But last Friday, Thaksin's government finally came clean, confessing that two people had tested positive for avian flu, with another three under observation. Local papers also reported that two people suspected of having the disease had died, and the Agriculture Ministry admitted that more than 6 million chickens had already been culled. As China learned after its SARS coverup last year, viruses thrive in a climate of secrecy and denial—and can cost a country dearly. The E.U., Japan and other countries immediately banned the import of Thai chickens. Thaksin's own credibility has also taken a hit. Thai officials anonymously told local newspapers they were aware of the presence of avian flu in November but were told to keep it quiet and blame the culling of poultry on an outbreak of chicken cholera and bronchitis. Away from the cameras, Thaksin and his Cabinet may be less eager to feast on Thai chicken.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has carefully cultivated the impression that Thailand is somehow immune to the ills that have afflicted much of the region: terrorism, economic turmoil, SARS. So it was no surprise to hear him declare last week Thailand's poultry industry—Asia's largest chicken exporter—safe from the avian-flu outbreak sweeping the region. On TV, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet cheerfully tucked into a variety of spicy Thai chicken dishes. Even the European Union's Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, David Byrne, was convinced, asserting: "There absolutely is no evidence of the existence of bird flu in Thailand."