[Analytics] Coronavirus threatens democracy in Southeast Asia

ASEAN Chair and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocho looks ahead as Japan's Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and others attend a photo session in Bangkok, Thailand, 3 November 2019 (Photo: Reuters/The Yomiuri Shimbun). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

COVID-19 has been tough on the health and economies of Southeast Asia, but the region’s fledgling quasi-democracies are also under threat. Efforts to control the virus are giving authoritarian rulers the perfect cover to adopt draconian levers to rein in their opponents and critics. Murray Hiebert specially for the East Asia Forum.

‘The authoritarian leaders of Cambodia and the Philippines certainly rode the COVID-19 wave to their advantage in accruing political power and controls, while Thailand and Myanmar are poised to lean in further if they determine the political situation requires it’, says Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director in Asia.

In Thailand, Prayut Chan-o-cha — a general who seized power in a 2014 coup and then became prime minister through carefully orchestrated elections in 2019 — took advantage of an existing emergency decree to impose sweeping control measures in March. As COVID-19 continues to spread, the control measures grant him the authority to ‘censor or shut down media if deemed necessary’.

For example, a 42-year-old Thai artist was arrested after posting online that he had arrived from Spain and exited Bangkok’s main international airport without any screening. He was charged under the Computer Crimes Act and could be punished for up to five years in prison because his post ‘created panic for the public and eroded their confidence in Suvarnabhumi airport’ — in the words of the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, best known for his brutal war on drugs, signed a law in late March granting himself ‘special temporary power’ for three months. On 1 April, he ordered the police and the military to shoot violators of his ‘enhanced community quarantine’ if they were unruly or threatened law enforcement officers. Three days later, a man in his early 60s, apparently drunk, was shot dead after allegedly threatening police at a checkpoint with a scythe.

In April, the Philippine police arrested seven activists distributing food assistance north of Manila and charged them with violating emergency laws. They were indicted with inciting sedition after anti-government newspapers were found in their vehicle. In early May, ABS-CBN — the country’s largest television broadcaster — was forced off the air in a move many observers interpreted as Duterte’s attempt to further muzzle the media at a time when unbiased reporting on COVID-19 outbreak was needed.

In Myanmar, the military appears to be taking advantage of COVID-19 by leveraging the power it retained during reforms that gave rise to a quasi-civilian government. In late March, the military set up a powerful 10-member COVID-19 taskforce to investigate cases of the virus and suppress ‘disinformation’ by punishing those who create ‘panic among the people’. This taskforce, made up of senior military officers and cabinet ministers appointed by the military, was created two weeks after the government had established a COVID-19 committee led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military taskforce runs parallel to the civilian government and ensures that the military retains a high profile as the country prepares for elections before the end of the year. The military also arranged facilities in key cities to quarantine people infected by COVID-19 and sent military helicopters to deliver medical supplies to remote regions of the country.

In Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on opposition political parties and shrunk the country’s political space ahead of 2018 elections, the National Assembly passed a state of emergency law granting Hun Sen greater power in handling the pandemic. Between January and April, Human Rights Watch documented the arrest of at least 30 people on charges of spreading ‘fake news’, including commentaries on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

No opinion polls in Southeast Asia have measured public perceptions about the more authoritarian measures governments introduced to tackle the pandemic. A Gallup poll of Thai attitudes toward the government’s overall handling of the virus in late April found 81 per cent disapproval — the highest among 18 countries. In contrast, 80 per cent of people in the Philippines approved of their government’s handling of the virus, in line with Duterte’s approval ratings during his war on drugs.

Interestingly, the poor rating of the Thai government seems to be due to perceptions of officials not going far enough rather than being too draconian. Veteran politicians criticised Prayut’s administration for not using ‘hard measures’ earlier to control the virus.

There is no evidence that the use of tough policies in Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand or Myanmar are producing a more effective pandemic response. ‘Any public health practitioner would immediately tell you that responding to a public health crisis requires eliciting the willing cooperation and support of the people’, says Robertson. Using power to arrest, quarantine and curfew violators is an exercise that ‘resembles emptying the ocean with a bucket’. Advances toward democracy in Southeast Asia that came at immense cost are at risk of being steadily eroded away.

Murray Hiebert is Head of Research at Bower Group Asia and Senior Associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC.

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