Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha wears a protective mask arrives for a Cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/ Anusak Laowilas

BANGKOK – Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced today (March 24) that Thailand will be placed under emergency rule to curb the spread of Covid-19, a draconian measure that could have significant implications for the kingdom’s recently restored democracy.

Prayut, a former army commander and military coup-maker, will from March 26 assume sole authority to implement future coronavirus containment policies, which under the relevant 2005 royal decree allows for authorities to ban travel, shutter and censor media and impose curfews.  

It was not immediately clear how much emergency authority Prayut may seize from Cabinet ministers and what role Parliament will play in devising policies and regulations under the decree. Prayut last placed Thailand under emergency rule in May 2014 upon staging a democracy-suspending coup.

A Prime Minister’s Office official who requested anonymity said that the Cabinet would still be “functioning” under emergency rule, which is initially scheduled to last from March 26 to April 30, according to reports.

Soldiers are expected to return to the streets to enforce imposed curfews and travel restrictions. Prayut warned in announcing the emergency that online criticism of the government’s response, now viral over social media, will no longer be tolerated, as was the case during his coup government’s heavy-handed rule.  

A man holds a sign that reads, “We are tired of Prayut, stop the 2017 constitution” during a demonstration in Bangkok on March 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

The rights-revoking move comes in response to a recent spike in Covid-19 infections that have risen exponentially from 177 to 827 in a week as of March 24, an upward trend that Thai medical experts warn could tilt the kingdom towards an Italy-like explosion of cases without more stringent containment measures.

Prasit Watanapa, dean of medicine at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital, the kingdom’s most influential royally-affiliated medical institution, said on March 23 in a surprisingly open press conference that Thailand’s Covid cases were rising 33% daily and that over 7,000 could be expected to die from the disease by April 15 without a stronger lockdown.    

As of March 24, Thailand had reported only four Covid-19 related deaths, though the government’s official reporting has come under skeptical scrutiny amid a recent rash of suspicious pneumonia-related deaths in the country’s northern region and an initial impulse to prioritize the economically crucial tourism industry over public health.

Read: Fever pitch call for change in viral Thailand

Bangkok Governor Ashwin Kwanmuang earlier placed the capital under a Thai-style “soft lockdown” from March 21 through April 12, an order that closed shopping malls, restaurants and service-related businesses but did not impose curfews or travel restrictions. A previous order closed schools, entertainment venues, spas and bars.

Authorities have pointed to a Bangkok-based Thai boxing stadium, where bettors uncharacteristically for reticent Thais shout and spout during matches to change their wagers mid-fight, as the top source of new infections and subsequent community spread.

Another identified source are high-flying Thais who visited more highly infected countries including Japan, South Korea and Italy over a February school holiday and brought the virus back to the kingdom. Most of those high income travelers are known to reside in Bangkok, meaning Thailand’s Covid-19 risk until now has been concentrated in the capital.

Thai commuters wear face masks amid fears of the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Bangkok, March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

But the risk of nationwide spread is rising as Ashwin’s three-week “soft lockdown” has already driven thousands of idle workers living generally in cramped quarters out of Bangkok to their airier and perceived as healthier provincial homes, where many working age Thais’ elderly parents rurally reside.  

That capital exodus, which before the imposition of emergency rule was expected to intensify as literally millions of Thais head upcountry for the mid-April Buddhist New Year holiday, could have lethal implications in statistical sight of the kingdom’s greying demographics with over 20% of the population aged over 60 and Covid-19’s high elderly kill rate.

The government has officially postponed the annual water festival, but Thais are still expected to travel to their home villages regardless for the spiritually significant lunar new year, an occasion where millions will gather in potential disease-spreading crowds to make merit and wish for blessing and protection at Buddhist temples.

Read: Thailand caught in a destabilizing viral spiral

That’s one, though not likely the only, reason why Prayut moved to impose his emergency lockdown to replace governor Ashwin’s more permissive containment measures. While many virus-fearing Thais will welcome Prayut’s strongman response, the medium-term implications for the nation’s reemerging but wobbly democracy could be grave.

Prayut’s coalition government’s virus response to date has been panned as erratic if not corrupt, characterized by flip-flop policy pronouncements, official face mask hoarding and contradictory messaging from ministries and agencies controlled and treated as fiefdoms by rival political parties.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, head of the coalition’s second-ranking Bhumjaithai Party and known for his prime ministerial ambitions, has emerged as the English-speaking poster child of the government’s erratic and at times bizarre response.

Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (R) at the Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute in Nonthaburi outside Bangkok where suspected Covid-19 patients are confined. Photo: AFP/Handout / Thailand Public Health Ministry

The construction tycoon-cum-politician has blamed “dirty” Westerners who refuse to wear surgical face masks for spreading Covid-19 in the kingdom, despite the fact Thai health authorities have yet to report a Caucasian Covid-19 case.

In a Channel News Asia interview aired over last weekend as new cases were spiking, Anutin said, “The bottomline has told us that we have been on the right pace. Going back to the numbers, people are even surprised how a country like Thailand remain at this low number of people infected compared to other countries and how we are falling down in the rankings each and every day.”

Thailand’s caseload has surged by other regional countries in recent days and now has the second most infections in Southeast Asia, trailing only neighboring Malaysia.

Prayut, a staunch royalist cut from the same cloth of traditional Thai military strongmen, had until now appeared uncharacteristically resigned and remote in nationally televised Covid-19 addresses, a shadow of his self-assured and tough-talking self during his coup-installed government when he regularly berated the “corrupt” politicians he overthrew.

Read: Clouds gather and swirl above Thailand’s Prayut

Prayut’s ability to contain the disease with his new emergency powers, seen by some as his last tactical card to play to maintain the premiership, will likely determine his own political fate. Before the emergency announcement, Bangkok’s diplomatic and other chattering classes were speculating about a possible change at the top to better handle the crisis.

One scenario sees King Vajiralongkorn intervene to appoint an emergency premier, with Privy Councillor economist Ampon Kittiampon’s name widely bandied, similar to his deceased father King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s appointment of a technocrat prime minister to restore order after soldiers gunned down pro-democracy demonstrators in May 1992.      

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto

Others foresaw a pre-emergency scenario where Prayut “self-couped” his own government, not unseen in Thailand’s tumultuous political history, to reimpose military rule, abolish Parliament and appoint a Cabinet of technocrats with specialist knowledge of their ministries including public health to contain the virus and later steer economic recovery.

A final scenario sees army commander and palace favorite General Apirat Kongsompong stage a democracy-suspending coup that catapults himself to the premiership. Apirat has been seen disinfecting streets in full hazmat gear near Bangkok military facilities in recent days, a theatrical display some have viewed as a challenge to Prayut’s handling of the crisis.

None of those three scenarios is completely off the table with Prayut’s imposition of virus-containing emergency rule. But with the coronavirus projected to course more widely through the kingdom in coming days and weeks, health risks are giving rise to political ones that could yet prove fatal to Thai democracy.