Thai rescuers battle floodwaters to reach dozens stranded in homes

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Rescuers in northeastern Thailand waded through fast-flowing floods to rescue dozens of people stranded in their homes on Wednesday, as authorities tried to drain away waters and get more help to victims.

At least seven people have died and another is missing in floods over the last week that have affected almost 200,000 households in 30 provinces in the lower north and northeastern Thailand.

Rescuers wearing orange helmets and lifejackets travelled by boats through submerged streets in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum to reach people stuck on the roofs of their homes.

Video posted on social media by the Hook 31 private rescue team showed them wading carefully against a current of brown water as high as the windows of abandoned cars, some carrying children on their backs and escorting the elderly along a series of guide ropes.

Authorities have issued warnings over the rising water level of the Chaophraya river that could bring flooding to the capital Bangkok and surrounding areas.

The government has reassured the public that the situation is manageable and there will be no repeat of the devastating months-long flooding of 2011, which killed hundreds of people, damaged vast swathes of farmland and paralyzed Bangkok and its industrial belt.

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Juarawee Kittisilpa and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty and Barbara Lewis)

Thai volunteer takes to skies to drop supplies to flood victims

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A paramotoring enthusiast in northern Thailand has taken to the skies to help deliver urgently need supplies to people cut off by floods.

Thrill-seeker Vichai Tiyasan, 38, has been motoring over waterlogged lands to drop off dry food and essential items in Sukhothai, one of 30 provinces impacted by floods in the past week.

Footage of his ultralight aviation endeavors have been shared widely on social media.

“The flood covers most areas of Sukhothai province. The situation is worse comparing to the past years,” Vichai told Reuters by phone.

A paramotor, also known as a powered paraglider, comprises a back-mounted metal frame with a propeller driven by a petrol-fueled motor resembling a giant household fan. The pilot can steer it using brake toggles that are similar to that of a parachutist.

At least six people died and two were missing in the floods, according to the disaster agency, which has also issued flood warnings in areas along the Chaophraya river, including the capital Bangkok.

Thailand is no stranger to flooding and in 2011 was hit by its worst floods in half a century, in a crisis that lasted months and saw hundreds of people killed, heavy industry devastated and many parts of the capital paralyzed.

(Reporting by Jiraporn Kuhakan, Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Clashes in Thailand as pressure builds on PM over coronavirus crisis

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters near the office of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Monday, as opposition parties moved to censure him in parliament over his handling of a COVID-19 crisis.

Hundreds of protesters marched on the Government House to demand Prayuth resigns, the latest show of growing public anger about a worsening epidemic and a chaotic vaccine rollout.

The rallies are being led by groups who also sought former army chief Prayuth’s ouster last year, accusing him and his allies of seeking to entrench the military’s control of politics.

“We are out here to stop the ongoing failure and stop the losses, because if Prayuth Chan-ocha remains in power, more people will die,” activist Songpon “Yajai” Sonthirak said during the march.

Opposition lawmakers on Monday filed a no-confidence motion against Prayuth and five of his cabinet ministers, which will lead to a censure debate over the COVID-19 crisis, likely later this month or early September, according to house speaker.

Police fired tear gas cannisters and used water cannon when protesters tried to dismantle a police barricade on Monday, the latest as in a series of recent demonstrations that led to violence, including the use of rubber bullets to disperse protests.

Clashes also took place late on Monday near Prayuth’s residence in another part of the capital.

“Bangkok has declared an emergency and a gathering or activity involving more than five people is not possible, it’s illegal,” said Piya Tavichai, deputy head of the Bangkok police.

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty)

U.S. gives Myanmar $50 million in aid as humanitarian crisis worsens

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Tuesday it was giving Myanmar more than $50 million in aid as surging COVID-19 infections worsened a humanitarian crisis in the Southeast Asian country already reeling after generals overthrew a democratically elected government earlier this year.

It is also providing Thailand with $5 million to cope with novel coronavirus, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, announced the funding during a visit to Thailand, he added.

In Myanmar, the U.S. funding will aid “those forced to flee violence and persecution” as well as help groups provide health care services in addition to essentials such as food, shelter and water, the State Department said.

“This funding comes at a critical point of rising humanitarian needs and will help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of the people of both Thailand and Burma,” Price said. “In the wake of the February 1 coup, people from Burma continue to flee their homes due to ongoing violence.”

Six months after the army seized power, Myanmar’s economy has collapsed and its health system has buckled as coronavirus cases surged.

COVID-19 cases peaked in Myanmar last month, with 3,824 new daily infections now reported on average, Reuters data show. It has seen 333,127 infections and 12,014 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

In Thailand, the average number of new COVID-19 infections are at their peak, with more than 20,400 cases reported daily, according to Reuters data.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

Thailand builds COVID-19 hospital in Bangkok airport amid surge in cases

By Juarawee Kittisilpa and Artorn Pookasook

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai volunteers on Wednesday turned a cargo warehouse at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport into a 1,800-bed field hospital for COVID-19 patients with less severe symptoms, as the country deals with its biggest outbreak to date.

The Southeast Asian nation reported a daily record of 16,533 new cases, plus 133 new deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total accumulated cases to 543,361 and 4,397 deaths.

Workers drilled walls for toilet installations and set up beds and blankets.

“This is a level 1+ field hospital where it can receive a large number of patients, who have less severe symptoms,” Rienthong Nanna, director of Mongkutwattana Hospital, told Reuters.

“But if patients’ conditions deteriorate, they will be moved to our other field hospital called Pitak Rachan (Protect the King) Field Hospital,” he added.

Rienthong, a retired major-general and an ultra-royalist leader, said the field hospital was not up and running yet as more preparations were needed.

The number of infections will continue to climb and more field hospitals will be needed, he added.

Rienthong and volunteers held a small ceremony on the occasion of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s 69th birthday to unofficially inaugurate their third field hospital named “Tai Rom Prabaramee,” which means “under the glory of His Majesty.”

The spike in COVID-19 cases in the capital has put pressure on the city’s health system and the government has faced public criticism over a slow rollout of vaccines.

Thailand aims to inoculate 50 million people by the end of the year, but so far only 5.6% of its more than 66 million population are fully vaccinated, while 19.2% have received at least one dose.

(Reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa and Artorn Pookasook; Writing by Orathai Sriring; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Bangkok to convert disused train carriages into COVID-19 ward

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Authorities in Thailand’s capital Bangkok plan to convert 15 disused railway carriages into a 240-bed COVID-19 isolation ward for patients with less severe symptoms, the city’s governing body said on Tuesday.

Thailand has been battling its biggest coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began. The Southeast Asian country reported 14,150 new cases and 118 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total number of reported cases to 526,828 and 4,264 deaths so far.

“Some modifications are still to be done such as removing the top bunk beds, installing window nets, as well as water and electricity systems,” the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) said in a statement. “More toilets and bathrooms will be built outside the carriages.”

The surge in cases in Bangkok has put pressure on the city’s medical system, said the statement, which added that the BMA was seeking to increase the overall number of hospital beds available to COVID-19 patients in the city.

The makeshift train ward will serve as an isolation center for patients on hospital waiting lists and will be ready for use by July 30, the BMA said.

Authorities have faced public criticism over the pace of Thailand’s vaccination rollout, which has fallen behind some neighbors.

Thailand aims to inoculate 50 million people by the end of the year, but so far only 5.6% of its more than 66 million population are fully inoculated, while 18.9% have received at least one dose.

(Reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa and Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Writing by James Pearson, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

AstraZeneca commits to 1.8 million Thai vaccine doses amid supply anxiety

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Drugmaker AstraZeneca said on Wednesday it would soon provide Thailand with 1.8 million doses of locally manufactured COVID-19 vaccine, the first of multiple batches this month, just days away from the launch of the country’s vaccination drive.

The joint announcement by AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience, a firm owned by Thailand’s king, comes amid public anxiety about vaccine supplies, as the country suffers its most severe outbreak so far.

It did not say whether the Thai plant would make all 6 million doses that Thailand’s government has promised would be available this month.

The government’s mass immunization drive starts on Monday and relies almost entirely on its reserved 61 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, most of which it said would come from Siam Bioscience, which is making vaccines for the first time.

Questions about Siam Bioscience meeting production targets are sensitive because King Maha Vajiralongkorn is its sole owner. Insulting Thailand’s monarchy is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

AstraZeneca has partnered with the Thai firm for the manufacture of 200 million doses for use in Southeast Asia, a region with low COVID-19 immunization rates that is seeing a strong resurgence of the virus.

Thailand is seeking 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine this year in total.

Thai health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Wednesday the promised 6 million doses would come this month “as planned”, but specified no delivery dates or the number to be sourced locally.

Anutin also said Thailand will get an additional 11 million doses of Sinovac vaccines before August. Thailand has used the Chinese vaccine for most of its early inoculations of frontline workers.

“We will get AstraZeneca vaccine. It may come from wherever, but all AstraZeneca just the same. It could be made in Thailand or imported from overseas. It depends on AstraZeneca’s supply chain,” Anutin told reporters.

Siam Bioscience has not answered queries from Reuters on its production targets.

AstraZeneca said 1.8 million locally produced doses would be delivered by Monday, the first of multiple deliveries this month.

It said deliveries of Thai-made doses to other Southeast Asian countries would start in July.

The first delivery to the Philippines, which was promised 17 million doses, was cut from 1.3 to 1.17 million doses and delayed from late June to mid-July, a Philippine presidential advisor told Reuters on Tuesday, citing Thai production delays.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Martin Petty)

Cattle for raffle gets Thai town in mood for vaccines

By Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) -A district of northern Thailand has launched a raffle campaign for inoculated residents to win a live cow per week for the rest of the year, in a bid to boost the local COVID-19 vaccination drive.

From next month, one lucky vaccinated villager in the Mae Chaem district of Chiang Mai province will be randomly chosen every week to win a young cow worth around 10,000 baht ($319).

The campaign, set to run for 24 weeks, has been met with enthusiasm in the town of 43,000 since it was announced earlier this week.

“Our vaccine registration numbers have gone from hundreds to thousands in a couple of days,” district chief Boonlue Thamtharanurak told Reuters.

“The villagers love cows. Cows can be sold for cash.”

More than 4,000 people in priority groups, including those over 60-years-old and those with pre-existing conditions, have already registered for their shots, Boonlue said.

The town will start vaccinations on June 7, in line with the government’s national rollout.

Other provinces in Thailand have also come up with creative incentives to boost registration, such as gold necklace giveaways, store discount coupons, or cash handouts.

At least 1.64 million of Thailand’s 66 million population, have already received their first doses and more than 7 million have registered so far.

The Southeast Asian country has been hit by its biggest coronavirus outbreak so far, with the majority of its 119,585 cases and 703 deaths recorded in the past two months.

($1 = 31.3700 baht)

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Martin Petty)

Thailand denies forcing back Myanmar refugees blocked at border

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

MAE SARIANG, Thailand (Reuters) – Thai authorities on Monday denied forcing back more than 2,000 refugees who had fled air strikes in Myanmar, but a local official said it was government policy for the army to block them at the border and deny access to outside aid groups.

Thousands of people fled Myanmar over the weekend after fighter jets attacked villages near the border held by a force from the Karen ethnic group that had attacked a military post in the wake of a Feb. 1 coup by Myanmar’s army.

Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters that thousands of people had been forced to return to the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp on the Myanmar side of the border. Another activist group gave the number as 2,009.

Video shot by a Karen villager and published by Reuters showed refugees boarding boats under the watch of Thai soldiers.

“Look, Thai soldiers told villagers to go back. Here, see old people have to go back. Look there, there are lots of Thai soldiers,” a Karen villager is heard saying. Authorities stopped Reuters reporters from accessing the area.

Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, told reporters the refugees were not being pushed back. They were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media reported.

“Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement, also saying the reports that the Karens had been pushed back were inaccurate.

“BLOCK THOSE THAT FLED”

But Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, told a local meeting that those fleeing should be blocked.

“All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border,” he said, referring to the government’s security coordinating body.

“The military has the main responsibility in managing the situation on the ground and we must not allow officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), NGOs or other international organizations to have direct contact and communication. This is absolutely forbidden.”

Tanee told Reuters he had no further comment on what the local official had said.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Human rights groups and the European Karen Network, a foreign based support group, criticized the Thai government.

“Thailand’s heartless and illegal act must stop now,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said earlier on Monday the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting Myanmar’s junta.

Myanmar security forces have killed at least 459 people since seizing power as it seeks to crush mass protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The army, which has waged decades of wars against ethnic armed groups, carried out its coup saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Poppy McPherson and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Thailand sticks with AstraZeneca vaccine after safety scare

By Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand will start using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday after a brief delay over safety concerns, officials said, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and cabinet members due to be first in line to get shots.

Thailand was on Friday the first country outside of Europe to suspend use of the AstraZeneca shot, on which its mass vaccination campaign is heavily reliant.

Authorities in Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands have halted their use of the vaccine over blood clotting issues, while Indonesia has decided to hold off until a World Health Organization review.

Thailand has much riding on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy and the country will from June be one of its regional manufacturers. Thailand has reserved the first 61 million doses for its population.

Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said many countries had confirmed there were no blood clot issues from the AstraZeneca shot.

“The prime minister had expressed his intention and that he was ready to be given a vaccine to build confidence for the people,” Anutin said in a statement.

He said an expert panel had agreed it should be administered and some senior medical professors would also receive it on Tuesday to demonstrate their confidence in the vaccine.

AstraZeneca said on Sunday it had reviewed data from more than 17 million people vaccinated in the United Kingdom and European Union, which showed “no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or thrombocytopenia”.

Thailand has imported AstraZeneca vaccines in addition to 200,000 doses of Sinovac’s CoronaVac. A further 800,000 CoronaVac doses would arrive on March 20, followed by a million more in April, health officials said.

Anutin on Monday said Thailand hopes to procure 5 million more CoronaVac doses and is negotiating with other vaccine manufacturers that can make deliveries before locally produced AstraZeneca shots are available.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Orathai Sriring; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Davies and Nick Macfie)