BANGKOK — Thailand has found itself praised from all over the world – from the United Nations to a Nobel laureate – for its accomplishment in containing the coronavirus outbreak in spite of its close proximity to China, where the virus is thought to have originated.
The worldwide admiration proved to be a godsend for the government, who insisted that the success justified its decision to maintain the all-powerful Emergency Decree, four months after it was first enacted.
“I’d like you to look back and see if there’s no Emergency Decree, would we be able to reach this point?” PM Prayut Chan-o-cha told a media briefing on June 23. “It’s still necessary, but we will try to relax it as much as possible using the integrated laws.”
But scholars interviewed for this story cast doubt on the decree’s contributions to the pandemic prevention and warned the sweeping power granted by the law risks turning Thailand into a full autocracy – a concern also raised by ongoing student-led protests.
“It’s been over four months already, how can they still call it an emergency?” law professor Pat Niyomslip said in an interview. “Emergency is when the situation gets out of hand and there’s no time for preparation.”
Pat, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University, said the government is taking on a wrong solution for the problem, since the legislation wasn’t designed to combat a health crisis.
“The government’s rationale for the enactment of the decree doesn’t uphold the spirit of the law,” the professor said in an interview. “What the government is saying is also not true, many things they did can be done without the decree.”
Tavida Kamolvej, the dean of Thammasat’s Faculty of Political Science, said it was only natural for many to suspect the government of returning an absolute power to PM Prayut akin to the legal blank cheque he enjoyed following the 2014 coup.
“The decree was enacted because the government distrusts the people, while the people also distrust the government because they feel they have to sacrifice more than what they get,” Tavida said.
What is the Emergency Decree?
The Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation was introduced by the elected government under PM Thaksin Shinawatra back in 2004, at the height of separatist violence in Thailand’s southernmost provinces.
It grants the ruling Prime Minister seemingly limitless power, including the authority to impose curfews, ban gatherings, censor the media, and close down roads or venues.
Prayut enacted the decree on March 26 with a stated aim of curbing the coronavirus pandemic. It has since been extended thrice, and the government has given no hint as to when the decree would actually expire.
Under the decree, a total of 40 laws – including immigration policies and even regulations on sugar cane production – came under Prayut’s behest. He also set up the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, a special body that bypasses much of the parliamentary oversight.
To his credit, the Prime Minister made no attempt to hide the fact that civil rights were about to be curtailed, all in the name of public safety.
“There may be some inconvenience, but everyone must adapt and be responsible for society,” Prayut said in a televised address on April 2.
But the Chulalongkorn law professor said the Prime Minister’s unrestrained rule ends up sidelining even the coalition government, let alone the Parliament’s mechanism for checks and balances.
“They are operating under the guise of the Emergency Decree to give legitimacy to the government’s excessive powers,” Pat said of the government.
Neither the health ministry nor the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration responded to requests for interviews.
If All You Have is a Hammer
When the decree was enacted in March, Thailand saw a three-digit increase in the number of new coronavirus cases on a daily basis.
The graph has since fallen over the course of April and the country’s total tally of confirmed cases now stands at 3,321 with 58 deaths on Tuesday – much lower than the prediction of up to 350,000 cases forecast by the Kingdom’s leading doctors.
The government has repeatedly insisted that a single-point command is not possible under normal circumstances.
Tavida, the Thammasat lecturer, disputed the claim. She said there are a raft of other laws on communicable diseases and health safety that the government did not even bother to embrace in the first place.
“The government wants to take the easy way out,” Tavida said. “They never implemented the mechanisms outlined by the communicable diseases [law] before, and they don’t want to solve subsequent problems, so they use what they are familiar with.”
The professor also said the most worrying aspect of the decree is the lack of accountability. According to the law, officials operating under the decree are not subjected to any civil, criminal, or disciplinary liabilities arising from their actions.
Despite the harsh enforcement of the Emergency Decree on the private sectors, it was the authorities who were responsible for the recent virus blunder that sent thousands of residents in Rayong to the nearest coronavirus testing stations.
The foul-up involves an Egyptian airman who was allowed to leave his quarantine hotel to visit a shopping mall in Rayong and later tested positive for the virus.
A series of protests staged by student activists also accuse PM Prayut of abusing the virus decree to tighten his grip on power, and demand the government’s immediate resignation.