BANGKOK, Thailand -- A brawl over COVID-19 has erupted between the
American and Chinese embassies after President Trump's newly appointed
ambassador blamed China for spreading a "vicious and dangerous
conspiracy theory," prompting a Chinese envoy to hit back, blasting
the ambassador's "smear" and "lies".

Newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Michael DeSombre began the
harsh confrontation by issuing a 700-word statement published in Thai
media on March 21, which was posted on his twitter account and on the
embassy's website.

"Ambassador Michael George DeSombre calls on the People’s Republic of
China to save lives, not save face," said the U.S. embassy's headline.

"When a vicious and dangerous conspiracy theory is uttered from an
official government mouthpiece, however, we should take particular
notice," Ambassador DeSombre wrote.

"That is exactly what happened this month when a spokesman for the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China leveled
false accusations against the United States related to the COVID-19
virus," DeSombre said.

He did not describe China's anti-U.S. accusations.

"Even worse, Chinese authorities actively censored and punished the
brave Chinese people who tried to tell the truth.

"Had these same authorities done the right thing and sounded the alarm
about this new disease, China -- and indeed the rest of the world,
including Thailand -- might have been spared the impact on our

"The Chinese people know their government is to blame for this
pandemic," DeSombre said.

China's embassy in Bangkok responded in a statement published in Thai
media on March 25.

"Michael George DeSombre, the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand,
deliberately used the novel coronavirus epidemic to smear and attack
China," wrote Chinese Embassy Counselor and Spokesman Yang Yang.

"Interestingly, on January 25, President Trump tweeted that 'China has
been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The U.S. greatly
appreciates China's efforts and transparency'," Yang said.

"Who on earth is lying?" Yang asked.

"The outbreak is growing rapidly in the U.S., and lies cannot save
American people's lives.

"The U.S. media revealed that several U.S. senators were informed of
the real seriousness of the U.S. outbreak and secretly sold off their
personal stocks as early as February," Yang said.

"Who is not open, transparent and accountable?"

Thailand stayed out of the diplomats' fight and remained silent,
perhaps hoping the two embassies had said enough and would stop

Bangkok tries to balance its relations with Washington and Beijing.
China did not criticize Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's 2014 coup,
unlike the U.S. under then-President Obama.

As a result of its balancing act, Thailand receives China's
diplomatic, economic and military support while benefiting from
massive U.S. military training exercises several times a year, plus
other assistance. Thailand is a U.S. treaty ally.

"The U.S. president is certainly pandering to his populist racism when
he deceitfully uses the phrase 'Chinese virus'," wrote political
commentator Felix Qui in an open letter to Yang Yang.

"The virus originated in China, but that objective statement of fact
is very different to Trump's racist language, which can only be
harmful," Qui said.

"However, China is not blameless.

"Citing the prevention of 'public panic,' Chinese authorities used
unjust Chinese law to harass the good doctor who had initially
reported the virus in December last year, and who had tried to raise
the alarm in a more timely manner that would have saved many lives in
China and elsewhere.

"The heroic Dr. Li Wenliang subsequently died of the disease about
which he had patriotically tried to alert the Chinese people, despite
the repressive efforts of the Chinese Communist Party," Qui wrote.

Prime Minister Prayuth meanwhile declared a state of emergency which
began on March 26 to deal with COVID-19, including a ban on arriving
tourists and most other foreigners.

Thailand's air, sea and land borders now block all foreigners except
diplomats, people with work permits, and other specific cases.

Under the Emergency Decree, security forces have legal immunity from
prosecution for following their superiors' orders.

Large gatherings are banned, anyone who hoards food, drinking water or
medical supplies will be arrested, and venues which were recently
ordered to shut down will remain closed.

The government can also censor media, prohibit people from leaving
their homes, evacuate areas, stop transportation, and enforce other

The Emergency Decree restores most of the authoritarian powers Prayuth
wielded after he toppled an elected government in a 2014 coup, when he
was army chief.

After ruling for five years as head of a military junta, Prayuth won a
2019 election. He continued as a civilian prime minister in the
current military-backed coalition government.

"We have to take measures to stop the spread of the virus and to
lessen the damage to our economy," Prayuth said on March 24,
announcing the emergency.

"Some might say their rights will be curtailed, but please think of
the bigger picture and those close to you."

Prayuth's live televised announcement on March 24 was marred by his
oversized, puffy, gray silk face mask -- patterned to match his
elegant silk shirt -- which repeatedly slipped and exposed his nose
while he spoke.

Eventually he yanked off his face mask, simultaneously knocking his
glasses vertical, which he then also removed before continuing his

As of March 27 in Thailand, more than 1,000 people have been infected,
four died, and some recovered from the virus, officials said.

Bangkok's Lumpini Boxing Stadium, owned by the army, allegedly defied
a recent government order to close, and allowed a fight on March 6
witnessed by 50,000 fans, spawning at least 132 infections, Thai media
reported on March 25.

Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong said an investigation would be launched.

Apirat earlier appeared in an online video wearing hazardous material
protection gear while walking in Bangkok and spraying public walls and
other areas.

The video was widely mocked by viewers who perceived it as a public
relations stunt because it was set to music and singing, shown in
slow-motion, and included several men in his team wearing normal
civilian clothes.

Officials recently clamped a "soft lockdown" on Bangkok and several
other cities, closing schools, shopping malls, stadiums, indoor
restaurant dining, and many other public and private venues.

Food markets, pharmacies and other essential places remain open.

Bangkok's usually bustling streets were thinly populated but normal on
March 27. People commuted to and from work, shopped at smaller stores,
and ordered take-out and delivery services to get restaurant meals.

Panic buying barely dented the abundance of food on sale at most supermarkets.

Thailand is a food exporting nation and, during normal times, also
feeds millions of foreign tourists.

With most of those tourists now gone, Thailand has more than enough
food to withstand the havoc to society caused by the coronavirus and
closures, officials said.

Tens of thousands of worried Thais, Burmese, Cambodians and Lao
however rushed to leave Bangkok a few days ago.

Most had suddenly become unemployed when shops, hotels and other
businesses shut down because of new restrictions.

Their mass exodus prompted fears that they could spread the mostly
Bangkok-based virus throughout Thailand and to neighboring Myanmar,
Cambodia and Laos.