Prayut announces emergency powers to combat COVID-19: How they covered it

A look at how the media responded to the biggest story of the week.

Thailand is in unchartered territory after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the imposition of sweeping emergency powers earlier this week in a bid to control the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Here is how the region’s media covered the biggest story of the week.

Restrictions are now in place throughout the country

Thailand’s borders are now closed, social gatherings are prohibited, there are restrictions on domestic travel, and all but the most essential shops are shut. Explaining the move, Prayut said: “Thailand is at a turning point in the outbreak and the situation could get a lot worse. It’s important that we impose stricter rules to reduce the spread.”

The Bangkok Post reported on March 27 that Thailand had 1,136 cases of coronavirus with five deaths. As yet the country is not in complete lockdown but according to The Nation, if the government calls for it, it will impose a 24-hour curfew with set timeframes for people to carry out specific tasks including shopping for essentials.

Prayut Chan-o-cha
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha

In an editorial critical of its efforts thus far, The Bangkok Post called the outbreak the government’s “biggest test”. The piece questioned whether the scarcity of face masks and COVID-19 testing are by-products of “incompetency or ignorance”. Asking more of its leaders, it urged: “The government needs to dig deep into its pockets and invest more to contain the virus and provide proper treatment to the infected.”

Is there a political element to Prayut’s decision?

Writing for The Asia Times, Shawn W. Crispin suggested that while Prayut’s actions were necessary to try to control the outbreak, he may also be using it as an opportunity to shore up his position. “While many virus-fearing Thais will welcome Prayut’s strongman response, the medium-term implications for the nation’s re-emerging but wobbly democracy could be grave,” he wrote.

Crispin, who is Southeast Asia representative of The Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ), argued that this is an opportunity for the former general to strengthen his political position. He outlined a series of potential scenarios that could play out, which would alter the political outlook in the country. “Health risks are giving rise to political ones that could yet prove fatal to Thai democracy,” he concluded.

Bundled into the degree is a provision that awards Prayut the power to clamp down on critical voices in the press, which concerns CPJ. “Thailand should uphold press freedom and refrain from harassing and restricting reporters while emergency rule is imposed to contain the coronavirus outbreak,” they urged in an alert on their website.

However, Prayut is far from alone in invoking emergency powers; he is following the lead of other leaders around the world. Tulsathit Taptim, writing for The Thai Public Broadcasting Service, argued that in these unprecedented times, the concept of democracy needs revisiting. “It seems democracy as we know it is having to take a break,” he wrote. “Debate can go on forever, but what is undeniable is that democracy in many people’s views is against ‘contain’ and ‘control’, the two measures that are apparently an effective way to fight COVID-19.”

Will the emergency powers work?

There is doubt about whether the government has a coherent plan to handle the outbreak and whether it should have passed the decree sooner. In another editorial, The Bangkok Post questioned whether the degree was too little too late. “The government has lost a great deal of credibility because of its delayed and indecisive response to the outbreak,” it wrote.

“The country had a window of opportunity when the rate of infection was low and could have been managed better had a stricter lockdown been implemented… the timing is critical, and with so much power in its hands, the government cannot afford to take another wrong step.”

Others took a similarly dim view of Prayut’s emergency powers, instead urging the country to come together to overcome the crisis. From the Krungthep Tarakij newspaper via The Nation, the columnist ‘Khon Thai’ argued: “The state of emergency will not help much if a person lacks the consciousness to be socially responsible, as he will eventually find a way to break the rules and ruin the effort of everyone. ‘Consciousness’ and ‘cooperation’ are therefore more important than the state of emergency. If all Thais are socially responsible, we will together surely overcome the obstacle called Covid-19.”

No one policy or mentality will beat COVID-19. Social responsibility is arguably as important as decisive governmental action. However, as other nations around the world have found out, even emergency measures must be rigorously enforced and implemented at the right time to have any impact.

In Thailand, the government already faces criticism for the timing and scope of its response to the coronavirus outbreak. The idea that Prayut may try to use emergency powers for his own benefit adds more uncertainty to an already chaotic picture in Bangkok and beyond.