Is the cost of Covid 'victory' too great?

Is the cost of Covid 'victory' too great?

A city road is empty ahead of the curfew. Some argue the emergency decree should be lifted as Covid-19 is under control. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)
A city road is empty ahead of the curfew. Some argue the emergency decree should be lifted as Covid-19 is under control. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

It is probably safe to say that Thailand has emerged victorious in the fight against the novel coronavirus infection with fewer casualties than expected.

However, some people have complained that the "victory" has come at an unbearably huge cost, not only economically but socially and politically as well.

The main weapon used by the government in the fight against Covid-19 is the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations BE 2548 (2005). It's a blunt, though effective, instrument that gives the government almost limitless power.

When the decree was imposed on March 26, the country was in a panic about the virus outbreak that by then had started to engulf the world. The Thai people had agreed that the situation deserved extreme measures and lent their full cooperation.

After two months of virtual lockdown and late-night curfew, the health scare proved to be manageable and the infection graph rapidly flattened out. Now there's practically no local transmission. Almost all new infections involve overseas Thai returnees.

Despite the latest positive developments, the government continues to insist on extending the emergency decree enforcement. It's not a surprise that the recommendation for this has come from the National Security Council, which has a tendency to view every adverse situation as a threat to national security.

But the NSC is no health expert. I doubt if the health professionals agree entirely with its recommendation although they are in no position to voice opinions to the contrary.

Other social actors are not being so coy, however. A week ago, activist lawyer Srisuwan Janya filed a petition with the Office of the Ombudsman to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the legitimacy of keeping the decree in effect.

To continue to enforce the decree even as the health crisis is no longer an emergency is to infringe on the people's constitutional rights and freedom, he argues.

A few days later, another lawyer representing a group of five civic networks filed a similar petition to the ombudsman.

The group's complaint says the decree, besides impacting severely on people's rights and freedom, is an exercise of state power that is equivocal, lacks checks and balances, vests in military and administration personnel authority in criminal matters while providing them with immunity from prosecution, and deprives the Administrative Courts of investigative power.

Instead of exercising such power with care and responsibility, the government and its officials have misused the emergency decree to limit and threaten the people's constitutional rights.

Among the many cases of abuse cited by the group are the arrest of villagers protesting a mining project in Chaiyaphum province; the denial of the right of a group to protest against the construction of a sea dyke in Songkhla; and the suppression of an activity commemorating the 2014 coup d'etat and the arrest of the people involved.

These are all concrete examples of the decree's impact on the people. But ordinary people also have been affected in many other ways. Unsurprisingly, many of them have begun to question the government's motives in keeping the decree for another month.

They can plainly see that the health crisis has bottomed out to a manageable level. The existing health system is trusted to be capable of handling any new infections that may arise from increased social interaction.

Besides, there are other legal tools, including specifically the Communicable Diseases Act, that can accomplish the infection containment goals.

Government leaders explain that the emergency decree makes it possible to have a unity of command, rather than allowing provincial governors to handle the situation in their own separate ways.

They also argue that global Covid-19 infections remain a grave concern and the global movement of people could give rise to new waves of infections.

Both arguments are not convincing, to be blunt about it. Provincial governors rarely make independent decisions without a nod from the central command in Bangkok. And the government could impose restrictions on international travel without resorting to the emergency decree.

So, it leaves little doubt that the decree extension is politically motivated. This is so considering that opposition groups have been preparing to launch activities to mark several political events in May.

And while the Thai Chana scheme where you are asked to log in when visiting a store is presented as a voluntary exercise to enable a noble goal of infection tracking, no one doubt that the authorities are holding a big stick out of sight ready to be used if needs be.

Not everyone is happy with not knowing what other ways their personal information will be used and who have access to the information. There is apparently little public trust for the military-led government.

Incidentally, parliament is currently in session grilling the government on the need for a 1.9-trillion-baht loan. It makes sense that the government would not want any distraction from protest groups.

One has to wonder how much sacrifice the people have to make to keep the government stable and happy, rather than the other way around.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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