BANGKOK -- Thailand will be kept under a state of emergency for another month, despite having no local transmission of the novel coronavirus for over two months.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's cabinet endorsed a proposal from the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration, the special body chaired by the prime minister himself, to extend the emergency decree for the fourth time until August 31.
The decree was originally imposed from March 26 and was scheduled to end on April 30. Three previous extensions followed with each lasting a month.
The proclamation allows the Thai government to limit people's rights, while giving the former military junta chief special prerogatives to implement policies with minimum interference by the cabinet.
International rights organizations have been criticizing Thailand for what is seen as a facile use of the measure. "The emergency decree provides Thai authorities unchecked powers to suppress fundamental freedoms with zero accountability," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said when it was extended for the second time in May.
"There is no legitimate basis for extending this decree, which allows for the arbitrary and disproportionate restriction of rights guaranteed under international law and the Thai constitution," Adams added.
Among youth, rallies demanding dissolution of the House, a rewrite of the constitution, and an end to official and judicial harassment of those critical of the government started trending. According to a local media, around a thousand gathered on July 18 near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. The movement has spread to provincial cities as well.
Government officials said they would not apply the emergency decree to ban political events if they remained peaceful, even though it prohibits public gatherings. Yet, it provides a self-serving power to the former junta chief to suppress the movement when he deems it necessary.
The latest extension comes as Thailand is in the process of opening its borders to foreigners. It has resumed allowing in work-permit holders, their spouses and children, Thai nationals' foreign spouses and children, foreign students and foreigners with permanent residence. Those seeking medical treatment in Thailand are also being accepted.
Southeast Asia's second-largest economy is also seeking to allow short-term visitors for business purposes from certain countries that are economically important for Thailand and have contained the coronavirus in a similar fashion similar.
The kingdom has not reported any case of local transmission since May because of stringent countermeasures including forcing businesses to close and limiting travel across provinces. Most measures have been lifted, but the country still imposes a mandatory two week-long state quarantine for all the people entering Thailand.
Recently, some loopholes were found in the mandatory quarantine system. Earlier in July, an Egyptian soldier, who was later found infected, went out for a shopping trip in Rayong, about 150 kilometers southeast of Bangkok. Around the same time, a daughter of a Sudanese attache tested positive for COVID-19 in Bangkok after staying in a condominium immediately after arriving from abroad.
The two separate cases showed that though some of those with diplomatic immunity were asked to self-quarantine, they can choose not to do so. No local transmission was found around the area where the two were, but it did spark public concerns. The Centre for the COVID-19 Situation Administration claimed that the emergency decree will give the government the ability to patch such holes even after accepting more foreigners.
Containing COVID-19 is crucial for Prayuth's cabinet as it is one of only a few national problems that the administration had made a meaningful response to since its inauguration in July 2019.
Its economic ministers including Deputy Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana resigned, as the Bank of Thailand forecast that the economy will shrink by 8.1% during 2020, the biggest projected contraction in Southeast Asia. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the kingdom's economic disparity, one of the worst in the world.
The emergency decree will keep authority for COVID-19 measures out of the hands of Deputy Prme Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, a diplomatic source said. The pandemic was initially dealt with by Anutin, but his blunders caused confusion.
On March 3, he posted on his Facebook account a copy of a document declaring nine countries and two regions as high-risk areas for the coronavirus, with a text saying people from those locations would face mandatory self-quarantine for two weeks. He deleted the post and later the account as well. Such requirements were not put in place until a few weeks later. He was also criticized for calling medical personnel "careless" for becoming infected with the coronavirus. The comment drew anger on social media and he was later forced to apologize.
Most recently, Anutin offered a public apology for not wearing a face mask while attending a social event to commemorate U.S. Independence Day at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. As the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, Anutin is expected to retain his position as the Public Health Minister in a coming cabinet reshuffle, which is likely to happen in mid-August. The second largest party in the ruling coalition calls for the legalization of marijuana.