Has Anutin become a pawn in Prayut’s COVID blame game?

As Public Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul is being blamed for perceived failures in handling Thailand’s latest and worst wave of COVID-19, whose tide of infections and deaths has triggered partial lockdowns in red zones including Bangkok.

The latest outbreak saw Thailand hit a record high of 15 COVID-related deaths on two consecutive days, April 27 and 28, bringing total fatalities to 84 since April 1.

Meanwhile, public calls for Anutin’s resignation are being amplified by a power struggle among government coalition partners, observers say.

On Saturday, a group called “Mor Mai Thon” (“Doctors Won’t Tolerate This”) launched a change.org petition calling for Anutin to be replaced as health minister by a more “capable” individual. By Wednesday, the petition had attracted more than 212,000 signatures.

Anutin, who is leader of the coalition Bhumjaithai party, calmly shrugged off the pressure and insisted he would stay on in his post.

“I will heed suggestions for improvement, but right now there’s no reason for me to quit,” the minister said on Tuesday.

He added that he worked with doctors from universities and public agencies, and if they could not “tolerate” this, then the country’s entire healthcare system must go.

“People who don’t like [me] can demand what they want, but I can also mobilise friends to vote for me,” he said.

Internal turmoil

Observers say there are signs of a powerplay between Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Anutin, with the PM making clear moves to side-track the minister.

Anutin was not included in the working panel on vaccine procurement set up by Prayut earlier this month. The PM set up the panel in response to rising pressure over Thailand’s slow vaccine rollout.

Meanwhile, Prayut took time out from inspecting a Bangkok field hospital last week to publicly question Anutin and his team about the capacity of COVID-19 hotlines.

The premier said he had someone test the hotlines, but their calls went unanswered, so he ordered an increase in staff manning the emergency call centre.

On Monday, Prayut set up a centre for administration of vaccines under his own command. The centre will manage the rollout target of at least 30 million vaccinations over the next three months and 50 million by the end of the year.

The Cabinet on Tuesday also granted Prayut a mandate to temporarily enforce 31 items of legislation to curb the spread of COVID-19. The mandate previously lay in the hands of ministers.

Observers see this transference of power as a move to sideline politicians and consolidate Prayut’s authority.

Anutin appears to be well aware of these tactics and has quickly shifted the blame for handling the crisis to Prayut. On Monday, the minister absolved himself of responsibility by saying all major decisions had been made by the prime minister and that his ministry had no choice but to follow government policies.

“I’m a subordinate of the prime minister, who is the one with supreme power and responsibility. I follow the PM’s policies and orders and always report to him,” Anutin said.

He added that the agency responsible for combating the virus crisis was the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), chaired by Prayut.

“The CCSA has been operating with a single-command policy since March last year [during the first virus wave] and the Public Health Ministry has been following its policies all along,” Anutin said.

Conflict in the coalition

Observers say this is all part of a political blame game being played between the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and its coalition partners. In truth, under the state of emergency and CCSA, Prayut is the supreme commander of Thailand’s virus-control campaign while Anutin has little or no authority, they add.

Prayut wants to discredit Anutin by using public criticism of his ministry’s handling of the outbreak, said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.

“Also, criticising a coalition partner [about the hotlines] in public was unnecessary,” Yuthaporn said. “There’s obviously a battle for power going on within the coalition. The ruling Palang Pracharath may be trying to weaken Anutin’s Bhumjaithai.”

Yuthaporn also pointed out that Anutin deserves credit for acquiring 2 million doses of Sinovac from China in February, when Thailand was in desperate need of vaccine. However, Prayut took public credit when the doses arrived.

Anti-coup activist Sombat Boonngamanong believes Prayut’s strategy is to shift the blame to Anutin so as to avoid having to take responsibility for the crisis himself.

“This proves that Prayut is masterful and ruthless, while Anutin is incompetent and lacks the courage to speak up. The responsibility should be taken by the entire government, not just the Public Health Ministry,” Sombat said.

“I can’t imagine what Anutin’s political future and the image will look like after this blame game,” he added.

Observers, however, don’t think Prayut’s aim is to remove Anutin.

If he did, the entire government would fall because Bhumjaithai is the second-largest party in the coalition, said Yuthaporn.

 

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)