Anutin: Gov’t Won’t Use Coronavirus to Ban Student Protests

A student gets checked for her temperature before attending a protest at Ramkhamhaeng University on Feb. 26, 2020.
A student gets checked for her temperature before attending a protest at Ramkhamhaeng University on Feb. 26, 2020.

BANGKOK — Health minister Anutin Charnvirakul on Monday said the government has no plan to enforce a national security law banning anti-government protests contrary to online claims.

After speculation circulated over the weekend that the government would invoke the security law and prohibit public gatherings due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Anutin said the current situation is far from the necessity to enforce such measures.

“People should be careful since there’s currently an outbreak, but I never said that I will use the Internal Security Act to contain it. We are far from that point,” Anutin told reporters at the Government House. “Everyone has the right to express their opinions and the government has to listen.”

Read: Sparked by Party Dissolution, Students Rally in Bangkok and Beyond

Last week saw a wave of anti-government protests at dozens of educational institutions, followed by attempts from the authorities to contain it, sometimes using coronavirus as an excuse.

A school in Bangkok shut down on Friday and thwarted a student rally there for an antivirus cleanup. The Ministry of Higher Education also urged students and teachers to refrain from mass gatherings, citing fears of possible coronavirus contagion.

Anutin himself wrote on Sunday that governors can order a ban on protests after the virus has been officially declared as a dangerous communicable disease on that same day.

“There’s a chance of coming in contact with respiratory droplets from speaking and coughing at close proximity,” Auntin wrote. “I understand that it can be implied as politically motivated, but if the outbreak becomes widespread, the ministry may not be able to contain it.”

Plans Unclear

The protests initially broke out in universities across the country after a popular opposition party was disbanded by the Constitution Court on Feb. 21. The rallies later escalated into a larger call to expand democracy and civil rights.

Monday’s rallies are scheduled to take place at Rajabhat universities in Nakhon Sawan and Yala provinces at 5pm.

But despite calls from independent organizers at various universities for a bigger rally on the streets, dates for a major rally are yet to be announced in Bangkok as of Monday afternoon.

Some schools also moved to put a lid on the growing movement, such as Suankularb Wittayalai Thonburi School, where the management on Monday cited a public assembly law to discourage students from staging a rally there.

The organizers eventually complied and called off the protest.

Student activist Parit Chiwarak said organizers from different institutions are currently discussing plans for a joint rally.

He added that there’s no leadership over the rallies, and they were held independently of each other.