Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand rallied again on Saturday, promoting a diversity of causes and taking an opportunity to display their rejection of the country’s power structure directly to the monarch.
Some 20 groups called the rally at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument under the name “Mob Fest” as the latest in a series of protests calling for significant reforms in government. Secondary school students, women’s right advocates and LGBTQ activists were among them.
The core demands of the student-led protest movement are that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha step down, the constitution be amended to make it more democratic, and the monarchy be reformed to be made more accountable.
The movement has put pressure on Prayuth’s government, which after failing to stop it through the use of police force has now scheduled a session of Parliament for Tuesday and Wednesday to debate changes to the constitution.
The protest movement, anticipating that the lawmakers will not take substantive action, has already called what it expects will be its biggest march so far for Nov. 21.
The demand over the monarchy is the most controversial one because the royal institution is traditionally regarded as the heart and soul of the nation, and to be treated with the utmost respect. It is protected by a law that makes defaming the monarch punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The army, a major influence in Thai politics, has declared defense of the monarchy to be one of its main duties, and many ordinary citizens also regards it with devotion.
The protest movement, however, has prioritized the issue of reforming the monarchy because it believes that the institution holds too much power and that change is the key to establishing true democracy. So they are undertaking their unprecedented challenge even at the risk of violent blowback from hardcore royalists.
A crowd of several thousand protesters at Democracy Monument on Saturday showed their sentiment when a royal motorcade with King Maha Vajiralongkorn passed by. They turned their backs, put their hands in the air to display their three-finger protest gesture and sang the national anthem. A small contingent of royalists across the street shouted “Long live the king.”
The king and Queen Suthida were headed to preside over the opening of a new mass transit station elsewhere in the capital. The royal couple in recent weeks have maintained a busy schedule of public events, buoying their followers.
As has been the case at several recent events, after taking part in the formal ceremony, they stepped out to mingle with reverent members of the general public who cheered them loudly and waved Thai flags, many wearing the yellow shirts identified with loyalty to the crown.
The pro-democracy protesters back across town, meanwhile, wrapped a large white cloth around Democracy Monument on which they wrote messages to the government with their demands and their wishes for the future. The effect of the covering was especially dramatic when lights shone on the monument after dark.
Police initially tried to stop their action, triggering a small clash that left one police officer with a leg injury that caused him to be taken to a hospital.
However, the general atmosphere at the rally was festive as a variety of groups promoted their causes with petitions and speeches, and music entertained the crowd.
The “Bad Students” group, as they mockingly call themselves, gathered earlier at the Education Ministry to air their complaints about an education system they consider antiquated and authoritarian, with unreasonable regulations. They have already won some concessions on dress codes and hairstyles, but seek reforms in the curriculum as well.
The students displayed a white coffin with a photo of Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, and declared they support the broader movement’s demand for constitutional change.
The group Women for Freedom and Democracy did lobbying work concerning laws on abortion, domestic violence, prostitution and other issues. One booth supported prisoners’ rights.
Other speakers included a Buddhist monk and an advocate for stateless people, who in Thailand usually belong to hilltribe minorities.
Construction of a high-purity crystalline silicon production project worth 4 billion yuan (604 million U.S. dollars) has started in southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The project under Yunnan Tongwei High-Purity Crystalline Silicon Co., Ltd. is located in an industrial and trade park of Baoshan City.
Covering more than 46 hectares in the first stage, the plant will be operational in 2021 with an annual production capacity of 40,000 tonnes.
High-purity crystalline silicon is mainly used for manufacturing photovoltaic cells and semiconductors. Yunnan's rich hydropower resources are important for high-purity crystalline silicon production.
Liu Hanyuan, chairman of the company, said the project will help transform Yunnan's hydropower resources into advantages for developing green industry.
India's overall tally of new coronavirus cases remained steady on Saturday, but officials were watching a surge of cases in the capital that comes as people socialize during the festival season.
India's Health Ministry reported 44,684 new positive cases in the past 24 hours and 520 deaths. Of those, 7,802 new cases were reported in New Delhi, with 91 deaths.
India’s has seen 8.7 million infections since the pandemic began — the second-most in the world — but daily new infections have been on the decline from the middle of September. The county has also seen more than 129,000 virus deaths.
New Delhi has seen a spike in recent weeks, recording more new cases than any other Indian state. The rising numbers coincide with a busy festival season nationwide, with millions celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, on Saturday.
COVID-19 beds in government-run hospitals are nearly full and the availability of intensive care unit beds with ventilator support in the city has reached an all-time low, according to the government data. The New Delhi government has said that cases are projected to rise to nearly 12,000 daily by the end of November.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— Authorities in Sri Lanka said operations at the country’s main port have been hampered after 60 port workers tested positive for COVID-19 and another 200 workers were quarantined. Colombo port officials said operations have been delayed and nearly a dozen ships are waiting outside the port to enter. A large number of containers have also piled up. Port officials said they are calling ex-port workers to help. Colombo port is considered a key shipping hub in South Asia and the lifeline of Sri Lanka’s economy. The port is located in the heart of Colombo, which has seen a fresh outbreak of the virus since last month. During the last 24 hours, 468 new infections were reported.
— South Korea’s soccer association said four players and a staff member of the men’s national team have tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Austria for a friendly match with Mexico. Korea Football Association spokesperson Kim Min-soo said the rest of the team will be re-tested before a decision is made whether to cancel the match with Mexico, which was scheduled for Saturday night in Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna. The KFA said none of the five who tested positive were showing symptoms and that players and staff were currently quarantining in their rooms. At home, South Korean health authorities reported 203 new cases of COVID-19, the highest daily jump in 73 days.
Read Also: Global Covid-19 cases surpass 53 million
Pakistani and Indian troops clashed anew in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, leaving 12 people dead, including three Indian and one Pakistani soldier, and wounding at least 36 on both sides, officials said Friday.
The fighting came amid increasing tensions between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors — since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which is split between them and claimed by both in its entirety.
The Pakistani military and government officials accused India of initiating the fighting by firing rockets and mortar shells overnight and on Friday that killed a soldier, five Pakistani civilians and wounded 27, including women and children. Five Pakistani soldiers were also wounded in the clashes, the military said.
The fatalities were some of the highest reported in recent years. Sardar Masood Khan, the leader of the Pakistani-administered Kashmir, urged the United Nations and world community to take notice, saying he feared a wider conflict.
Earlier, Pakistan’s military described it as the latest unprovoked cease-fire violation by India and said Pakistani troops responded by targeting Indian posts. Raja Shahid Mahmood, a government official in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, said several homes were damaged.
“People are running for safety in panic and India is deliberately targeting the civilian population,” he told The Associated Press. Villagers were hiding in community bunkers as the exchange of fire intensified, he said.
Mohammad Shabir, a shop owner in the border village of Chakothi, said officials shut the main bazaar after rockets targeted the village.
In Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, the Indian army said three of its soldiers were killed and three others were wounded. According to police officer Mohammed Ashraf, three Indian civilians, including one woman, were also killed by Pakistani shelling. He said one wounded civilian was in critical condition in hospital and two houses were damaged.
Col Rajesh Kalia, an Indian army spokesman, blamed Pakistan for starting the clashes.
In another statement, late Friday, Pakistan’s military said India launched the assault after four Indian soldiers died last Sunday fighting Kashmiri rebels in the Indian-controlled Kapwara district. The military said Pakistan stands “committed to defend the motherland and our Kashmiri brethren, even at the cost of our blood and lives.”
In the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir, rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
On Thursday, Pakistan summoned an Indian diplomat to protest what it called India’s violation of a 2003 cease-fire agreement. Two civilians were wounded Thursday on the Pakistani side of the border in that exchange. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry again summoned an Indian diplomat on Friday in protest.
Tensions soared in February 2019, when Pakistan shot down an Indian warplane in Kashmir and captured a pilot in response to an airstrike by Indian aircraft targeting militants inside Pakistan. India said the strikes targeted Pakistan-based militants responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 40 Indian troops in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.
The world’s largest vaccine maker, Serum Institute of India Ltd, is ramping up production of AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate, aiming to have 100 million doses ready by December for an inoculation drive that could begin across India that same month.
If final-stage trial data show AstraZeneca’s candidate, also known as the 'Oxford vaccine', gives effective protection from the virus, the Serum Institute of India Ltd. - which is partnered to produce at least one billion doses - may get emergency authorization from New Delhi by December, said Adar Poonawalla, chief executive officer of the family-owned firm based in the western city of Pune, reports Times of India.
That initial amount will go to India, Poonawalla said in an interview on Thursday. Full approval early next year will allow distribution on a 50-50 basis between the South Asian nation and Covax, the World Health Organization-backed body that’s purchasing shots for poor nations. Serum, which has tied up with five developers including Beximco Pharmaceuticals in Bangladesh, has so far made 40 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in the past two months and aims to also start manufacturing Novavax Inc’s contender soon.
“We were a bit concerned, it was a big risk,” said 39-year-old Poonawalla. But both the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots “are looking pretty good.”
The haste underlines Poonawalla’s confidence in one of the main vaccine front-runners. AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot has said he is preparing for the possibility of large-scale vaccinations as early as December and once the UK grants its own emergency license, Serum will submit that same data to Indian counterparts.
Drugmakers are just now getting data that will show how well their vaccine candidates work, but there are plenty of hurdles remaining as the global race to find an effective shot against the pathogen reaches its final stages. AstraZeneca and co-developer the University of Oxford still need to see testing results. And even if their vaccine proves effective and gets a nod from regulators, there are questions over how easily and quickly the shot can be distributed.
Poonawalla reiterated that it will take until 2024 to vaccinate the entire world and two years to see a real reduction in infections, due to affordability and manufacturing hurdles.
After talks with the government, Poonawalla said he is confident in their plans to get initial vaccines to the vulnerable and frontline workers. The challenge, will be in getting it to India’s 1.3 billion population, especially in the vast countryside where past inoculation drives have struggled due to patchy health networks.
He said AstraZeneca has a significant edge over a rival candidate from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, which this week grabbed headlines after indicating it was more than 90% effective in stopping Covid-19 infections. Expensive cold-chain infrastructure is needed to transport and store that vaccine at -70 degrees Celsius. Poonawalla said it was “just impossible” for most of the world to use at scale, compared to those his company will produce that can be stored at fridge temperatures.
“I don’t think even 90% of the countries will be able to take it, because you just don’t have deep freezers everywhere,” he said of the Pfizer shot. “In a pandemic, always remember that simplicity is the key.”
For India, which has struggled to contain the world’s second-largest Covid outbreak, negotiations with the Serum Institute on vaccine pricing will be pivotal for the country’s efforts to emerge from the pandemic.
New Delhi has set aside about 500 billion rupees ($6.7 billion) for vaccines, people with knowledge of the matter said last month. However, in September, Poonawalla argued that India would need 800 billion rupees. Poonawalla declined to comment further.
Poonawalla is taking a big financial gamble. Operating in the low margin, mass volume world of vaccines, the Serum Institute - founded in 1966 by Poonawalla’s billionaire father Cyrus - supplies 170 nations with over a billion shots a year for diseases such as measles and mumps.
Close to $300 million of the company’s money has been invested in early production, said Poonawalla. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, have also contributed $300 million this year, earmarking 200 million doses for the Covax effort. That leaves about $200 million left to bridge for Serum’s planned expenditure.
Poonawalla said that fund-raising talks with Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth funds along with US private equity firm TPG Capital are now “on hold” though may be revisited in a couple of months. Though the parties came close to a deal, Serum’s plan to price its Covid-19 vaccines at a low level may not give them the returns they anticipate, he said.
“All of them wanted to give us about $1.5-2 billion to dilute a stake in our company - I don’t need all of it right now, the capital we’ve deployed already is enough,” Poonawalla said, adding that advance orders recently signed with countries such as Bangladesh should fill the gap. Serum is also in discussions with India for an advance commitment. “I think in the next one or two months I’ll be fully capitalized.”