New government legislation could spell the end for local and foreign NGOs working in Thailand

Thailand has for the past decades remained a relatively safe space for non-governmental organisations, local and international alike, to operate its advocating business within South East Asia. Though there may have been some erosion of that status when the 2014 coup took place, compared to neighboring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, Thailand is a safer bet for NGOs to set up their regional offices.

However, this era might soon come to an end. 

The Thai cabinet, on February 23 of this year, approved in principle legislation to regulate and curtail the operation of NGOs within the Kingdom’s border. The bill is coined the “Operation of Non-profit Organizations Act.”

The Motives

The legislation was proposed by the Council of State of Thailand (‘CST’). The CST cites numbers of concern that led to this draft bill, among which are NGOs that receive funding from foreign persons or entities. They fear that this, without telling us how and why, might adversely affect the relationship between Thailand and that of other countries. It is noteworthy that this proposed law came at the time when iLaw was actively advocating for the amendment of the 2017 junta-led Constitution. iLaw is a democracy advocate non-governmental organization who receives funding from several foreign organizations. Examples include the National Endowment for Democracy (a U.S. agency), the American Jewish World Service (a non-profit entity incorporated under the laws of the U.S.), and the Open Society Foundation (a grantmaking network entity found by a business magnate, George Soros). 

Even more striking, the government does not wish to appear subtle about its motives either. It includes as material substance of the law that the bill would effectively ensure that NGOs are operating in Thailand without “Tai-ya-jitr” (hidden agendas). It remains unclear what “hidden agenda” means in this context. Is advocating for democracy, like what iLaw does, under the authoritarian regime regarded as a “hidden agenda?”

One might therefore reasonably conclude that this law is aimed at curtailing the activity of liberal NGOs such as iLaw. 

What does this law do?

This draft bill, if passed into law, would require NGOs to register themselves with the Director General of the Department of Provincial Administration, prior to commencing its activities in Thailand. Once registered, they will be additionally required to comply with rules and conditions prescribed by the Minister of Interior, in addition to those requirements set forth in the legislation. 

In addition, NGOs would be subject to an annual disclosure viz-a-viz sources of funds and must file an annual tax report to authorities. And, more horrendously, the NGOs can only receive funding from foreign persons, entities, or groups of persons, only for the purpose as prescribed by the Minister of Interior. Failure to comply with these requirements would subject the NGOs to criminal sanctions. Potentially imprisonment for persons involved.

It is unclear whether receiving funds to engage in political advocacy such as calling for the amendment of the constitution would be one of the permissible purposes. However, given the government’s track record and how the government MPs have reacted to iLaw’s requests, it is reasonable to fear that the purpose of political advocacy would not be permitted.

Responses from Advocates in the Field

On 24 February 2021, the Thai NGOs community held a press conference to fiercely rebuke and express disapproval of the proposed legislation. According to the Thai NGOs, the cabinet resolution (to approve the draft bill) is “without any legitimacy and contradicts sections 25, 26, 34, 40, and 42 of the Thai Constitution.”

According to the Thai NGOs, the government is perpetuating the misconception about foreign-funding entities to serve its purposes. Currently, Thai NGOs are facing significant financial hurdles. Since 2018, numerous foreign entities, e.g., the USAID, the Japanese embassy, and the UK embassy, to name a few, have reduced its financial grants to Thai NGOs. Curtailing funding of these entities even more would substantially affect their operations. 

Moreover, the Thai NGOs also drew case studies from our neighboring countries. Take Cambodia for example.

In 2015, the Cambodian government passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, aka LAN GO. After the law became effective, Cambodian NGOs were harassed. They were unjustifiably sanctioned and some advocates were imprisoned. This was especially the case for those advocates who worked on humanitarian issues. 

Lastly, the necessity of this proposed bill is also called into question. According to the Association of Gender Diversity Thailand, there are currently two other drafts of similar legislation, one proposed by the NGOs community which is pending in the cabinet and another by the aggregates of 11,799 signatories which is pending in the parliament. It would be more optimal to consider these drafts, rights groups say, since the NGOs and the people had participated in the drafting processes. 

The draft bill was put through a public consultation which ended on 12 March 2021. 

Rights groups and critics say that is imperative that this draft law must not come into effect. Thailand has guaranteed the participatory rights of the people in its constitution, according to these critics. As groups like iLaw have pointed out, these rights include the rights of the citizens to, among others, engage in the development of the country, to provide public services, to make political decisions, and to participate in other matters which might affect the people.

The NGOs point to Section 78 of the Thai Constitution which guarantees these rights. They say that this new NGO legislation, if passed, would effectively curtail the rights of Thai citizens to be politically engaged.

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