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Coronavirus

Thai prime minister regains sweeping powers in coronavirus crisis

New decree allows government to unify information on epidemic

Thailand's emergency decree came into force on Thursday as the coronavirus infections threaten the government to spiral out of control.(Nikkei montage/AP)

BANGKOK -- Thailand's military-leaning government has armed itself with an emergency decree to control the narrative of the spreading coronavirus pandemic, which critics say is a form of censorship in all but name.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha did not mince his words when he announced that the decree, which came into force Thursday, has narrowed the information channel to disseminate updates about COVID-19.

"Only I, or someone I assign, will be reporting progress of the situation to the public," he said during a televised address.

The testy retired general had the country's feisty press and growing chorus of anti-government critics on social media in his crosshairs. He warned them against stepping out of line and sharing news not officially sanctioned.

Prayuth's strict measures come as Thailand surpassed 1,000 coronavirus infections this week, with 107 new cases reported Wednesday. The rate of new infections detected in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy is on pace with other countries where COVID-19 infections have threatened to spiral out of control.

The emergency decree was approved by the cabinet shortly after one of the country's top doctors raised the alarm on Monday, saying Thailand faced an escalation similar to the toll in Italy -- now the epicenter of the pandemic -- by mid-April if harsh measures were not enforced to limit public movement. Thailand's infection rates were increasing by 33% daily, which could see it exceed 350,000 cases by April 15, said Dr. Prasit Watanapa, dean of the faculty of medicine at Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital at Mahidol University.

"If we do nothing, we will become a country that is unable to control the disease," he warned, adding the death toll would exceed 7,000 by mid-April.

Not surprisingly, the imposition of the emergency decree has resurrected the atmosphere of authoritarian rule when Prayuth was junta chief, some observers say. He was chief of the Royal Thai Army when it declared martial law just days before the 2014 coup. He subsequently benefited from Section 44 of the junta's interim constitution, dubbed the "dictator's law" for the sweeping authoritarian powers. The latter included warrantless arrests and secret detentions.

The generals ran the country after staging the coup in May 2014, which ousted an elected government, till the general elections last March restored quasi-civilian rule.

The sweeping powers under the decree to control the news about coronavirus are among 16 restrictive measures now in force under the threat of heavy fines and jail terms for violators.

"Punishment will be more severe under the emergency decree because once an order is given you need to comply or criminal charges can be laid against you," Panitan Wattanayagorn, chairman of the prime minister's security advisory committee, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "This is a way to unify the message about the virus."

The move to implement the emergency decree is a political gambit by Prayuth. However, there were clues that a chilling new atmosphere was about to descend on the country even before the decree came into effect. On Monday, artist Danai Ussama was arrested at his gallery in Phuket, a popular tourist resort, for a social media post he made earlier this month, according to the Thai media. He questioned on Facebook what he called lax COVID-19 screening of passengers at the Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand's international gateway.

Danai, 42, could face five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,045) if found guilty for posting "false information."

Observers conceded the emergency decree was needed following mixed results from a "soft lockdown" in a country renowned for its freewheeling and easygoing lifestyle. While the government's orders in mid-March to shutdown restaurants, bars, sporting venues and shopping malls were heeded in some quarters, there were reports on social media of hundreds ignoring the call for social distancing.

Many in government were incensed by revelations of young people throwing parties on beaches and in parks, openly flouting the call for people to stop mixing in groups.

Meanwhile, turf wars inside the ruling coalition added to public confusion. Leaders of the competing political camps blamed each other over the short supply of surgical masks. One arm of the administration publicly dismissed information shared by another arm regarding the spread of COVID-19, triggering a backlash on social media that poured scorn on Prayuth.

A source in the prime minister's office said the emergency decree was made to stem the tide of confusion.

"There was duplication of work and unclear working parameters, and this called for a need to restructure for efficiency," the source said. "There was a need for expediency."

Under the emergency rule, Prayuth and a small committee of senior bureaucrats and leaders of the armed forces will shape policies. They effectively eclipse the power of the coalition government that emerged after the general elections, a poll hailed as a pivotal step in Thailand's transition to democracy.

"There is always a danger when the information about a public health crisis is centralized in the hands of a few," said Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Prayuth wants the public to only listen to him, and that will increase his burden on the outcome of containing the virus -- he will not be able to pass the buck anymore."

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