BANGKOK -- Thailand's swift response to the coronavirus pandemic has drawn praise at home and abroad for being able to stop what was predicted to be a catastrophic wave of deaths in its tracks. However, the government now faces growing criticism that the authoritarian style it used to fight the virus is being used to stifle dissent.
It has been more than a month since the country recorded a new local case of COVID-19 and much of the mask-wearing public now enjoys a near-normal quality of life.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha credited much of the success to keeping the country under a state of emergency, which places limits on public gatherings among other restrictions while giving the former junta chief sweeping authority. Now, he wants to extend the emergency decree beyond Tuesday, when it is set to run out.
The extension under consideration would last through the end of July, when the decree could be further extended, sources say.
"Imagine if there was no emergency decree, where would we be at this point?" he told reporters in Bangkok last week. "Is the pandemic over?"
The decree, which has been extended twice since invoked on March 26, empowered Prayuth to marginalize his cabinet and run the country with the help of public health bureaucrats and military officers in a special body called, the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration. The body has become, in essence, a de facto government over the past three months, according to critics, who see worrying parallels with the "one-man-rule" military junta that Prayuth headed after the 2014 coup.
A source close to Prayuth said the decree, which helped the body to steamroll over political turf wars and centralized the government's response, was pivotal in containing the pandemic. "It has worked so far, because it ended the confusion and mixed messages that were evident at the beginning," the source told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Information we have received from military and intelligence sources say the public are still scared after what they see in the U.S. about the virus spreading."
Thailand's COVID-19 numbers amplify the success rate during the first wave of the pandemic. It had recorded 3,158 reported cases and 58 fatalities as June draws to a close. Consequently, more restrictions have been eased as Thailand enters its fifth phase of opening up on Wednesday, which will pave the way for Bangkok's red-light districts and massage parlors to reopen.
These numbers are dramatically lower than what was predicted in March. At that time, Thailand witnessed infection rates rising by 33% daily, and some public health experts feared the country would have more than 350,000 cases by mid-April.
But that prediction never materialized and a month after the emergency decree was enforced, its use for control was laid bare. By the end of April, more than 17,200 people were charged for violating the decree, according to the attorney general's office. In the first half of May, nearly 9,000 people were slapped with similar charges.
As the decree marked three months of enforcement, human rights groups had documented more than 26,200 cases of emergency decree violations. "It was clogging the courts who were struggling to handle the high number of arrests," said a rights activist.
According to Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, a human rights lawyer in Thailand, the police and security arm "expanded the use of the emergency decree and made it political."
Among those arrested were rubber tappers and fishers, who broke the nightly curfew on the way to work, and community groups protesting against environmentally damaging commercial projects near their villages, she said. "Even those who distributed free food and cash to help people economically affected by COVID were charged under the decree for not getting permission from the police."
A Thai intelligence source said the nightly curfew had little to do with containing the spread of COVID-19, and was enforced to stop protests by people who had lost livelihoods due to the restrictions. "It was a preemptive effort to stop those who had lost jobs from coming to Bangkok and demonstrating in public places, like outside the finance ministry," he said. "This is typical military thinking."
Police also are accused of targeting political activists and student leaders who staged small protests against the current pro-military coalition government and for politically charged memorial events, including an event in mid-May to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2010 bloody crackdown against a pro-democracy street movement, which resulted in over mostly civilian 90 deaths at the hands of the military. The police charged protesters for breaching the social-distancing measures to silence them.
International rights groups have criticized the use of emergency decree to quell free speech. "Thai authorities have shut down criticism from the media, health care workers and the general public about their response to the pandemic, using both the emergency decree and the Computer-Related Crime Act's 'anti-fake news' provisions," Human Rights Watch said after the government extended the decree for the second time in May.
This pattern seemed to confirm fears that surfaced shortly after the decree was imposed of Thailand reverting back to its political climate after the 2014 coup. Prayuth, as general, ran the country for five years after deposing an elected government by using martial law and later Section 44 of an interim constitution, dubbed the "dictator's law" for its sweeping authoritarian powers, till general elections in March 2019.
"Under the emergency decree, there is no supervision and no oversight for Prayuth's actions, and cabinet ministers have to comply with his orders," said Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Thailand has begun to look more and more like junta rule in disguise, and it has come down to stability and continuity for Prayuth -- the decree shields him from any challenges."
In Bangkok's academic circles, Prayuth's gambit is being dubbed a "medical coup."