Sweeping powers handed to Thai Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha this week to control a rebound of the coronavirus is raising concern the country could slide deeper into authoritarianism under the guise of battling the pandemic.
A decree published by the official Royal Gazette website late Tuesday transferred ministerial powers covering 31 laws to the direct control of Prayuth, a former army chief, “temporarily in order to suppress the [virus] situation and protect the people.”
Those include control over immigration, health and procurement, but also over several areas of defense and cybersecurity.
The breadth of powers - particularly over security, and the lack of an expiration date on them - have stoked fears Thailand is sinking into a renewed period of strongman rule by stealth, in a country which has a long history of former generals staying in charge.
“Thailand has become the classic example of leaders with autocratic preferences using COVID-19 to rationalize a descent into dictatorship,” said Paul Chambers, an academic at the Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University in Phitsanulok, Thailand.
“What we are seeing today could be Prayut’s enhanced Covid coup.”
From China to the Philippines, Cambodia to Thailand, human rights advocates say the pandemic has played into the hands of Asia’s authoritarian leaders, who have used the crisis to tighten surveillance of their populations and hustle out new security laws.
Army chief Prayuth seized power from an elected government in 2014 and rebranded himself as a civilian leader.
He won an election in 2019 under a controversial constitution drafted by the army designed to limit the electoral potency of his opposition and has had his legislative agenda waved through parliament by a Senate he appointed.
After nearly seven years at the helm, the gaff-prone Prayuth is deeply unpopular among the public and has faced mass youth-led protests calling for his resignation amid wider reforms to excise the royalist army from politics for good -- in a country that has seen 13 coups since 1932.
Those protests have for now been virtually extinguished on the streets by legal moves against its leaders, but remain vigorous online in memes, cartoons and sharp critiques of the government.
Prayuth, though, remains favored by King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s palace, which wields immense power from behind the scenes.
A third round of the pandemic is already the worst yet for Thailand, with the public braced for a health crisis after about 2,000 cases a day and 84 dead in the latest wave.
Those are small numbers by world standards, but are the worst yet to hit a country that thought it had quashed the outbreak.
Vaccination remains slow, with just 240,000 people out of a population of almost 70 million receiving a second shot, while the virus rebound has cast doubt on plans for a reopening of the key tourist industry over coming months.
With joblessness rising, and criticism of the government mounting, Prayuth has gathered more direct power than at any time since his election as a civilian leader.
“Old habits die hard,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
Prayuth has “seized power from cabinet ministers to establish one-man-rule using COVID-19 outbreak as a pretext. It is a silent coup,” he said.
Crucially, Sunai warned Prayuth’s control of cybersecurity could be used to “shut down critical opinions from the media and public about the government’s response to the crisis.”
With the public preoccupied with riding out the virus wave it has fallen on opposition politicians to question the concentration of powers under Prayuth.
“Seizing more power to manage COVID?” Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, leader of Thai Liberal Party, asked reporters on Wednesday.
“Prayuth has one brain and two hands … how can he manage the whole country himself?” he said.
Others were more scathing of the perceived attack on Thailand’s withered democracy.
“In 2014 you seized power and ran the country into the ground,” Watana Muangsook, a lawmaker for the opposition Pheu Thai MP tweeted.
“Today you’ve seized power over the law to manage Covid. #Timetogetout,” he tweeted.