Opinion: Emergency Power in the Hand of an Ex-Dictator is Worrying

A file photo of PM Prayut Chan-o-cha

After days of speculation, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha declared a nationwide state of emergency effective on Thursday in order to curb the spread of coronavirus.

This is not exceptional. Nations around the world are in lockdown, and even democratic countries such as New Zealand have declared a state of emergency as well.

But even though I personally support lockdown measures as long as there are adequate compensations to affected people – particularly the working class and the poor – we can debate whether a state of emergency is really warranted at this point.

Unlike in some countries, the majority of the Thai people have so far cooperated in social distancing requests. Another major caveat is the lack of democratic credentials or self-control on the part of Gen. Prayut himself.

For those who may have short memories, Prayut was formerly a junta leader and a military dictator. It was less than six years ago when he usurped power and ruled without a parliament or opposition. The general also repeatedly delayed general elections until they were finally held five years after the May 2014 coup.

The context is vital, and trust is an important factor. How can we trust that a former military autocrat who staged a coup will not succumb to absolute power – this time under the Emergency Decree?

In its essence, the decree means Prayut as Prime Minister will have direct command on permanent secretaries of all ministries. He will be in charge of “all aspects” of the government, as one official made clear. Prayut once again is more than just a Prime Minister under democratic boundaries. Deja vu.

On Wednesday, when Prayut addressed the nation on television, he warned about the “spreading distorted news”.

Prayut said people should receive official information from the government and asked the press to convey the message from that single source to the public.

Yet in the past weeks, we saw confusing messages and measures, at times contradictory, sent out by different state agencies and ministers. Telling the public to only trust the government under the current situation cannot bode well for transparency and accountability.

It is hoped that in the days and weeks ahead we will not see attempts by Prayut and his men to silence critical press that earnestly seek to scrutinize Prayut and the government in the handling of coronavirus, along with other affairs.

I fear that if Prayut cannot control the spread of the virus, he may choose to control free press and the people instead.

Prayut should only focus on those who spread unfounded rumor, fake news and fear mongers, instead of infringing on the rights and liberties of the public. But as he said himself on Wednesday, it’s a cost we all have to pay.

“Some may think they are losing rights and liberty, but it’s for your own life,” Prayut told the nation.

The emergency decree will last until the end of April, but Prayut has the legal authority to extend it indefinitely (the southern border provinces, for instance, have been under the state of emergency for a decade, with no end in sight).

The public ought to be wary of not only the spread of coronavirus, but a possible comeback of a disease called dictatorship as well.