BANGKOK — Government officials on Thursday abandoned a threat to prosecute coronavirus patients who were found without the virus tracking application installed on their phones, less than two hours after the announcement was made.
The dramatic U-turn followed live remarks on national TV by government pandemic response center spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin, who warned that violators would be punished under the Emergency Decree, prompting outcry from civil rights and privacy activists.
“If someone has COVID-19 and does not install the ‘Mor Chana’ app, then they will be breaking the 17th Issuance of the Emergency Decree,” Taweesin said in the news conference.
Breaching the decree carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
Just moments later, health minister Anuthin Charnvirakul said in a statement that installing Mor Chana will not be mandatory, and there will be no legal punishment involved.
The coronavirus response center, where Taweesin works, also released a statement saying that residents in provinces considered to be at high risk of infection ‘should’ download the movement tracking app.
“But if you are inconvenient to do so, you can write the information on paper instead,” the online post said. “If you don’t download it, it’s not illegal.”
Many opposition figures and rights watchdogs swiftly condemn Taweesin’s threat to prosecute coronavirus patients. Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher from the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, questioned what authority the government possessed to enact punishment for not downloading the app.
“As of now, no one can give us an answer as to the wording that empowers a criminal punishment of people who did not install the Mor Chana app,” Sunai said. “One thing leads to another, and Taweesin’s words got out of hand, threatening citizens without the law to back him up.”
The legal wording says that the government merely “encourages” people to install the tracking app, Sunai noted.
A number of observers also point to the extensive requirement mandated in the government’s app, which includes everything from GPS locations, camera, microphone, photo gallery, and WIFI usage data.
Arthit Suriyawongkul, a coordinator at Thai Netizen Network, said the incident demonstrated the broad power of the Emergency Decree that can be reinterpreted by government officials in any manner they wish.
“The government has a lot of power, almost unlimited, from the emergency decree,” Arthit said by phone. “We should raise the issue of whether this power is proportional. This scope of power should be limited by time and location.”
He added, “We should question whether this punishment is appropriate and proportional. This app is helpful for tracing, but it’s still possible to trace people even without the app.”