Opinion: A royal intervention in the healthcare arena is a rebuke against Prayut

Any political science student would have been taught that the defining concept of a functioning state is the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. This notion was first proposed by the great political scientist Max Weber in 1919. In 2019, 100 years later, the Coronavirus may have given us a new definition of what it means to be a state.

If we were to re-define the Weberian concept to fit with today’s most pressing concern, it is probably not far-fetched to claim that instead of the monopoly on the use of force, it is rather the monopoly on the legitimate implementation of healthcare policy that is the most important indication of a well-functioning state.

The announcement in the Royal Gazette that the Chulabhorn Royal Academy can ignore and bypass the Prayut government’s policy to centralize the procurement of the Covid-19 vaccines is not only an embarrassment to the government, but also tantamount to a pseudo power-grab, at least within the healthcare realm. (Read more here)

The Chulabhorn Institute and the Royal Academy are scientific research organizations, named after and chaired by HRH Princess Chulabhorn.

Specifically, the decree grants autonomous power to the Institute in negotiating and importing Covid-19 vaccines with the manufacturers both in Thailand and abroad. This was a right that was reserved for only the Thai government. Any effort to procure the vaccines was supposed to be centralized at the Ministry of Health. While the announcement is most certainly a benevolent gesture by the Institute, it highlights the royal frustration and the split among the ruling elites over how the Prayut government is handling the crisis.

HRH Princess Chulabhorn is taking the matter in her own hands. She is trying to do what she can to alleviate the dire healthcare situation and to compensate for the delay in vaccine procurement by the Ministry of Health and its relevant agencies. But the royal move, exercised in this manner however well-intentioned, calls into question the political legitimacy of the government and its authority in the management of the crisis. It is a no-confidence censure and a royal rebuke of both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Minister of Health Anutin Charnveerakul.

At the moment, Thailand is ranked sixth in ASEAN in the vaccination rate, behind Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. We have only fully vaccinated 1.4% of our population and there are 104 countries in the world ahead of us on this metric. At the current rate, some estimates claim that it would take us more than 7 years to get to the goal of 100 million doses administered. On top of this, there are questions over whether we would have enough vaccines at all and how much longer would the delivery be delayed. Making the matter worse is the inability of our leadership to communicate coherently and effectively which has further hampered people’s confidence.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (C), Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (R) and Yang Xin, Chargé d’Affaires of the Chinese embassy, watch as a shipment of the CoronaVac Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, developed by China’s Sinovac firm, arrives in Bangkok on February 24, 2021. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

While the royal intervention may be welcomed by those who have become hopeless in the current situation, it points to a larger problem in our society. When our top institution becomes too involved in people’s welfare, whether it exercises that power directly or through an agency, it exposes itself to being politicized and thus such a move is a double-edged sword that could end up hurting its own reputation and sanctity.

It may have helped obviate the need for the royal institution to feel like it needs to save Thailand from sinking deeper into a health-care abyss, if our governance is cushioned by an effective, democratic check-and-balance system that can hold our government accountable in times like this. When we do not have that system to rely on–and we rarely ever do in our political history–we become accustomed to waiting and seeking a politically exogenous intervention. Sometimes, this materialized as a military putsch. At other times, we had extra-judicial interference. This time, it came in a form of an ostentatious royal intervention with a health-care twist.

For now, we can be sure that the ruling elites have split and that move by HRH Princess Chulabhorn has highlighted the royal anxiety over the government’s mishandling of the crisis. What this means in practice is that our government is no longer in control of its health care apparatus and there is a functioning, competing alternative health-care system led by HRH Princess Chulabhorn herself. If Prayut and Anutin do not step up their game quickly, it will be to no one’s surprise when a more powerful intervention beyond the healthcare arena finally takes place. And sadly, it will once again happen at the expense of Thai democratic development.

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