Thailand’s traditional approach to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) will soon be a thing of the past.
After nearly three decades of flexible engagement with so-called “nonprofit organizations”, the Thai government has recently developed a draft law on the operations of non-profit organizations, which is currently under review by the State Council Office.
All government agencies have been invited to comment on this new bill before it goes to the National Assembly for further deliberation and approval in the near future. It will certainly take some time to reach consensus. The brand new approach, which has already been attacked by human rights organizations and activists, could have devastating effects on the country’s soft power and openness.
This new law, if it becomes law, will require all nonprofit associations, including grassroots communities and interest organizations, to be “transparent” by clarifying the sources of their funding and to submit a annual report with audit details.
It goes without saying that the beneficiaries, who have never disclosed their sources of funding, will certainly see these intentions as a measure of intimidation and a means of controlling their activities. Failure to adhere to the stated goals and activities of their organizations could result in criminal prosecution and imprisonment.
It is no exaggeration to say that Thailand has been fairly tolerant of the presence of NGOs, especially international NGOs of all faiths and dedication. For Thailand, their presence is seen as an asset given its infamous history of coup and political uncertainties. It helps give a sense of continuity.
The fact that Thailand has never expelled an INGO is a barometer of recognition of its role in the development and protection of civil and political rights even though their actions and assessments have upset the government.
International and local NGOs
In fact, Thailand has long dreamed of transforming its capital into a second Geneva. The former governor of Bangkok, Mr. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, and the late former foreigner Surin Pitsuwan were behind the decision. Today, 86 international NGOs and more than 25,000 local NGOs are based in the country. Overall, they serve as the “eyes and ears” that help make Thailand a free and open society in the ASEAN region.
The political turmoil of the last decade and the important roles played by international and local NGOs have now prompted the authorities to deepen some of these organizations regarding their funding and activities as well as their affiliated groups. In short, they strengthen rules and regulations to better control funding and activities. Concerns were expressed that at least 12 of them acted against the public interest, which could harm national security.
The new law mandates the Interior Ministry to deal comprehensively with these NGOs at every stage and this could provoke an outcry from NGO representatives. Under the current administration, these NGO staff have been treated well, especially under the Ministry of Labor, where officials are concerned with technical cooperation rather than focusing on the full range of NGO activities that might have implications. political consequences or even perceived threats to national security.
Indeed, the government’s concerns about state security, especially those relating to the monarchy, are one of the main reasons for the new project. Over the past five years, locally funded NGOs with foreign funds have adopted an active platform calling for political and constitutional reforms – some referencing the royal institution in the most radical way. This trend has intensified over the past year, leading to all kinds of donor-recipient conspiracy theories regarding the country’s political landscape.
Increased presence of foreigners
In addition, another attribute is the lack of cooperation between intra-government agencies such as the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Human Security as well as security related agencies. Prior to 1992, the Ministry of the Interior was the main body dealing with all non-profit associations.
However, with more applications and an increased presence from abroad after the period of democratization, the whole process was transferred to the Ministry of Labor where it remained. Thailand has often faced intra-agency struggles over whether to allow more foreign-funded NGOs to operate in the country. In fact, the country’s erratic attitude towards NGOs also sends mixed signals to the international community.
A good case study was the request of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which obtained authorization in 2007 under the military government led by the former Prime Minister, General Surayud Chulanont. It should be noted that many international NGOs were authorized to operate under the military junta. Surprisingly, the ICJ’s candidacies to operate in Thailand have been repeatedly rejected and delayed by previous democratically elected governments.
The ICJ has been active in promoting the rule of law and human rights on Thai soil. His authorization to operate in Thailand was continuously renewed without problem. In the latest decision taken earlier this year, the ICJ’s presence continued although concerns were raised among security-related agencies about the nature of its recent activities.
Ideas taken from country legislation
In retrospect, several versions have been drafted, including earlier ideas that all foreign organizations must have prior approval from local NGOs before they can apply. It was then rejected, as was the plan to bring the whole process under the control of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, supported by the Democratic Party. The oldest political party in the country believes that this ministry should deal with NGOs, as they need to engage with people related to the quality of their livelihoods.
The current project was based on ideas drawn from the legislation of countries such as the United States, India, China, Russia, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Japan, South Korea and the Countries -Low. Exceptional contributions have been drawn from the laws of the United States, India, Hungary and South Korea. For example, over the past year at least 15,000 NGOs have been closed in India due to foreign support.
In the coming months, the Thai authorities should intensify the dialogue with all stakeholders in order to raise awareness and understanding of the content of this new bill. It is not too late to take their point of view and correct some of the shortcomings. Thailand will continue to coexist with INGOs and NGOs, especially in the post-pandemic world, which will require closer partnerships.
By Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior journalist specializing in regional affairs.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.