By Panu Wongcha-um and Kay Johnson
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s leader said on Tuesday he would invoke sweeping emergency powers in the face of surging coronavirus infections, and in a sign of toughening official action a man was arrested over allegations of creating panic on social media.
Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia were among Southeast Asian countries accused by New York-based Human Rights Watch of using the pandemic to crack down on criticism. Both countries reject the accusations and say their measures are needed to keep order and combat disinformation.
Thailand has the region’s second highest number of virus cases after Malaysia, with a total of 827 after 106 new infections were reported on Tuesday. Four people have died.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first seized power in a 2014 coup, said he would invoke powers to help suppress the virus that has swept the world since January, killing some 16,500 people and infecting more than 375,000.
The emergency decree is due to take effect on Thursday and Prayuth said details of the specific powers to be used would be set out later. Among the powers in the decree is that “to censor or shut down media if deemed necessary.”
Prayuth ruled by decree until an election early last year which opponents say was engineered to keep him in office, an allegation he denies
Other regional leaders have also taken on additional powers and ordered emergency security measures.
The Philippines congress granted President Rodrigo Duterte extra powers overnight as infections also soared there and across the region – rising more than 20-fold across Southeast Asia to more than 4,500.
‘POST CREATED PANIC’
With growing concern in Thailand over the spread of the virus, the government said a man had been arrested after posting false statements about a lack of coronavirus screening at Bangkok’s main international airport.
“The post created panic for the public and eroded their confidence in Suvarnabhumi Airport,” the ministry of digital affairs said.
Artist Danai Ussama, 42, posted that he had gone through no health screenings and been given no instructions by officials when he arrived on a flight from Barcelona. He was charged under the Computer Crime Act, punishable by up to five years in prison. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said Ussama was granted bail later on Tuesday and would appear in court on May 12.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accused Southeast Asian countries of using the virus as an excuse to crackdown on dissent, saying that 17 people had been arrested in Cambodia over social media posts.
“What these government ministers forget is in the era of COVID-19, they need the cooperation of the people to share information and act responsibly, and slamming people into prison will achieve the exact opposite,” said the group’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Pravin Char)