Thai civil society defends open letter to President Biden to pressure Prayut to withdraw problematic law

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Dozens of local and international non-profit organizations pressured the Biden Administration on Thursday to urge the Thai government to withdraw the Operation of Not-for-Profit Organizations Act.

Leaders and representatives of some of the signatory organizations told the Thai Enquirer on Friday that it was a necessary move because the controversial new draft law could suppress freedom of association, freedom of expression, and threaten Thailand’s civil society.

In response to the bill, 65 NGOs submitted a joint letter to US President Joe Biden on Thursday to urge Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to scrap the law during his visit to the White House for the US-ASEAN special summit that had just been completed over the last two days.

“Passage of this law in its current form would be the equivalent of civil society Armageddon, and mark the end of the Thai MFA dream that somehow Bangkok can be a ‘Geneva of the East’, a sort of global capital of diplomacy and UN engagement,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, told Thai Enquirer. 

“Article 20 of the law is so vague that it will allow unspecified Thai officials maximum discretion to engage in a fishing expedition to target and shut down any NGOs or community groups that they don’t like. What’s clear is Prime Minister Prayut and the security officials behind him want to turn Thailand into the political equivalent of dictator Hun Sen’s Cambodia, where protests can’t occur and NGOs can be silenced with the snap of the fingers.”

Robertson added that the law is “a full-frontal assault on the Thai people’s freedom of association,” and allows the state to easily target civil society groups of “every size, shape, and concern.”

Human rights groups say the law does not comply with Thailand’s international human rights obligations as the law’s written language is vague and problematic. Many groups fear that the Thai state could perceive  “almost any action” as violating the law’s broadly defined provisions.

If the law passes, non-profit organizations are required to uphold “good morals” or avoid “disturbing the normal happy existence of persons,” in the country. But many groups say this language is subjective and not clearly defined. If a non-profit organization fails to abide by the restrictions, they could be subject to a daily fine of 10,000 baht (US$295), or face the risk of closing operations.

“The NPO bill’s overly broad and vaguely worded provisions are a real threat to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Thailand,” Kornkanok Wathanabhoom, Thailand Human Rights Associate with Fortify Rights told Thai Enquirer. “This bill is a barefaced attempt to silence groups who’ve leveled legitimate criticism at the Thai government in the past. The U.S. government should urge PM Prayut to drop this disastrous bill.”

The law would also require NGOs to disclose information regarding its name, founding objectives, implementation methods, sources of funding, and names of persons involved with its operations. It would make it difficult for non-profits to function on foreign donations, as the law would oversee and restrict how a given organization is permitted to use their funds.

Emilie Pradichit, a human rights lawyer and founder of Manushya Foundation, told Thai Enquirer that the government has issued the draft bill partly to silence the democracy movement.

“The NPO Bill came brutally as a response to the growing and powerful intersectional pro-democracy movement, with all parts of society demanding a real democracy and respect of human rights for all,” Pradichit said.

“For groups working on civic space like Manushya and others, we are very worried as we have already seen how the Prayut’s government has been weaponizing  “public order”  to crack down on dissenting voices, on individuals.”

President Joe Biden welcomed representatives from ASEAN on his Twitter page. He said the historic meeting was the first of its kind, and that they “discussed the importance of working together to ensure security, prosperity, and respect for human rights for our one billion people.”

It’s unclear if the US president went into detail about how to improve Thailand’s human rights landscape, or if the NGO law was a top priority in the discussions. What is clear, however, is that international groups are deeply concerned that the law could devastate the country’s civil society.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director from Human Rights Watch, put it bluntly.

“Passage of this law would change Thailand forever for the worse, locking the country into a deeper spiral of quasi-military control where democracy exists only in name, not reality.”


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