Thailand and the Philippines on Tuesday granted their leaders emergency powers in bids to limit the damage from the COVID-19 pandemic amid soaring infections in those countries.
At least one human rights watchdog group warned that such action, while necessary in a public health emergency, could erode freedoms over the long term.
In Bangkok, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced a state of emergency, to take effect on March 26. It would allow authorities to impose curfews, bar public gatherings, censor news deemed to be fake or seen as inducing general fear and panic.
Prayuth’s emergency decree would also empower authorities to stop public transportation, shut down premises and evacuate people.
“The government has been pondering an announcement of an emergency state and decided to make it effective this Thursday. We have also discussed other necessary measures,” Prayuth said in a nationally televised address on Tuesday, the first anniversary of a general election that saw the ex-junta chief return to power as prime minister.
“I will lead the committee, centralizing the power at the prime minister, in order to handle the matter,” said Prayuth, who led a military coup in 2014. “Media and social media who distort information shall be investigated by officials and be subject to prosecution along with those who are stockpiling foods and necessities.”
To enforce the rules, Prayuth said he could mobilize civil servants, police and military personnel.
Those accused of violations could be held without charges being filed for up to a month through extensions, as opposed to two days under the regular penal code, he said.
In Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the country’s armed forces and national police in charge of the country’s fight against COVID-19, as he thanked members of Congress for passing a law granting him emergency powers in dealing with the viral outbreak.
The departments of national defense, interior and local government along with the military and the national police “are now ramping up the implementation of the national plan as we speak to reinforce the efforts of the DOH [the Department of Health] in containing the threat of COVID-19,” Duterte said in a late night address to the nation.
He did not divulge other details, but gave his speech hours after both houses of Congress passed legislation granting Duterte “emergency powers” to deal with the crisis.
“I assure the public that the government will be on top of this situation at all times,” Duterte said. “We will not leave anyone behind.”
“I also call on relevant agencies to ensure the speedy delivery of basic medical supplies and equipment to health facilities. From the approval, importation and to the delivery, everything must go smoothly to make sure that we do not waste time,” he said.
In Thailand and the Philippines, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have trebled and nearly doubled, respectively, since Friday.
On Tuesday, Thailand reported 106 new cases and three deaths, pushing the overall death toll to four. The Philippines reported 90 new cases and two additional deaths, increasing its totals to 552 confirmed cases and 35 fatalities.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, armed forces chief Gen. Affendi Buang announced that surveillance drones were deployed to 12 hotspots nationwide to monitor public response to the Movement Control Order, a government-imposed lockdown aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
On Sunday, Malaysia deployed soldiers to enforce a two-week travel ban within the country so as to curb the virus’s domestic spread.
Without disclosing the numbers, Affendi said some of the drones belonged to the government while the others were lent by businesses.
“We cannot deploy the drones to cover the whole country. They will be assigned to various locations, especially the 12 locations that have been deemed COVID-19 hotspots,” he said.
Some of the hotspots include Petaling Jaya, Titiwangsa, and Lembah Pantai, all in the Klang Valley that surrounds Kuala Lumpur.
“The drones can operate from 30 to 45 minutes and cover a three- to five-kilometer radius. They are able to make a live recording to enable us to identify those seen in the footage,” he told reporters during a demonstration at the Brickfields police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
On Tuesday, Malaysia recorded 106 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death from the disease, bringing its totals to 1,624 and 15.
Concerns over power
Rights groups, including Freedom House, a Washington-based independent watchdog, have raised concerns about autocratic leaders using the COVID-19 crisis to bolster their power.
“Certain limitations on fundamental freedoms are unavoidable during public health crises. But such restrictions must be transparent, and necessary and proportionate to limiting the outbreak,” Freedom House staffers Allie Funk and Isabel Linzer wrote in an Op-ed published in The Washington Post last week.
“If governments are allowed to impose indefinite and disproportionate restrictions on access to information, free expression, free assembly and privacy in the name of stopping COVID-19, the negative effects will extend far beyond this outbreak. People will suffer a lasting deterioration in basic freedoms, and they will lose confidence in the institutions tasked with protecting them,” Funk and Linzer wrote.
Prayuth came to power in May 2014 after leading a coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
In the Philippines, rights activists have raised concerns about Duterte, who has expressed admiration for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, attempting to usurp similar power.
Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok, Luis Liwanag and Dennis Jay Santos in Manila and Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.