How do you control NGOs that are against the state on various issues such as how to handle the Deep South insurgency, monarchy reformists, anti-megaproject environmentalists and the like?
Pass a law that will grant you the power to restrict their fundings and type of activities. That’s what’s happening in Thailand under the Prayut Chan-o-cha regime. The Cabinet gave the green light to the draft NGOs Operations Bill on Tuesday. The parliament, heavily filled with Prayut’s sycophants, will most likely pass it into law soon. Some told me as soon as next month, BTW.
“They may restrict certain types of activities, say organizing a public forum to criticize the military. They don’t have such a law as yet,” Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, a veteran NGO leader and director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, told me on Wednesday. She added that if the bill is passed, the NGOs Operations Act could require non-government organizations to submit their activity plans for government’s approval in advance in order to ensure that “public order” and “good morals” are not affected.
What constitutes “good morals” for the government may be the suppression of human rights for civil society, however. Issues like monarchy reform, including the call for the abolition of the controversial lese majeste law, could be perceived by the government as being against good morals.
NGOs organizing or aiding the protests on the same issue like monarchy reform, or against the long standing imposition of Emergency Decree in the Deep South, or against capital punishment, could be construed by the state as being against “public order.”
This, combined with the possible control of how much and to whom foreign funders can give to Thai NGOs, will ensure further controls on NGOs by the state. Squeezing, or restricting the money pipeline could leave some NGOs dry or dead.
The usual suspects include Open Society Foundations (OSF), which is one of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations supporting issues like freedom, democracy, and human rights in more than 120 countries around the world, but seen by xenophobic rightwing nationalists as a trojan horse of the United States attempting to destabilize or oust administrations that are not in line with U.S. interests.
The European Union is also a big donor to some Thai non-profit organizations working on issues seen as being opposed to the Thai state. For example, the EU partly funded the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Group, which is currently almost solely representing the near two hundred people charged under the lese majeste law.
Pornpen told me that the draft bill, if passed, will only most likely be used to control a few problematic NGOs like hers. “It will be used to control just a few NGOs – not all … But the general picture is that it will restrict anti-government expressions, public assembly and affect democracy in terms of participation.”
True, some other NGOs leaders who are making noise opposing the bill are those working on sensitive issues that the Thai state at least feel uncomfortable with. Laddawan Tantivitayapitak, another veteran NGO leader assisting Burmese fighting for democracy, both within Thailand and across the border in Myanmar. She sent me a message on Thursday. It was a news story by Matichon, a sister organization of Khaosod English, reporting her criticism and opposition against the bill.
“NGOs are part of the civil society and have the duty of scrutinizing and making the government transparent. Passing this bill controls people [and prevents them from] scrutinizing, making this country even more of a dictatorship.”
Yet another veteran NGO worker, Pairoj Polpetch, of the Union of Civil Liberty, which works for the abolition of the death penalty, also made public criticism this week.
“The draft NGOs Operations Bill is a tool of the state to control people’s organizations by restricting its freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and right to privacy,” said Pairoj on Wednesday.
On Friday, 1,800 NGOs join the chorus issuing a statement opposing the bill, saying it would infringe the rights to protest, freedom of expression, and lead to the abuse of power by the government, especially “in deciding what constitutes an act against public order.”
There is a note of irony – some of the NGOs leaders now making noise were supportive of the 2014 coup led by Prayut. They planted a poisonous tree and now they reap what the sow.
The matter is not just a domestic concern. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association, Clement Voule, tweeted on Monday expressing concerns hours before the Cabinet gave the bill its blessing.
“I’m concerned by the proposed NGO Draft Act containing provisions that would subject CSOs to overly restrictive measures curtailing their rights to peaceful assembly and association, thus further restricting #civicspace. I ask the government for its review in line with international human rights standards.”
It’s unclear how NGOs and civil society could block the draft bill, given that the parliament is overwhelmingly pro-government. People like Pornpen seemed resigned to the inevitability when I spoke to her on the phone. If the bill is passed, Thailand will further move toward China’s model of state control. The state will become like a bigger python constricting the civil society.
NGOs could be punished for ‘misbehaving,’ being critical or simply being against the state. It will have a far-reaching repercussion on the vibrancy of civil society well beyond Prayut’s time in power.