OPINION: In times of crisis, scrutiny becomes duty

King Rama VI, a distinguished poet, once wrote the Sepha Samakee Sevok, exhorting the Thai people to unite as one under common leadership. A metaphor that he deployed was that of Siam as a ship. “The people are sailors in the sea, who must display a common unity”, the king wrote. “Without a sense of discipline, any great wave could surely topple us.” 

If the Thai state were a boat, then it is currently sailing through some troubled seas with no safe shore in sight. The coronavirus crisis continues to worsen, and unless its trajectory is disrupted, the country could come to resemble an infected cruise ship. 

Yet the unity that the ship’s crew needs to fight this crisis is nowhere to be found. At this critical moment in history, some say, when all hands are needed on deck, people are instead “dragging feet in the water while not paddling”, as the popular Thai phrase has it. Actions that prompt such recriminations can vary widely, ranging from refusing to stay home to merely criticizing the government’s efforts. The targets have included everyone from ordinary netizens to celebrities to political parties. 

On many occasions, such criticism is warranted, especially when it is aimed at instances where social responsibility has been flagrantly disregarded. Those who, despite having no essential activity outside, ignore the government’s plea to stay home and stop the disease’s spread, against mounting evidence that intensified social distancing is the only way to flatten the curve and save lives. Or those who refuse to quarantine themselves despite having been in an at-risk area — their selfishness imperils countless others. 

And indeed, this is something that is not unique to Thailand. In California, for example, Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a loose “shelter in place” order. Despite the fact that most observed the new regulations, large numbers of beachgoers made a mockery of Newsom’s belief that strict enforcement would not be necessary as Californians would rise to the moment.

More commonly, however, people have been criticized for “dragging their feet in the water” when they complain about the government. It is not difficult to see why there is merit in this argument. Much criticism is not constructive, and it is not easy to be the leader of any country right now. Despite Thais’ impatience with what they feel is the Prayut administration’s less than stellar job, governments around the world have been floundering. 

Take the US, where President Donald Trump is busy alternating between downplaying the crisis, stirring up xenophobia, praising himself and ruminating on the stock market. Or the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson first explored a misguided strategy of building “herd immunity”, and even after realizing his mistake, his libertarian instincts led him to belatedly impose the sorts of measures that other European governments had long enacted. 

That the government finally imposed a lockdown on Bangkok, and is planning to enact further measures with emergency powers, is a good and necessary step forward that deserves praise. These are not easy steps for any government to take, when the impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in society must be considered. 

But rallying around the flag and obedience to the government is not always the correct course of action. Contrary to what diehard government supporters would say, to question the captain if the ship is sailing in the wrong direction is not a bad thing. The work of scrutinizing the government does not, and should not, cease during a crisis.

One example is the Move Forward Party’s statement on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s intention to enact the Emergency Decree which would grant the government special powers to deal with the crisis. The statement was criticized on social media for trying to score political points during the crisis, or paying too much attention to personal rights.

But most who read the statement will agree that it was nothing radical: the party supports the use of those emergency powers to enforce social distancing and reduce economic pain, but warned against using those powers to muffle the media (which the decree permits.) 

We have already seen how suppressing freedom of expression can lead to dire consequences: just read the tragic story of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor and whistleblower who tried to warn his nation about the coronavirus, only to be censored and investigated. Li succumbed to the disease in February. Hence, the Move Forward Party has taken an eminently reasonable position that any competent opposition party would take.

Yes, it’s true that party politics feels incongruent in the unprecedented times that we find ourselves in. But the advantage provided by the democracy that we ostensibly live under is that all citizens have the right to hold to account the government.

And indeed, the work of pushing the government to make better decisions will create better material outcomes and even save lives. 

Communications from the cabinet have been ineffective and confusing: pushing for clearer communication helps ensure that people better understand the situation and what they must do. The government dithered and delayed considerably before beginning to impose emergency restrictions; social pressure to do so must have helped it make the right decision.

And when the government initially did not announce any economic assistance to those who will now become unemployed, leading to an exodus of workers from the Bangkok, social media was unrelenting in pushing the government to look out for all sectors of society. 

The people have the responsibility now to stay home, halt the disease’s spread and save lives. And at the same time, they have every right to push the government to meet the moment and carry out its own responsibility to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the people. To do so is not to drag their feet in the water — it helps make sure that the ship keeps sailing successfully. 

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