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)

In COVID-19 clampdown, China bars travelers from Britain, France, India

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has barred non-Chinese travelers from Britain, France, Belgium, the Philippines and India, imposing some of the most stringent entry curbs of any country as coronavirus cases surge around the world.

The restrictions, which cover those with valid visas and residence permits and take effect in conjunction with a more restrictive testing regime for arrivals from several other countries, drew a frosty response from Britain.

“We are concerned by the abruptness of the announcement and the blanket ban on entry, and await further clarification on when it will be lifted,” said the British Chamber of Commerce in China as the blanket bans were announced by the five countries’ Chinese embassies.

England started a month-long lockdown on Thursday. Britain’s virus death toll is the highest in Europe, and it is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day.

Belgium has Europe’s highest per capita number of new confirmed cases, while France and India are among the top five countries in the world with the most infections.

The suspensions were a partial reversal of an easing on Sept. 28, when China allowed all foreigners with valid residence permits to enter. In March, China had banned entry of foreigners in response to the epidemic.

‘SOLD OUT IN SECONDS’

Meanwhile, many people planning November visits to China scrambled to book earlier flights to circumvent potentially disruptive restrictions due to come into force for other countries from Friday.

Linyi Li, a Chinese national, had planned to fly from Seattle to China in mid-November but switched her flight to Nov. 6 even though fares had tripled.

“The tickets were sold out in seconds, as people were all scrambling to beat the deadline,” said Li, 30. “I’ve been rushing to sell many of my family belongings in the past days in case I can’t get back to the States.”

From Friday, all passengers from the United States, France, Germany and Thailand bound for mainland China must take a nucleic acid test and a blood test for antibodies against the coronavirus no more than 48 hours before boarding.

Flights scheduled for Friday are not covered by the new rule, since passengers would have done their tests before that day under previous requirements.

China also plans to impose dual-test requirements on travelers from Australia, Singapore and Japan from Nov. 8.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the antibody test was not widely available in many countries.

“(So) unfortunately, while technically leaving the door open, these changes imply a de facto ban on anyone trying to get back to their lives, work and families in China,” said the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

On Tuesday, China Southern Airlines, the country’s biggest carrier by passenger load, said it would suspend transit services for passengers embarking from 21 countries, mostly African and Asian countries and including India and the Philippines.

The number of weekly international passenger flights serving mainland China from late October through March is set to slump 96.8% from a year earlier to 592, the latest schedules show.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang, Dominique Patton, Stella Qiu, Gabriel Crossley, Martin Pollard and Shivani Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and John Stonestreet)

Thailand found failing to log fishermen’s complaints of abuse and slavery

By Nanchanok Wongsamuth

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Complaints of labour abuses and slavery on Thai fishing boats are routinely going unreported by the authorities, an analysis by the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed, raising fears that hundreds of fishermen have been denied justice and compensation.

Revelations of modern slavery at sea emerged in Thailand in 2014, prompting the nation to vow to better regulate the sector to tackle labour exploitation, trafficking and illegal fishing after the European Union threatened to ban Thai seafood imports.

But a senior official said a drive to clean up the industry was waning after exclusively obtained data revealed a large discrepancy between the official number of complaints and those recorded by four leading charities that advocate for fishermen.

Freedom of information requests filed with the government over three months showed 289 workers on fishing vessels in 11 provinces lodged labour abuse complaints between January 2015 and early 2020. There were no details regarding the outcomes.

Yet the charities said they had helped about 1,600 fishermen from these regions raise grievances since 2015 over issues from non-payment and excessive overtime to verbal and physical abuse.

They feared most complaints were being dealt with off-the-books and that workers were missing out on due compensation while exploitative employers avoided scrutiny and punishment.

“For government officials, a large number of complaints means you’re not performing well, and many fishermen agree to mediation because they don’t want to waste time if the case goes to court,” said Sunwanee Dolah from the Raks Thai Foundation.

“But this results in repeated offenses and wrongdoers not being punished, causing a never-ending cycle of rights violations,” added Sunwanee, whose charity supports fishermen who are mainly migrants from neighboring Cambodia and Myanmar.

Thanaporn Sriyakul, an official in the prime minister’s task force who oversees the fishing industry, said efforts to enforce labor laws at sea had decreased “at an astonishing rate” since the EU lifted its threat of a ban in January 2019.

“Government agencies have not been able to properly pursue complaints, resulting in distrust by the fisher(men),” said Thanaporn, adding that some labour ministry officials did not understand their duties when it came to reporting grievances.

Labour officials said individual complaints made against employers had to be registered while general ones filed about the workplace did not, and that this could explain the disparity between the newly-revealed state data and the charities’ figure.

The charities, however, said all of the grievances they had helped to raise focus on employers rather than the workplace.

Labour ministry inspector general Somboon Trisilanun said he “did not deny” that some complaints had wrongly gone unrecorded.

The data obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation covered 11 provinces where most of about 63,000 fishermen who work on commercial vessels are based. It did not include all fishing regions or workers in a sector employing more than 200,000.

SETTLEMENTS PREFERRED

The labor ministry said it permitted settlements provided workers received due compensation in line with Thai labor laws.

One regional labor ministry official, Sompop Khongrod, said he preferred to mediate rather than register labor complaints.

“Before submitting a complaint, if we think it’s minor, we call the employer and the case is closed,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February when he was an assistant to the head of the Office of Labour Protection and Welfare in Songkhla.

“I have settled a large number of cases in this way and they weren’t registered in the system,” said Sompop, who has since become head of the Yala Office of Labour Protection and Welfare.

But activists and lawyers said settlements result in workers receiving less than they are entitled to, and embolden abusive bosses to act with impunity as they avoid sanctions or lawsuits.

“Workers have less negotiating power since labor inspectors tend to support employers,” said Papop Siamhan, an independent lawyer with expertise in human trafficking.

“(Labour officials) don’t want to record complaints because doing so is a burden for them and they are afraid of taking legal action against employers.”

With growing concerns about informal mediation being used to silence cases of forced labor, the Seafood Working Group – a coalition of 60 civil society groups – in March urged the United States to demote Thailand in its annual anti-trafficking report.

Last year, Thailand was ranked as a Tier 2 country – with Tier 3 being the lowest – in the U.S. State Department’s closely watched global Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which noted the country was making significant efforts to combat the crime.

FEAR AND MISTRUST

Activists said most fishermen were reluctant to report abuses due to fear of authorities or retribution from employers.

Steve Trent, head of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said his advocacy group had worked with government officials to encourage them to build trust with workers and put them at ease.

“However, this process can take a long time,” Trent said.

“If workers do not trust authority figures then they might understandably opt to go to a local NGO instead,” he added.

Research by the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) in March found that of 50 workers in the sector who said they suffered labor abuses, none had sought help from the state.

The report found about 10% of 470 fishing and seafood workers surveyed said they had been victims of forced labor, concluding that reforms to working conditions in the industry were having an impact but that severe exploitation persisted.

For Moe Win, the ILO’s findings came as no surprise.

The Burmese migrant took up a job as a fisherman in the southern province of Pattani last August, but was paid only half of the promised 10,000 baht ($314) monthly salary and forced to work more than 14 hours a day – a violation of Thai labor laws.

When his vessel was inspected by the authorities, he decided to speak out but his employer was informed who then berated him and the other fishermen on the boat.

Two months later, the Raks Thai Foundation helped him to pursue his complaint but it was not recorded and labor officials chose instead to settle the dispute with his boss.

While Moe Win considered himself fortunate that he ended up receiving his full salary, he feared for his fellow workers.

“Mediation is not good for workers because it causes employers to commit repeated offenses,” said Moe Win, whose name was changed to protect his identity.

“Workers are violated over and over again.”

($1 = 31.8000 baht)

(Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)