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Interviews with an academic, a political party leader, a civil society leader and an entrepreneur in search of whether the Emergency Decree really helps fight Covid-19 cast doubt on its epidemiological effect while concerns mount over the abuse of power of arrest.

A Covid-19 checkpoint at Nong Khai province. (File Photo)

The Emergency Decree in Thailand has been extended for another month as the government claims that it is an important tool in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the lifting of some lockdown measures, the curfew is still in place.

Thailand has experienced many ups and downs in the past month under the Decree. The million dollar question is: Do we really need the Emergency Decree?

Prachatai conducted interviews to review the Emergency Decree and give suggestions for dealing with people’s livelihoods and state authority.

Yingcheep Atchanont, the manager of iLaw, a civil society organization working on legal issues, said that the Emergency Decree poses problems of transparency and complexity. Its role as a positive factor in overall disease control is not at all clear. Thus, the kingdom-wide implementation of the Decree should be questioned as provinces face different contexts.

He said that the Communicable Disease Act already authorizes the state to prohibit public gatherings and shut down sites with a risk of contagion. The existing security laws also sanction curfews and empower the PM to make decisions. What is different is that the emergency decree gives officials immunity from accountability and from the jurisdiction of the Administrative Court.

“The most important problem with the Emergency Decree is the difficulty with accountability. Like the cases a few days ago where we saw the arrest of homeless people in Chiang Mai on charges of curfew violation or prohibiting and prosecuting people who distribute food to the homeless or those who are in need.

“Are these powers being used correctly? It may be correct. The officials are perhaps keeping rigidly to the law, or it may be illegitimate and the people with power should be held accountable. If there was no Emergency Decree, this kind of action will be held to account.” Yingcheep said.

On curfew arrests, the iLaw manager said that they go against the main purpose of controlling the outbreak. In principle, the curfew was declared to keep people at home. If people are caught violating the curfew, they should not be lumped together in jail overnight, waiting to be sent to court. This goes against the social distancing policy and increases the chance of infection.

“In the case of France, the law is clear. If people violate the curfew, the first time they will be fined, the second time they will get a bigger fine, and if you do it a third time the penalty is imprisonment and an even bigger fine. But in Thai law, no matter how many times you offend, regardless of the reason for offending, you will be punished in the same way.” said Yingcheep.

Lertsak Kamkongsak, the Chair of the Commoners Party, said that existing laws are already sufficient to cope up with the pandemic. The Emergency Decree and curfew, on the other hand, oppress people’s rights and freedoms.

“I do not agree with the Emergency Decree because of the part it plays in excessively restricting the rights and freedoms of the people. The power is used in a ridiculous way, for example, setting up road blocks, prohibiting the distribution of goods to people by citing the Emergency Decree. … Villagers who are fighting on environmental or land rights issues are blocked from expressing their opinion in the name of Covid-19 control. Villagers cannot gather together to submit a complaint or oppose government agencies.”

Lertsak suggests the government should do its best to let people live a normal life as much as possible. During March and April, Thai people suffered enough loss of income. The kind of workplace that cannot apply social distancing may still be selectively barred from reopening.

Phit Cheewasakorn, owner of Beef b4 u die, a steak delivery business, said that his business is not affected by the strict state measures. He said that the government should relax its strict outbreak control policy to let people go back to work and earn income. Amidst the outbreak, many businesses in the same sector have experienced transformations.

“From what I have seen, shabu (sukiyaki-like buffet) has gone from having to sit and eat in the restaurant and now has had to change into a delivery service. But delivery alone is not enough. If they order a shabu set, the restaurant gives a shabu pot too. Many businesses have to adapt their model. On the one hand, I think in some cases the situation will lead to overturning the form of businesses to expand into another channel.”

Assoc Prof Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat University said that the Emergency Decree should be used when there is no potential mechanism in place to solve the problem. When the situation improves, the Decree should be lifted as it will not be necessary.

“Today we can see that when the Emergency Decree is used, it is not just a matter of managing a problem in epidemiology alone, but in many places the Decree is used to deal with the moral issues like arresting gamblers or drug users. Those are things where there are already regular laws for dealing with offenders.”

Yuttaporn says that the problem in Thailand is not about the implementation of ‘special laws’ but the bureaucratic-dominated state mechanisms. Such mechanisms respond to a situation slowly and give local officials a great deal of discretion on interpreting the orders from the centre. This circumstance can lead to negative consequences in the long-term control of the outbreak.

The political science lecturer added that the need to stabilize and centralize the government via the Emergency Decree is the result of power structure in the 2017 Constitution that gives parliament a weak multiparty coalition. This leads to more negotiations and deals among the stakeholders involved. This was shown in the conflicts among the coalition over face masks during the early phase of the pandemic.

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