garbage can with very low gourmet standards. If I find food mediocre, people with higher standards, beware!!! Entertainment was dated. Chairs were visibly well used. Staff was still friendly, but clearly overworked.
It’s a very big deal for Thailand, as it is the national carrier. The reason of the postponement is to put more pressure on the government to cough up something. Which they won’t do. Currently, the offices on Vipawadee Rungsit Road are for sale. The company staff works in rented space. They were able to sell off their old Boeing 747’s. However, that is not enough. Thai bought a lot of big Airbuses 340 and 380 — which nobody wants. Those planes are brand new, and can only be sold for scrap value. That really hurts.
That was the bad news. Now for some more bad news. Thailand survived the Chinese Virus pandemic relatively unscathed. The first two waves, that is. Until third wave hit us, hard. The death toll rose from under a hundred for a whole year to 614 in a matter of weeks. It’s still pretty good, compared with other countries. Thailand ranks 117, whereas The Netherlands ranks 27, with +17,000 deaths. As Thailand has four times as many citizens and is a third-world country, that’s actually pretty good.
I live in the dark-red zone, being Bangkok. Dark-red is an euphemism for black… One of the reasons is the outbreak of the virus in Thai prisons. Especially in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Thai prisons are notorious all over the world. One can, with good reason, call it Auschwitz in the tropics. Cells are vastly overcrowded: 40 men to a cell with barely room to move. Prisoners are kept in their cell from 3pm until 7am. With one jar for a toilet. No air-conditioning and all the mosquitoes you want. Thai cuisine is served: the cheapest rice possible with meat (cockroaches) or vegetarian (without the roaches). Water comes from a nearby canal. The guards differ from the ones in Auschwitz in that they don’t speak German. You won’t be surprised to hear that medical care and especially hygiene are matching. Hence, 6,853 cases in just the Bangkok prisons.
This recently came into the news when a political activist, Parit Chiwarat (Penguin), was released on bail on no less than twenty charges of lèse-majesté. That can give him up to 300 years in jail, when convicted. Upon his release he told the press he contracted the Chinese Virus in prison, and that many inmates were infected as well. The prison authorities tried to deny it, but in vain. They couldn’t stop an official medical inquiry, after a huge public outcry.
Which I find a somewhat hypocritical reaction. Just about everybody over the age of 4 years knows Thai prisons are really, REALLY, REALLY bad. Thais can proudly say: our prisons are the worst in the world! Bang Kwang is the most famous prison in the world! Add a highly contagious disease to that extremely unsanitary situation with far less than the barest minimum in health care. What do you expect? Miracles?
The minister of Justice just announced that 50,000 prisoners will be released next month, and can serve the remainder of their sentences at home with a digital detection device. The prisoners have been convicted of small non-violent offenses. Usually drugs-related. (A teenager with a joint, for example.)
Now this Mr. Penguin is ordered to refrain from any political activity. Informing about a highly dangerous situation in a government facility is not political, but admit it: a pretty severe kick in governmental nuts nevertheless. Penguin is, or was, a student activist. Remember the student protests last December? All leaders were arrested. The movement has been beaten to a pulp, utterly squashed. For the moment. You don’t hear even a peep in the media. They have been advised to be very cautious about what they report.
That doesn’t mean to say everything is now on the beam. More like the grumbling has been obliterated by force. The students keep their mouths shut for the moment. Nothing has changed; the problems haven’t been resolved or even addressed. I’m afraid that this is a ticking bomb. No idea when the bomb will go off, but it will.
Going back to the Chinese Virus pandemic. Thailand is doing relatively well health-wise. Most other countries do far worse. Businesswise, it’s a very different story. The Thai economy rests on service industries (mainly tourism) and export. Exactly those two industries have been hit the hardest everywhere. Not just in Thailand. The only hotels still in business are the top five star hotels, which have deep enough pockets to weather the pandemic. And smaller cheaper hotels that cater to local tourism. Most other hotels are either boarded up permanently or temporarily. Even in my area of Bangkok I’ve seen hotels that closed down forever.
“Oh, it’s only the hotels. That is less than 1/3 of the economy. So, it could be worse.” Indeed, it can be worse. Because no tourists means nobody buying fake Gucci bags. No tourists to eat in restaurants or bars. No tourists to take tuk-tuk rides. Tuk-tuk drivers are hit really hard. They are at the rock bottom end of society, and always have a week left over on the end of their salary. It reverberates through the economy: hotel workers are laid off, so they won’t buy or rent a new house. Or a new car or motorcycle. Certainly not the latest model phone or a new computer. In other words: everybody suffers. The whole economy is in survival mode. For a whole year, with little progress on the horizon. After the outbreaks in Bangkok (among others in the densely populated slums of Klong Toey and Din Daeng) bars and restaurants have to close early, restrict the number of patrons and much more. The only thing we don’t have is a curfew. If you were to travel elsewhere within Thailand, some provinces have set up checkpoints. Supposing you come from a dark-red zone, you will have to provide a valid (<24 hrs) test certificate and proof of vaccination. Otherwise, it’s compulsory 14 day quarantine. Quarantine has been made more strict: you have to stay in your room for 14 days now. Going out to the bar of the hotel, or going for a swim in the pool, is a no-no.
Many factories build for foreign companies. For example, American and Japanese car manufacturers. Due to the slump in demand, many workers have been laid off. Factories produce at a reduced rate. The Thai baht is very strong. That’s good monetary policy, for which I compliment the Bank of Thailand. The downside is that a strong currency is very bad for export.
The government is introducing vaccination for the whole country. Two vaccines are available: AstraZeneca and Sinovac. Moderna will be available after August. The island of Phuket is trying to get everybody vaccinated, and plans to restart tourism in July. Foreigners (me, for example) are hung out to dry by their embassies. They can’t do anything, or so they say.
The government announced that expats can apply for vaccination in the next round, which will be August.
— H. Numan