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  • Writer's pictureManushya Foundation

Civil Society Sustainability deteriorated in 2018

BANGKOK, Thailand – On 3 December 2019, Manushya Foundation, USAID, FHI360, and ICNL launched Thailand’s CSO Sustainability Index (CSOSI) Report of 2018 with the participation of community leaders, CSO experts, and development partners. The launch was a great opportunity to inform the findings of the report, discuss whether the legal, social, and funding landscapes are supportive of CSO sustainability in Thailand, and provide solutions which could improve CSOs’ sustainability.

As the implementing partner for the CSOSI report in Thailand, a project funded by USAID and implemented by FHI360 in partnership with ICNL, Manushya Foundation wrote Thailand’s CSO Sustainability Index Report of 2018. The report is largely based on input provided by civil society actors, including experts from INGOs, CSOs, CBOs, grassroots, and human rights defenders, during an Experts Panel Meeting held in March 2019. The report found that CSOs’ sustainability in Thailand has deteriorated from 2017 to 2018 in all the following 7 dimensions: legal environment, organisational capacity, financial viability, advocacy, service provision, sectoral infrastructure, and public image; with an overall score of 4.9 (on a scale from 1 to 7, 1 meaning that sustainability is enhanced and 7 that it is impeded). The decrease of Thailand’s CSO Sustainability Index is the result of civic space shrinking, with the adoption and enforcement of restrictive laws and practices by the military junta; the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

With around 45 people in attendance at the SEA Junction and with 5 panellists representing different regions in Thailand, the discussions provided an opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges civil society actors in Thailand face on the ground due to restrictive domestic legislation and lack of funding. Moreover, the wider aim of this discussion was to inform relevant stakeholders, such as donors, of solutions that need to be implemented to resolve these challenges and enhance the sustainability of CSOs in Thailand.

In opening remarks, Ms. Laura Palmer Pavlovic, Director of the General Development Office, USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia, explained that the CSOSI project has been implemented globally in over 20 countries and recognises the central role civil society actors play in engaging citizens in governance. The index is used as key indicator of the overall state of the sector and it represents communities and forges dialogues on issues that citizens care about. The report raises the question ‘What can civil society and other actors do to enhance the sustainability of the sector?’ Ms. Emilie Pradichit, Founder and Director, Manushya Foundation, added to this that Manushya Foundation in the report and during the launch focused on the most challenging issues, including those that are invisible and unknown to the public.

Emilie Pradichit, Founder and Director, Manushya Foundation

“CSO sustainability in Thailand has deteriorated due to shrinking civic space and a restrictive legal environment. These have been challenges for civil society actors to undertake their work.”

Opening the discussion, the panellists shared their most challenging struggles while undertaking their important work on the ground. All panellists noted that their work had become increasingly challenging since the Coup d’État in 2014 because restrictive NCPO Orders were passed and civil society actors have been increasingly monitored.

Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, pointed out that her CSO, which supports local communities in Isaan (a region in Northeastern Thailand) who face threats to their rights to land, faced increasing struggles in the past years. The organisation has been monitored by the government, resulting in the fact that community leaders were afraid to join their organisation and have been reluctant to do so. Moreover, the legal framework, particularly the Forest Reclamation Policy, has severely affected the communities ILRN works with. This Policy is disproportionally used against communities who are protecting the forest, which have unfairly been criminalised for destroying and encroaching forest areas. These communities are harassed and intimidated by the military, resulting in the fact that lawyers are afraid to support them. Moreover, because ILRN lost its funding, it was unable to pay for lawyers to support their cases. Consequently, currently for the 14 villagers in Ms. Nittaya’s community (including herself) who have been charged under the Forest Reclamation Policy and face court cases, high fines, land eviction, and have been imprisoned, there is only one lawyer taking care of all their cases. Click here if you would like to learn more about these cases.

Nittaya Muangklang, Community Leader, Isaan Land Reform Network

“When we are being watched and monitored, people are afraid to support us. We are losing the people who are willing to work with us. This is one of our challenges to work in our CSO and local communities.”

Continuing, Mr. Direk Hamnakorn, Community leader, Green World Network, highlighted the challenges the Green World Network faces in Pattani and Songkhla Province (Southern Thailand) while fighting against the construction of the Thepa coal-fired power plant, a project which would severely harm the environment and natural resources in the area, of which local communities are dependent. Mr. Direk pointed out that one of the main problems is the lack of public participation of local communities in the development of the project. Although public hearings were organized, only positive information about the power plant was provided; people were promised to receive rice if they would attend; thousands of militia men monitored the event; curfew laws were put in place, and those wearing t-shirts mentioning that they disagreed with the project were not allowed to attend. Further, while the communities living in surrounding areas are the direct to be affected by the power plant, they were never involved in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and it has not been revealed where the EIA was conducted. In November 2017, when the Prime Minister visited the area, community members organised a march to submit a petition letter requesting the suspension of the power plant. However, 17 of those who participated in the march were arrested for allegedly violating the Public Assembly Act and faced court cases. In 2018 the court found all 17 defendants guilty, including Mr. Direk, who noted that it is clear that in Thailand ‘community rights’ have no value.

Ms. Sugarnta Sookpaita, Senior Advisor, Migrant Workers Federation, expressed the challenges her organisation faces while fighting for the rights of migrant workers. She explained that generally, in Thailand there are only few labour unions because leaders of such organisations are threatened: they are called into army camps and leaders’ background and registration qualifications are closely examined and checked by officials. While it is already challenging for Thai workers to form unions, migrant workers do not have the right to collective bargaining and cannot be unionised at all since Thailand has yet to ratify the relevant ILO Conventions 87 and 98. On top of these legal restrictions, Ms. Sugarnta explained that her organisation struggles to support migrant workers because they do not receive the required funding to do so, limiting them in the services they can provide to migrant workers. For example, when they provided training to migrant workers about their rights, the Migrant Workers Federation was threatened by the Thai Health Foundation (a government-led foundation) that they would not receive funding.

Sugarnta Sookpaita, Senior Advisor, Migrant Workers Federation

“Us as CSO, we are becoming weaker and weaker as there is discrimination and threats against us. Migrant workers cannot be legally registered in Thailand. They cannot even access their basic human rights. This issue is even present today!”

CSOs do not only face challenges due to limited funding but as well because of the negative perception of Thai people towards certain issues. Ms. Supecha Baotip, Founder and Coordinator, Tamtang Group pointed out that while abortion is about sexual and reproductive health, it is still a taboo to many Thai people. Furthermore, abortion is criminalised under the articles 501-505 of the Penal Code and exceptionally allowed under strict conditions. Due to these factors, doctors are afraid to provide safe abortion to women in need, and women who wish to receive such services are unaware of clinics where abortion is performed safely. Apart from that, they are afraid to undergo abortion as they risk being arrested. Due to the limited number of places where abortion is performed safely, many women have to travel 300 to 500 kilometers to reach such clinic. This is problematic, because many lives have been lost. Ms. Supecha noted that working on safe abortion in Thailand is especially challenging because only a few organisations work in this area and the funding, both domestic and foreign, is very limited.

Supecha Baotip, Founder and Coordinator, Tamtang Group

“Abortion should be a basic right for women! But for Thailand it is still a very grey area. It kills women, the attitude of Thai people towards abortion is very negative. It is very challenging for us as a CSO to be working on safe abortion.”

Lastly, Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Coordinator, Southern Working Group for Monitoring International Mechanisms, noted that in Thailand’s Deep South, most civil society actors are community members who volunteer because they want to overcome the issues they face in relation to the Deep South insurgency and enhance their livelihoods. Ms. Asmah highlighted that even though funding flows into Southern Thailand, donors have many conditions and requirements, and funding is checked by security agencies employed by the government. This all results in many organisations declining funding. Ms. Asmah explained that in order to receive funding, CSOs need to be registered and provide annual reports, but registration is challenging: most CSOs have insufficient money to register; registration is declined to organisations who wish to register under a name including the word ‘Pattani’ which refers to the Muslim minority in the South, and registration might lead to government monitoring. Therefore, in the South, only a hand full of CSOs is able to receive funding from donors. Moreover, due to limitations on activities civil society actors are allowed to undertake with received funding, the root causes of the problems in Southern Thailand have not been addressed, no effective change has happened, and the human rights situation on the ground has not improved. As example, Ms. Asmah provided that donors provide funding to be used for negotiations between the Thai government and opposition parties but such negotiations are ineffective and perceived as ‘entertainment’ rather than bringing sustainable peace.

Summing up the discussion, Ms. Emilie Pradichit, Founder and Director, Manushya Foundation, pointed out that most of the panellists have become human rights defenders by default because they aim to protect their communities, their land, and the environment they live in. However, the sector is unsustainable and many groups do not receive the support they require. Instead, civil society actors become poorer because of the judicial harassment they face while they have not done anything wrong, which shows that the Thai government does not prioritise its people.

How can we work together to enhance the sustainability of the CSO sector in Thailand?

After discussing the challenges faced by Thailand’s civil society sector, our panellists provided effective solutions from the ground to enhance the sustainability of their organisations and of the CSO sector in Thailand in general.

Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Coordinator, Southern Working Group for Monitoring International Mechanisms

“We have many obstacles as CSO. We have limited resources, capacity and language barriers. How do we bridge that gap?”

All panellists agreed that in order to enhance the sustainability of Thailand’s CSO sector, the following recommendations should be implemented:

  • The country’s legal framework should be reviewed through a participatory approach, ensuring that laws reflect the needs of Thai people. In this respect, laws such as the Public Assembly Act, and laws that regulate Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) need to amended, and more international conventions need to be ratified, adopted and implemented

  • The government needs to change its negative perception and attitude towards local communities and should recognise communities’ capacities and allow them to be part of processes, rather than perceiving them as ‘obstacles.’ The government has to be sincere and listen to the input provided by local communities and this input has to be reflected in final decisions, laws, and projects.

  • The government has to respect communities’ rights to information and their rights to express their opinions so that communities can meaningfully and effectively participate in decisions that affect them.

  • In Southern Thailand, special security laws should not be enforced to silence those who aim to defend human rights and enhance the livelihoods of local communities.

  • The registration process for CSOs should be simplified so that it is not an obstacle.

  • Donors should change their requirements: they should not require CSOs to be registered and they should support the collaboration of CSOs working on the same issues.

  • Donors, especially those who fund CSOs in Thailand’s Deep South, should prioritise supporting organisations who bring structural changes.

  • In Southern Thailand, donor funding provided to CSOs should not be checked by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).

  • Consultants could assist to bridge the gap between local communities and donors, such as through the provision of M&E trainings, including proposal writing.

  • Platforms have to be provided to vulnerable groups, such as to women who have undergone abortion, so that they can speak and share freely about their issues and experiences.

Direk Hamnakorn, Community leader, Green World Network

“The solution to help grassroots & CSOs is that the government needs to respect the rights of the locals. They need to respect our decision to determine our own future and have a positive attitude that communities should be at the forefront of development.”

Emilie Pradichit, Founder and Director, Manushya Foundation

“The government must put communities at the center of decision-making processes and must ensure their effective and meaningful participation. Donors must acknowledge the capacity of local groups to spend money. They do not need millions of dollars, they do not join movements to become rich but because they do not have a choice. Funding should reach the right people on the ground.”

The discussions of this report launch brought to light the challenges faced on the ground by civil society actors, particularly CBOs, grassroots, community leaders, and human rights defenders, while undertaking their work. During the discussions it has become clear that the main issues for civil society actors are the restrictive legal environment in Thailand which leads to threats and harassment of those who aim to defend human rights. Further, the Royal Thai Government does not respect community rights, it does not operate in an open manner, and is not open to the input of local communities. With respect to funding, local groups face challenges to access both domestic and foreign funding due to language barriers and donors’ conditions and requirements, which many local groups cannot fulfill. Unfortunately, funding does not reach the right people on the ground and no meaningful and effective change happens.

We would like to thank all the panelists present at the meeting, whose contributions and input are significant to raising awareness of the challenges faced by civil society actors in Thailand. We would like to thank all experts who provided their invaluable input for this report during the Expert Panel Meeting in March 2019. Finally, we are grateful to USAID for providing local communities, through this report, the opportunity to voice out their challenges and to ensure that their voices are heard by relevant stakeholders such as donors and governments.

Access the CSOSI Report here

Access the video of the CSOSI Report Launch here

Access pictures of the CSOSI Report Launch here

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