The Latest on Covid-19 in Southeast Asia: October 21, 2020
October 21, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout are amplifying political grievances and social unrest across the world, including in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The current wave of popular mobilization in Thailand started as a student protest in the capital against the forced dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party. But it has morphed into a larger pro-democracy movement gaining widespread support across age groups and regions. Protestors are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a 2014 coup and has struggled to keep the economy on track both before and during the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund projects Thailand’s economy will contract 7.1 percent in 2020, largely due to a drop in tourism and exports. That makes the country Southeast Asia’s worst economic performer this year.
Demonstrators are demanding the dissolution of Prayuth’s government, creation of a new constitution, release of detained protest leaders, and most provocatively, reforms to the monarchy. The government has tried using Covid-19 as an excuse to crack down on the demonstrations, warning crowds not to gather because of the risk to public health. The prime minister issued a state of emergency in March and a “severe” state of emergency more recently. Both cite Covid-19 as a legal basis to restrict gatherings, shut down protests, and arrest demonstrators. But the crowds have only grown while coronavirus infections have remained low, undercutting the government’s public messaging. Given poor economic prospects, the far-reaching demands of protestors, and the government’s seeming uninterest in compromise, Thailand seems headed down a dangerous path.
In Indonesia, the legislature recently passed a controversial omnibus bill on job creation, which reforms hundreds of labor and business laws and removes environmental regulations. This has sparked nationwide protests, some of which have turned violent. Although the bill may make it easier for businesses to hire, it does so by easing restrictions on firing existing workers. This increases job insecurity at a time when Covid-19 has pulled Indonesia into its first recession in 22 years. The pandemic has thrown an estimated 6 million people out of work, adding to the 7 million already unemployed. Trust in government remains low as business and travel restrictions have been inconsistent and people continue to die at the second highest rate in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia is experiencing a new wave of coronavirus infections—its worst since the start of the pandemic. Total case numbers have more than doubled in the last month. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently admitted that many of the new cases likely resulted from unrestricted campaigning in last month’s Sabah state election. As cases rise and rivals both within and without the government make plays to oust Muhyiddin from power, political upheaval seems increasingly likely.
For more details on recent developments, visit our Tracker online.