PM Prayut Chan-o-cha’s unilateral declaration of a new emergency decree giving him absolute power without any oversight, and tonight’s attacks on unarmed protesters prove that he is unfit to rule.
Many Thais gave a free pass to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta leader who first came to power in May 2014, when he enacted the Emergency Decree in March with a stated purpose of combating the coronavirus outbreak at the time.
The emergency rule granted him sweeping power, namely the authority to ban gatherings, impose curfews, and censor the media, though the government insisted the law was mostly for guiding state agencies to fight the virus in an effective manner.
PM Prayut was also allowed to extend the decree multiple times – the last time being in late September – relatively without major resistance, even as the threat of coronavirus was winding down.
But as the pandemic subsided, dissent against Prayut’s government skyrocketed. Reasons would be left for historians to debate in the years to come, but most obvious causes are probably the economic malaise, Prayut’s lengthy stay in power, and the growing calls to reform the monarchy.
Although officials insisted back in July that the Emergency Decree would no longer ban protests, the opposite happened. Protests against PM Prayut were branded by the government as violating the decree, sometimes attached with threats that coronavirus could spread in the crowd. Meanwhile, government officials gathered without wearing masks or social distancing in several key events.
After a series of demonstrations in Bangkok, some of them drawing tens of thousands, the retired army general’s authoritarian streak finally showed beyond all reasonable doubt when he escalated the emergency decree and invoked the “Severe State of Emergency” in the early hours of Oct. 15, 2020.
Since then, the following events have taken place:
• Police attacked and dispersed demonstrators outside Government House before dawn on Oct. 15, even as the protesters were in the process of packing up and leaving the site as requested by their leaders.
• All forms of protests and public challenges against his government are banned. Violations are punishable by up to two years in prison. A police spokesman said “every demonstrator” at a protest will be prosecuted – denoting the government’s mentality that sees little difference between civilians and criminals.
• Soldiers were sent to garrison the Parliament building and lawmakers told to suspend all sessions that “involved politics,” effectively trampling Legislative power.
• Up to 101 law professors and political scientists submitted an open letter questioning the legality of the Severe State of Emergency, since it was enacted without clear signs of critical threats to national security such as terror attacks or widespread violence.
• Riot police, armed with batons, shields and a water truck carrying teargas agents dispersed a gathering where thousands of demonstrators were assembling in peace and without weapons on Oct. 16. The crackdown is an attack on citizens who were exercising rights and liberty protected by the Constitution. A civil rights group said at least 100 people were arrested.
• A reporter, who was clearly identifying himself as a member of the press, was arrested as he was covering the crackdown. Police said the journalist violated the Emergency Decree’s ban on public assemblies. This rationale shows a disregard for media freedom, and sets a dangerous precedent for reporters doing their jobs in the field.
The new edict, as wielded by Prayut, proves to be an outright suspension of many rights protected by the Constitution. It reveals Prayut’s attempt to set the clock backwards and return Thailand to the dark period following his coup in May 2014, when he reveled in absolute authority that did not answer to any civilian institution.
If left unchecked, his ambitions will mean a collapse of any semblance of democratic rule and constitutional protection of basic freedoms Thailand has gained since the 2019 election.
Gen. Prayut has lost any legitimacy he might have left. He has to go, and he has to go now.