'Get out of Thailand' campaign gains momentum as Covid-19 worsens

The current Covid-19 outbreak and slow vaccine roll-out have fuelled anger towards the Thai government. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Hundreds of thousands of Thai students and young professionals who are dissatisfied with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the slow pace of vaccinations have formed an online group to discuss ways to quit the country for good.

The Facebook group called "Migrate" has garnered more than 800,000 members in less than a week of it being set up.

It has become a platform for people to discuss pathways for emigration, with participants seeking advice and Thais already living abroad sharing tips. The United States, Australia, Japan, Canada and Germany top the list of destinations that members want to move to in search of a better future.

Although the number of members is currently equivalent to about 1.3 per cent of the Thai population, the roster is enough that it would rank 28th out of the country's 77 provinces. Membership is about double that of "likes" on the Facebook page of the Health Ministry.

Much of the private group's discussions centre on better job and wealth prospects that other countries can offer, compared with fewer opportunities in Thailand.

For many of the young members, the current Covid-19 outbreak - the nation's third and the worst since the pandemic began - and the slow vaccine roll-out have fuelled anger towards an establishment-backed government which previously rejected their calls for reform with a crackdown on protests.

"In late April, my father died from Covid, and now my mother is in critical care, waiting for a miracle," wrote Pakpong Phompetch, a member of the group. "I don't want to be in this country any more."

Thai youth and students, who were at the forefront of the street protests last year, have embraced online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Clubhouse audio chat application following a ban on large public gatherings due to the pandemic. These avenues played a key role in driving the protests, which also called for monarchy reform and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's resignation.

"There's a huge disillusionment. It's an economic, political and ideological response to what's going on," said Professor Kevin Hewison, an expert in Thai politics and an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It's a way of attacking the regime politically by suggesting that there are people who have lost faith."

While Mr Prayut has not made any comments about the online campaign, the Digital Economy and Society Ministry said it is closely monitoring the group and may take legal action against any content that it deemed illegal.

The current flare-up in coronavirus in Thailand, which started in early April, has more than doubled the number of cases and deaths.

The outbreak has triggered containment measures on businesses and travel, prompting several downgrades to the country's growth forecasts this year.

The slow pace of vaccinations, along with the limited supply of vaccines, may delay an economic recovery and tourism reopening plans, fuelling job losses.

Although some people in the group said they did not have enough funds or the right skill sets to move abroad, others said they have started looking into different immigration programmes to apply for. The group is planning to launch a website that will compile information about emigration to be shared among members for the benefit of anyone wanting to leave Thailand.

"It's a vote of no-confidence by the people," said Dr Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University's Centre of Asean Community Studies in northern Thailand. "The key question is whether these globe-trotting, urban progressives can influence more people to go against the government, and my thought is that they can, because this government is showing that it can't resolve this pandemic."

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