Thai PM’s Consolidation of Powers Akin to Second Coup, Opposition Says

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2021-04-29
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Thai PM’s Consolidation of Powers Akin to Second Coup, Opposition Says Posters depicting Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha are seen during an anti-government protest in Bangkok demanding the release of arrested leaders charged with royal defamation, March 6, 2021.
[Reuters]

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s move this week to take over all his ministers’ powers temporarily so he can deal with the COVID-19 pandemic is akin to a second coup by the former army and junta chief, critics said Thursday.

Prayuth now has the power to allow or prevent legislation to do with any urgent issues, an announcement in the Royal Gazette on Tuesday said. That day the cabinet passed a resolution to grant the prime minister more powers so he could adequately handle a new wave in the pandemic, the government’s public relations office said.

“The authority of ministers or acting persons are temporarily transferred to the prime minister, including the power to permit, approve, order, command, prevent, correct, suppress or halt any emergency matters, or the power to help assist people,” the gazette announcement said.

“The temporary transfer of powers and duties is intended to enable the prime minister to handle the COVID-19 situation with greater efficiency and tackle the problem in a timely manner,” said a statement by the government’s public relations office.

Prayuth’s enhanced powers give him control of the Cyber Security Act and Computer Crimes Act, as well as other laws to do with communicable diseases, drugs, national vaccine security and arms control, the gazette said. In total, the Thai PM now can now enforce 31 acts, purportedly to curb the spread of the virus.

A slew of international reports this year had said that many Southeast Asian leaders were using the pandemic to control the media, crack down on free speech and appropriate power.

As it is, Prayuth has been in the eye of a storm since July 2020 when a youth-led pro-democracy movement began to press him to overhaul a 2017 charter which, according to its critics, entrenched the military’s power.

Tens of thousands of protesters have since taken to the streets in Bangkok and across the country to demand three changes – Prayuth’s resignation, reforming the powerful monarchy and constitutional amendments.

Prayuth’s government has since July used some of the acts the PM now controls – such as the computer crimes act ­– to target critics and opposition leaders.

Prayuth’s ‘second seizure of power’

However, it is true that Thailand is in the grip of a third wave of COVID-19, which spread from Bangkok’s nightspot venues in early April.

The country has reported 34,702 new infections since April 1 alone, taking the cumulative caseload to 63,570. Ten virus-related deaths on Thursday raised pandemic-related fatalities to 188, according to official data.

By Asian or even global standards, these numbers are not alarming. But for Thailand they are, because the Southeast Asian nation had been a leader in controlling the pandemic for much of last year. Now, daily new infection numbers have shot up to more than 1,500, which is higher than during the worst of the second wave last November-December.

Still, the worsening pandemic is no excuse for a consolidation of power in one person, said critics and opposition members.

They harked back to 2014, when the Prayuth, who was then Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, spearheaded a coup and took over as prime minister. The former general retained the post in a 2019 election, which opposition parties viewed as rigged in the military’s favor.

“Now that the Prime Minister has this much power it is equal to his second seizure of power,” Somkid Cheukong, a lawmaker from the opposition Pheu Thai Party, told reporters after the announcement about Prayuth being given his ministers’ powers.

If there is a crisis or a challenge, powers should be given to talented officials rather than to one official, said Navaporn Sunanlikanon, a social sciences researcher at Chulalongkorn University.

“Problem solving requires cooperation for diverse solutions. Giving all power to one person means that [that person] now has the absolute power to do [just about] anything” Navaporn told BenarNews.

“Even though the excuse may be that a decision has to be carried out in a timely manner, every order has to be lawful.”

The government denied this was a power grab.

“Despite the announcement, the ministers maintain their powers, except that the prime minister [now] shares their powers and he can issue direct orders, while normally those powers have to be approved by the cabinet,” Anucha Burapachaisri, the government spokesman, said on Tuesday.

“It is not a seizure of power.”

Thai PM fined for not wearing mask

Others are worried about Prayuth having too much power because of the perception that he is wilful and short-tempered.

For instance, when he was junta chief in 2014 he flung a banana peel at a cameraperson he was frustrated with. In 2018, he told reporters to direct their questions to a life-size cutout of himself. Last month, he sprayed disinfecting mist on reporters when their persistent questions about a cabinet reshuffle began to annoy him.

And on Monday, Prayuth was seen without a face mask while leading a meeting with his coronavirus vaccine procurement advisors. This happened a day after Bangkok made it mandatory for people to wear protective face masks in public and set fines for violating the rule.

The PM was promptly fined 6,000 baht (U.S. $192).

“This action is a violation of the Announcement of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration which mandates people in the Bangkok area to wear a mask every time they go out of their homes,” Asawin Kwanmuang, the Bangkok governor, said on his Facebook page on Monday.

“I, along with the commander of the Metropolitan Police and the investigators at Dusit Police Station, came to the Government House on the same day. … The Prime Minister agreed to pay the fine.”

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.

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