Thailand’s Second Covid-19 Outbreak: Corruption and Its Consequences

Thailand is facing a second coronavirus outbreak. This time, however, the fight may be protracted because the causes stem from endemic corruption.

Market workers and volunteers clean up around Klong Toey fresh market
Market workers and volunteers clean up around Klong Toey fresh market after it was temporarily shut down due to several vendors testing positive for the Covid-19 novel coronavirus, in Bangkok on January 14, 2021. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha, AFP)

Punchada Sirivunnabood

20 January 2021

After a long period of lock down in early 2020, many Thais believed that they could go back to the same pattern of life as before the pandemic. However, their dreams were shattered due to a series of illegal activities that were responsible for a new coronavirus outbreak. Only a couple weeks before the New Year 2021 celebration, the number of new Covid-19 cases in Thailand skyrocketed, breaking a single-day record on December 20, 2020. This caused the authorities to issue urgent control measures, especially in Samut Sakhon, the epicenter of the new outbreak of Covid-19 originating at the Central Shrimp Market in Tambon Mahachai.

New cases are also rising among migrant workers from Myanmar as authorities conduct more tests within migrant workers’ dormitories (there was also a case of a Thai woman who worked in Myanmar and was tested positive when she returned back to Thailand). As of mid-January 2021, cases linked to the Central Shrimp Market in Samut Sakhon had been reported in 53 provinces, with particularly close attention being paid to nearby provinces and parts of the capital. Provinces nationwide have been categorised into four colour-coded tiers, but so far a total lockdown is in effect only in the “red” zone of Samut Sakhon and another four provinces, including Chantaburi, Chonburi, Ranong and Trat.

Most of the new domestic cases are linked to illegal and trafficking operations, including illegal labour migration from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia and illegal gambling dens in big cities. Many Thais have criticised corrupt practices among Thai authorities, who have long been on the take and facilitated human smuggling and illegal gambling dens that have caused the second wave of Covid-19 outbreak. The critics include Chuwit Kamolvisit, a controversial Thai politician who was once the owner of the country’s biggest massage parlour (he is known as the country’s “tub tycoon”).

Most of the new domestic cases are linked to illegal and trafficking operations, including illegal labour migration from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia and illegal gambling dens in big cities.

The new outbreak has led to much introspection and debate about the corrupt practices that has allowed the virus to recur. Nearly all the new coronavirus cases have been traced to migrant workers, many of whom entered Thailand illegally and without undergoing the country’s mandatory 14-day quarantine. After the second wave of infections began, many Thais initially vented their resentment on Myanmar labourers, making violent and racist threats on social media. The police, military officers and government authorities were also blamed for letting illegal workers enter Thailand. The reality is that collusion between corrupt officials and traffickers has created trafficking networks that brought illegal labour into the country without Covid-19 testing. Recently, the Royal Thai Police force began investigating 33 police officers and state officers suspected of aiding and abetting illegal labour smuggling. People hope this investigation would lead to the punishment of any officers who were involved in these illegal operations.

Aside from labour trafficking, a large number of new Covid-19 clusters were found in gambling sites in Rayong and Chonburi. In Thailand, any gambling activity is regulated by the Gambling Act of B.E.2478 (1935). This act prohibits all Thai citizens from gambling at any casino or participating in betting games (some other activities are allowed, provided they are legally licensed). Prohibited activities include various Thai dice games, betting on animal fights, and other traditional Thai games such as slot machines, roulette, and other card games. In Rayong, Chonburi and Chanthaburi, however, gambling dens still prevail – and are operated right under the noses of the authorities who are supposed to enforce the law.

More than 90 cases and one death were linked to illegal gambling clusters in these provinces. Most people in Rayong and Chonburi know about the presence of illegal gambling dens in their provinces – a stark contradiction to protestations of local police, who claim that no such illegal establishments exist. When the Rayong police raided one scene after local people reported the gambling location, all they could find inside were empty windowless rooms lined with wallpaper. Subsequently, Rayong’s top police commander was removed from active duty, and not after his insistence (against the fact) that there were no gambling dens in Rayong.

The Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has ordered an investigation aimed at shutting down the illegal venues and arresting those running the establishments. The prime minister also accepts that illegal gambling has been an ongoing problem in Thailand. He has pleaded for cooperation in tackling the country’s gambling issue, saying the government alone could never succeed in getting rid of these illegal activities.

The second wave of this pandemic is an indictment of the corrupt practices and inadequacy of Thai authorities in dealing with the pandemic situation. The prime minister has set up two new committees, one to curb illegal gambling and the other to deal with the smuggling of migrant workers. In the past, other anti-corruption institutions were established; these two new committees, however, may not be effective in controlling or preventing illegal operations as long as filthy lucre is more important than responsibility for the Thai authorities. Where there is no strong law enforcement, a lengthy and expensive game of cat and mouse would continue between government officers and those who control illegal activities. At this, the government has its work cut out for it.

Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2021/16

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