Sunai Phasak, 51, is the Thailand Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. He has been working for the organization for 12 years, monitoring the political climate and human rights violations in the kingdom.
On 26 March, the government ordered the emergency decree, citing reasons for combating the COVID-19 pandemic. It was met with mixed responses. A portion of the public applauded the move, another portion said the Communicable Disease Act would have been the right measure.
The Emergency Decree was extended on 30 June and will expire by the end of July.
With Thailand experiencing no local infection for over 50 days, and growing concerns over dictatorial power and human rights violations, there’s a debate on whether the decree should again be extended.
Do you think the emergency decree has helped contain the pandemic?
When the government first announced the emergency decree, it was at the peak of the virus outbreak and it was understandable.
But if you read between the lines, the emergency decree prioritizes things that have got nothing to do with containing the virus. It stresses that the people must receive information only from the government and that other sources may be mis-informing.
Thailand has the Communicable Disease Act, which can be used to contain the pandemic, but the government wouldn’t have the power for complete control and get everyone to fall in line, hence the emergency decree.
It seemed understandable at first, but it’s actually for the purpose of silencing [the people]. It’s also used to harass whistleblowers. And since they kept extending it, we can be even more certain that the reason they used to justify the emergency decree at the beginning is no longer valid.
Thailand is not facing the COVID-19 threat anymore, so there’s no justification as to why we still need the emergency decree.
Why do they keep dragging the emergency decree along, then?
I think there are two reasons.
First, Prayut [Chan-ocha] is taking advantage of public frustration regarding the pandemic by declaring the state of emergency. He uses it to control freedom of speech, both in the offline and online world.
Also, it’s obvious that Prayut doesn’t know how to manage a coalition government, so he wants to concentrate power in his hands.
Second, the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) is just the junta in medical gowns, using health as an excuse. They have absolute power and cannot be criticized, which is basically the same as the junta from five years ago, but just wearing medical gowns and not the green uniforms.
It’s just an excuse for the government to consolidate power and violate human rights, and stop people from criticizing them.
Does the emergency decree have any benefits?
It all started with government incompetence.
Under the Communicable Disease Act, this government would not have the ability to coordinate between the different departments. It’s not that the emergency decree is not effective, it is, but it was chosen because of the government’s shortcomings.
Another benefit is when the public challenges the government, whether on corruption or anything else, it is used to suppress the public. To control the diseases, we have other ways to do it, we have a very strong medical team, which has absolutely nothing to do with the government.
Will they again extend the emergency decree?
At this point, there’s no signal to reassure us that the emergency decree will be dropped, even though it’s no longer relevant and it’s no longer justifiable.
What harm will the emergency decree do, if extended?
I’m afraid that it would eventually turn into a new comfort zone for Prayut to rule with absolute, unaccountable, and unsupervised power.
It allows the government to function without oversight. The government polices itself. It has full power to authorize and implement. So there are no checks and balances, which are the principle of democracy.
Emergency power is completely unaccountable. So if the CCSA messes up or does harm, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no way to compensate.
For example, the Royong Province and affected businesses, there’s nothing they can demand [from CCSA’s mistakes].