The pandemic is not an excuse to ban protests and civil liberties

Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience has inspired a proud yet solemn global tradition of resistance to government, with giants such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi following in the footsteps of his writings.

Today, they’re widely celebrated today as the apexes of human fortitude and morality in the face of tyranny. 

Civil disobedience, according to celebrated American philosopher John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice, is “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to the law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law and policy of the government.”

It is justified through the breach of liberty and equality, quite like the enforced disappearances and unjust laws against freedom of expression that Thai students are standing up against. When normal political appeals in good faith prove ineffective, civil disobedience becomes the essential stabilising force to hold institutions into account. 

Opposition against unjust laws have long been chronicled in the annals of history. However, the place for civil disobedience in these annals is challenged in the time of the coronavirus, where we face one of the great public health crises of our generation. The pandemic requires us to yield to government mandates to sacrifice our basic freedoms for the common good, shut down our livelihoods, and stay at home. 

What does this mean for civil disobedience during this time? The most problematic part of Rawls’ definition is the nonviolence requirement that gives civil disobedience its noble status (indeed, looting gave the Black Lives Matter movement much of its controversy, even though roughly 93% of the protests have been peaceful).

The coronavirus exponentially amplifies this concern.

COVID-19, however inadvertently, is violent; gatherings escalate risk of infection and death. The pandemic has sensibly caused a virtually worldwide ban in public gatherings. Prayuth’s warning that this weekend’s protests may cause a second wave is a reflection of this fear. In places including Chile, dissent against the government was largely fizzled due to the threat of the virus. 

On one hand, a second wave of the pandemic is very much probable in Thailand, and it is premature to declare victory over the coronavirus when it was declared at the time of writing that there was one death in addition to a case of domestic transmission. In addition, the advent of social media gave rise to a means of civil disobedience unavailable during King’s and Gandhi’s time: online activity in defiance of the Computer Crime Act.

On the other hand, online pressure may not be enough. As protest organisers have argued, the threat of COVID-19 in Thailand has been overplayed, and the Emergency Decree is being used as an excuse to ban street gatherings despite government insistence otherwise. With five extensions, it has indeed been extensively criticised as extended beyond necessary. This seems especially draconian considering that the German Constitutional Court ruled that the pandemic cannot be grounds for a blanket ban on the right to assembly. 

It would be unwise for Prayuth, or any government, to assume that the pandemic is a blank cheque for injustice. We have seen this through the global BLM movement following the death of George Floyd, where people fighting against racial injustice were undaunted by public gathering restrictions despite rampant cases in the United States and Europe. In Belarus, more than 10,000 people are taking to the streets in an outcry over rigged election results, and protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova has been charged under the security law. In Thailand, where cases are much more controlled, the younger generation of Thais also reject this politics of fear. They perceive Prayuth’s warning as an authoritarian government’s attempt to ignore grievances and unite the country through an external threat, however real it may be.

In an attempt to placate protesters, Prayuth has acknowledged that there is a right to peaceful protests, but only as long as it is within the bounds of the law. This seemingly innocuous statement elides the paradox: how can there be a right to peaceful protest if the Emergency Decree prohibits public gatherings? Or when the very laws we are protesting, such as the sedition law, are the ones that limit the right to peaceful protest? 

In the time of the pandemic, our pursuit of liberty must reflect both sides of the argument. Ultimately, only the civil disobedient can decide in good conscience whether personal morality trumps legal restrictions at this time. But as long as we hold even a sliver of pretence that we are a democracy – as we do in our constitution – then our moral right and duty to civil disobedience, in the form of peaceful protests with as much temperature screening, sanitizers, and social distancing measures as practically possible, must be protected as part of the great global tradition and appropriately balanced during a global health crisis.

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