Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (C) and officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, January 29, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gave shoot-to-kill orders to security forces to enforce a Covid-19 lockdown in Metro-Manila, the lethal warning underscored the rising threat to rights and democracy across virus-hit Southeast Asia.

The presidential threat was directed against those who riot or disrupt food distribution in quarantined areas but also targeted broadly leftist groups opposed to his populist rule.

“My orders to the police, the military and the village officials: if there’s a commotion, if they fight back and your life becomes at risk, shoot them dead,” Duterte said in a televised address. “Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

Before the leader’s chilling threat, security forces under his command had rounded up Filipinos who broke Covid-19 lockdown-imposed curfews and detained them in literal dog cages, images that have gone viral on social media.

As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads worldwide, authoritarian-leaning governments in Southeast Asia are leveraging viral fear and loathing to strengthen their holds on power and curb rights and liberties.  

Across virus-hit Southeast Asia, repressive emergency laws on free speech and civil liberties are being wielded against social media users who either spread alleged disinformation or otherwise are merely critical of their government’s responses.

A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus in Manila, March 13, 2020 Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Analysts reckon that repression will become more severe as Southeast Asia’s economies fall to levels not seen since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, an economic downturn that sparked social unrest across many regional countries.  

“Like China, the only real accountability mechanism for autocratic governments in Southeast Asia is sustaining economic growth,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US-based think tank.

“Leaders from Vietnam to Cambodia to Thailand to Laos will lose their positions of power if economic growth cannot be maintained,” Eyler predicted.

S&P Global Ratings, an international ratings agency, reckons Singapore and Thailand “will enter or flirt with recession” due to the impact of border closures and supply chain disruptions on their export-geared economies.

Thailand’s central bank predicted the economy could dive as much as -5.3% this year due to forced business closures.

Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry expects growth in 2020 to hit 0.5%, down from last year’s projection of up to 2.5%. The ministry warned that the economy could even contract by 0.5 percent this year, potentially the first year of negative growth since 2001.

Independent forecasts suggest that Vietnam’s growth will dip below 6% this year, a potential seven-year low.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc makes an address, January 2020. Photo: Twitter

If there is a serious economic contraction, as now consensus forecast, then Southeast Asia’s autocratic governments “won’t have a leg to stand on,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

“But they’ll then turn to what every other autocratic regime that didn’t perform economically do, which is to blame external factors, like the coronavirus, and then say it wasn’t their fault, and that no-one can manage the country’s political economy better than they can,” he added.

“And if anyone doubts it, they can stare down the barrel of a gun.”

Cambodia’s economy, which has been run by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) since 1979, will be the worst hit in Southeast Asia, according to a recent Asian Development Bank study.

The government is preparing for an associated unrest. In a March 24 statement, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 17 people have been arrested for allegedly spreading “fake news” in Cambodia, spelled news and information that the government disfavors.

For months Hun Sen has personally lashed out at individuals, from young social media users to the head of a major nongovernmental organization, who think differently about how the government should handle what many view as the country’s officially underreported and downplayed Covid-19 situation. 

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to the media during a press conference at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on February 24, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

Singapore, which has been run by the same People’s Action Party (PAP) since the city-state was founded, last year passed controversial “fake news” legislation, which allows the government to demand social network firms remove any content it deems as inaccurate.

After Facebook this month was ordered by the Singaporean government to remove content about its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the social network did so but its representatives noted that they were “deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore.”

Thailand, which declared a state of emergency to combat its Covid-19 outbreak on March 26, has some of the world’s most repressive laws on free speech in the region.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former coup-maker and now elected leader, threatened to leverage the emergency decree’s broad and vague censorship measures to tackle “fake news.”  

“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.  

There are already signs that public anger is growing. Thailand’s youth are already “starting to grumble in dissatisfaction…and the long grind of [Covid-19 related] economic losses from tourism and commercial reductions has yet to really set in in Thailand,” Eyler said.

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

Next year Vietnam and Laos’ ruling communist parties will hold their quinquennial National Congresses, at which new leaders and five-year economic and social plans will be decided. It remains to be seen how Covid-19 economic downturns will impact those proceedings.

“Mainland Southeast Asia is particularly moving into risky waters with a triple whammy of coronavirus, already slowing economic growth, and a major drought playing out in the Mekong Basin as a result of climate change and dams,” said Elyer, referring to droughts that severely hit the agriculture sectors last year and which are expected again this year.  

This combination could really “tear apart regional stability,” he predicted.

Aside from shuttered businesses and rising unemployment, Covid-19 economic distress could also see a rise in the number of migrant workers moving “around the region like a wild game of pinball” in search of scarce employment.

This is “not a desired outcome when a pandemic continues to haunt the region and the rest of the world,” Elyer said.

Recent history shows that Southeast Asian authoritarian governments struggle to survive economic crises.

Indonesian Muslims wearing face masks amid concerns over the Covid-19 during Friday prayers at Al Akbar Mosque in Surabaya, East Java, on 27 March 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/ Suryanto Putramudji

The Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 was a major reason for the downfall of Suharto’s 32-year-old dictatorial New Order regime, while economic pressures added to the push for Thailand to pass the most liberal and democratic of the country’s numerous constitutions.

Many regional states recovered from the 1997-98 crash thanks to an export boom lifted by depreciated currencies and new waves of foreign investment into their stalled but still productive manufacturing sectors.

Such export-led recovery might not be possible this time around as the entire global economy has been infected with Covid-19 contagion. Which of the region’s authoritarian regimes are able to leverage the crisis into opportunity and which will fall due to economic and social distress is yet to be seen.