Among the responses of individual Southeast Asian countries to the COVID 19 pandemic, one can see two distinctly varied responses. Countries such as Singapore have been well prepared and extremely proactive in dealing with the pandemic, while countries at the opposite end of the spectrum like Cambodia have faltered rather evidently. As a result none of these countries have a common approach which can be evaluated as a yardstick for measuring the success of individual state responses. Analysts have pointed out the varied responses between democratic and authoritarian regimes in the region, but this understanding too is not capable of leveraging a broad spectrum understanding on the individual responses to the COVID 19 crisis and the political impact it has unleashed.
An interesting case in point is that of the Philippines where President Duterte has used the outbreak of the pandemic to garner greater emergency powers for himself, at the cost of individual freedoms and rights, even as the pandemic limits those choices. In its initial response to COVID 19, the Duterte government made a slow start. For a period of nearly two months no real efforts were put in place especially in terms of limiting the number of flights or tourists from mainland China. There were clearly initial apprehensions, on how bilateral ties between the Philippines and China would be affected, if such a course of action was resorted to. However by mid-March 2020 the writing on the wall was clear, with an initial lockdown of Metro Manila for a period of one month which subsequently extended to the adjoining regions of Luzon.
As early as 24 March 2020, the Philippines Congress, granted the President special emergency powers and simultaneously placed the country under a state of emergency for a period of three months. Popularly known as the Bayanihan Act, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act 2020, which is also known as Republic Act No. 11469, the law allowed for Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) which was extendable by the emergency powers given to the President.
The Act also included severe penalties of fine and/ or imprisonment for spreading false information. President Dutertewas also trying to acquire the right to control areas of utilities, particularly the control over supply of water from private utility companies that were monopolizing water supply into the Metro Manila, the urban centre of the Philippines capital. This however was not feasible and the Presidential control covered only to the areas of health control and public transportation which had to be closely monitored due to the spread of the pandemic.
This month on 4 June 2020, the issues on political consolidation by the President took another step as protests erupted in the capital city Manila (Quezon City), in opposition to the newly proposed Anti Terror Law 2020. Even as the country is in the throes of the COVID 19 crisis, the Act which has been passed by both the Philippines Congress and the Senate, is now awaiting ratification by the President following which it will be enacted as a law. Those supporting the law feel that the Philippines needsit for two critical purposes – first, to address the question of terrorism in the country which has seen increased activity even amidst the pandemic. Second, it is also critical because there is a view that if this law is not passed the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which is the international body to supervise financial transactions and terror funding, may place the Philippines in on a ‘grey list’ for its ineffectiveness to address the issues relating to terror funding.
Opponents of the Act are clearly focused on several issues which are critical. First, the law is seen as leverage against dissent which provides the option of 24 days detention without any charges being filed. Moreover, those opposing the law are also highlighting that the extension of emergency powers under the law will further enable the President to push forward his brand of political control. Even as this legislation was passed, the United Nations released a report addressing issues of human rights violations from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR).
The Duterte government has already come under global scrutiny for its efforts to tackle drugs by way of extra judicial killings even as he was Mayor of Davao province. Moreover, the new Act provides the President almost undue privileges to target opponents and dissenters who have already been targeted in a campaign to ensure that the President remains almost unopposed in the elections that are scheduled to take place in 2022. This comes also in the aftermath of the extension that the President is seeking to extend the emergency powers given to him by the Bayanihan Act of March 2020 which was supposed to be for a period of three months and is to end on 24 June 2020.
If the extension of the emergency powers is renewed under the shadow of the COVID crisis, this will doubly strengthen hands of Presidency, making way for unchallenged powers to the President. Interestingly, as the Congress remains rather weak and is seen as giving its approval without due consideration to the impact of the law, it will provide more unrestrained controls to the President. As the ground is prepared for the 2022 elections, with opposition voices growing stronger, the powers of the President will be critical to watch.
Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.