BANGKOK (AP) — A popular ousted politician charged with defaming Thailand’s monarchy for questioning the government’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement stood by his comments Thursday and said the nation deserves more transparency.
The government filed charges on Wednesday accusing Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of lese majeste for alleging that the procurement was late and inadequate. Thanathorn also said there was possible favoritism in the awarding of the main contract.
The criticisms relate to the monarchy because most of the vaccines that Thailand has ordered are to be produced by Siam Bioscience, a private Thai company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Lese majeste, or insulting the monarchy, is punishable by three to 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense. Thanathorn was also charged with violating the Computer Crime Act.
The government denies it mishandled vaccine procurement.
Later this year, Siam Bioscience is to produce 200 million doses of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, of which 26 million are allocated for Thailand.
Thanathorn said details of the contract should be made public. The deal involves the company, the Health Ministry and Thailand’s SCG business conglomerate, along with AstraZeneca. Publicly listed SCG’s main shareholder is the king.
Officials from the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society said Wednesday that Thanathorn’s criticism was based on false or distorted information, without specifying what was incorrect. They also warned that anyone repeating such information would also be subject to the lese majeste law.
Thanathorn called the charges politically motivated at a news conference Thursday.
“When we are questioning the fact that the Thai public would receive low vaccination coverage and receive it late, or whether or not the government has given preferential treatment to a certain private company, this is what I got back. This is what I got,” he said.
Thanathorn said Thailand has secured vaccines for only about one-fifth of its population.
“The government has given huge financial support worth 1.4 billion baht ($46 million) to the company, should we not investigate if this deal is normal and transparent or not?” he said.
Thanathorn is the former leader of the dissolved Future Forward Party, which made a strong third-place showing in the 2019 general election just a year after it was established. The party was especially critical of the military, a pillar of the country’s establishment with major influence over the government.
Thanathorn was forced out of Parliament when a court ruled that he had broken an election law, and his party was later dissolved on a similar technicality. He has faced a number of legal cases that supporters charge are without merit and are meant to stop his criticism of the government.
“I believe all the cases against me, not only this one, are politically motivated. I am 42. I was in politics for two years. For 40 years of my life, I had never been charged and never been prosecuted, not even one case. Not even one case. But since I started in politics two years ago, I have had countless cases against me,” he said.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck contributed to this report.