Thai pro-democracy leader charged after vaccine rollout accusation

Leading opposition figure has accused king’s company of seeking to profit from vaccines

Thailand will charge the country's leading opposition figure under its harsh lèse majesté law after he accused a company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn of seeking to profit from distributing the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.

The move against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit comes as prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government attempts to silence criticism of Thailand’s billionaire monarch by opening cases under the law, which carries a maximum 15-year prison term, against dozens of supporters of a six-month-old democracy movement.

Thailand's digital affairs ministry said on Wednesday that the government had also asked police to charge Mr Thanathorn, who has faced multiple criminal charges since entering politics in 2018, under the "computer-related crimes" Act.

Mr Thanathorn, leader of the Progressive Movement, said that giving Siam Bioscience exclusive rights to distribute the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was "an attempt to shore up the popularity of the monarchy" and that "the vaccine was not given by the king".

The Thai company is 100 per cent owned by the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the king’s wealth portfolio, estimated to be worth in excess of $40 billion. The politician first aired the accusations in a Facebook Live presentation on Monday about what he called the “royal vaccine”.

“The Prayuth government pays for the vaccine using taxpayer money,” Mr Thanathorn said before news emerged that he would be charged.

Criticism rejected

A government spokesman referred the Financial Times to remarks by Anutin Charnvirakul, Thailand’s health minister and deputy prime minister, who rejected Mr Thanathorn’s criticism, saying: “Vaccines are an important issue in this emergency situation, and should not be made a political issue.”

Thailand in November announced a deal with AstraZeneca to produce 26 million doses of the drug maker’s vaccine, which it aims to distribute by mid-year. The government has said it will source 61 million doses of the vaccine in all.

Under a separate agreement with the drug maker, Siam Bioscience will produce up to 200 million doses of the vaccine, most of which will be exported. Nakorn Premsri, Thailand’s vaccine chief, said last month that local vaccine production capacity was a matter of “national security”.

Mr Thanathorn said that while Siam Bioscience was a newcomer to the vaccine industry, “it’s now becoming the biggest player” in Thailand.

Siam Bioscience declined a request for comment. Mr Thanathorn did not accuse AstraZeneca of any wrongdoing.

Last year the constitutional court dissolved Mr Thanathorn’s former party, Future Forward, which came third in the 2019 election. The decision angered supporters and helped spark the protests.

Unprecedented scorn

Last year its MPs, who regrouped in parliament under the name Move Forward, probed taxpayer spending by the king and his royal office, including a fleet of 38 aircraft reserved for royal use.

The Thai king’s power and wealth have become the focus of unprecedented scorn by participants in the protest movement, which began last July.

While Thai authorities had previously refrained from using the lèse majesté law in recent years, they have opened cases against more than 50 people since November. A Thai court on Tuesday handed Anchan Preelert, a former civil servant, a sentence of more than 43 years for sharing anti-monarchist posts, in what human rights groups described as a warning to protesters to curb criticisms of the king.

After successfully reining in local Covid-19 infections last year, Thailand is trying to contain a new wave of infections that has increased public pressure on the government to roll out vaccines more quickly. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021