COVID-19 emergency: An excuse for seizing power, subverting rights?

By Sara Gomez Armas.

Manila, Apr 1 (efe-epa).- Military controls, exceptional measures, national emergencies, mandatory isolation and curfews are some of the common steps taken in a world besieged by the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation which is being exploited by some Southeast Asian governments to accumulate power and undermine rights.

The leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia have given in to authoritarian temptations and have imposed restrictions that violate fundamental rights under the pretext of a health emergency.

“The problem is autocratically minded governments quickly see a crisis like this one as requiring draconian powers to keep control,” said Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director Phil Robertson.

Robertson added that much of Asia, a continent dominated by authoritarian regimes and weak democracies, are particularly vulnerable to the problem.

“Responding to the COVID-19 crisis thus quickly becomes an exercise in restricting free speech, obstructing independent media, and punishing activists who dare criticize or raise concerns about governments,” he said.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte managed to get Congress to grant him “special powers” under the national emergency, which would allow him to adopt measures without consulting parliament, modify budgets as he sees fit, and even intervene in private companies.

Civil groups and opposition parties have warned of the risk that a de-facto martial law will be implemented by giving so much power to a leader who does not hide his lack of adherence to democratic means.

“There are very few brakes on Duterte’s new special powers as written, and considering his strong control of Congress, very little political resistance for him to do whatever he wants,” Robertson added.

The president has rushed to place the armed forces at the forefront of the response to COVID-19, ahead of the health authorities, and has designated retired general Carlito Galvez as the leader.

“We are in state of war against an unseen enemy and we need men and women trained in the art of warfare,” Duterte’s spokesperson said in reference to the criticism over the militarized response to the epidemic.

Analyst Richard Heydarian said that Duterte’s administration is based on the creation of crises – the war against drugs, terrorism, natural disasters and now coronavirus – as excuses to adopt extraordinary measures.

“Duterte’s algorithm of power is very much operating under these emergency situations, above the constitutional frame(work),” he said.

The current pandemic is an attractive opportunity for proto-dictators around the world to build a climate of terror from which they can derive political returns, said Heydarian, professor of international relations at De La Salle University Manila.

The repressive tactics have already claimed its first victims in the Philippines and HRW has denounced that hundreds of people have been detained for violating curfew – a man died after being shot at, and some have been locked in dog cages or been forced to sit in the sun for hours as punishment.

In India – where the Narendra Modi-led government ordered nationwide lockdown, effectively putting 1.3 billion people of the country in the confinement of their homes – police have used force on those who violated the order.

Crisis Group, in a report on how the pandemic could alter the global status quo, warned of the danger that some leaders could indefinitely extend repressive measures such as bans on public gatherings and protests to crush dissent.

This possibility hovers over Thailand, which has also declared a state of emergency, authorizing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha full powers not only to impose a curfew and restrict movement, but also to censor media and repress the opposition.

Although he took charge after winning last year’s election, Prayut came to power in the 2014 coup and led the military junta for five years, silencing dissent and using exceptional measures similar to those now enacted.

As well as having some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, Thailand has a cybercrime law that has already been used on critics of the government under the guise of “fake news.”

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