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Opinion

Authoritarians are using coronavirus for power grabs in Southeast Asia

From Philippines to Cambodia, politicians take powers and cash to fight pandemic

| Thailand
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been granted sweeping powers that extend to controlling information on the epidemic.   © Thailand Government House/Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging Southeast Asian nations, the region's leaders have found a unique pretext to consolidate power and muzzle critics. In a climate of fear and uncertainty, authoritarian-leaning figures from the Philippines and Thailand to Cambodia and Malaysia have used the need for unity to achieve unprecedented legal powers and silence the opposition.

The public health crisis is not only precipitating an economic depression, but could also lead to the systematic erosion of basic freedoms and democratic institutions in Southeast Asia. This is why it is crucial that any additional powers given to regional leaders are subject to strict oversight and constitutional limits.

The threat of authoritarian reversion is acute among fledgling democracies, where institutional checks and balances are fragile, especially during national crises. In the Philippines, which has one of the highest numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, right-wing populist President Rodrigo Duterte seamlessly secured sweeping powers and a multibillion-dollar subsidy program from a largely pliant legislature.

During the six-week-long lockdown across the Philippines' capital region, Duterte was given the authority to, among other things, direct the operations of strategic private establishments and crack down on any source of what the government deems "disinformation." Journalists and an independent-minded city mayor who questioned some aspects of his lockdown faced subpoenas from law enforcement agencies shortly after Duterte won his new powers.

Authoritarian leaders in Thailand and Cambodia, meanwhile, have used emergency powers for full consolidation of power. Under an emergency degree, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, formerly head of a military government, has been granted sweeping powers that extend to shutting borders, banning social gatherings and, crucially, controlling information on the epidemic.

The new legal powers could undermine efforts by the opposition to curb the power of the junta under a new constitution, further strengthening Prayuth's hold on Thai society. Equipped with a massive $58 billion stimulus program, the Thai prime minister could secure the support of tens of millions of citizens reeling from the economic slowdown and travel restrictions through cash handouts and targeted subsidies.

For his part, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who already rules with no opposition allowed, has won powers to monitor and control both traditional and social media, tightening his grip on the overall distribution of information in the name of national security.

Hun Sen has won powers to monitor and control both traditional and social media.   © AP

In Malaysia, critics fear that new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a member of the old guard and known for his reactionary policies, could leverage new powers to roll back the hard-earned democratic gains of the opposition in recent years. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has called on the Malaysian parliament to vet new resources and powers given to the administration to ensure democratic transparency.

What we see across the region is a pattern of growing restrictions on the flow of information; a hardening crackdown on independent voices; and increased marginalization of opposition and democratic forces. Meanwhile, authoritarian and populist leaders now oversee large-scale stimulus programs that can be leveraged for political patronage and to strengthen their political base as economic distress and political uncertainty grow.

Critics such as Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, have argued that the vagueness of the new measures in a country like Cambodia, where the ruling party controls all key branches of the state, allows the prime minister to "assert absolute power over all aspects of civil, political, social and economic life -- all without any time limits or checks on abuses of power."

Authoritarian-leaning leaders should not be given a free pass in the name of addressing an urgent crisis. Instead, new emergency powers should be subjected to democratic checks and balances. For instance, governments should provide regular updates on how new resources and powers are being used to combat the epidemic, allowing thorough scrutiny by the other branches of the state, independent media and civil society groups.

Civil society groups and the opposition should combine critical collaboration working cautiously with the government to check its excesses with proactive vigilance, especially when faced with wily authoritarians.

As successful models such as Taiwan and South Korea have shown, participatory democracy -- private-public collaboration, transparent governance and robust levels of trust between citizens and rulers -- is essential to instituting sustainable and inclusive measures to combat the festering pandemic.

Otherwise, even if regional states manage to contain the outbreak in coming months, emergency powers may have allowed a coterie of authoritarian leaders to reshape national politics for the foreseeable future at the expense of hard-fought freedoms.

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