CSO Sustainability Has Deteriorated in Thailand
PATTANI, Thailand – On 26 November 2020, Manushya Foundation, USAID, FHI360, and ICNL launched Thailand’s CSO Sustainability Index (CSOSI) Report of 2019 with the participation of community leaders, CSO experts, and development partners. The report launch offered a great opportunity for the panelists to discuss the challenges faced by civil society actors in Thailand while doing their important work serving communities, as well as solutions that they would want to be able to sustain, and continue their work in an effective way.
For the second year in a row, Manushya Foundation was 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 2019, largely based on analysis of realities on the ground and input provided by civil society actors, including experts from grassroots, CBOs, CSOs, INGOs, and human rights defenders (HRDs), during the Expert Panel Meeting, which was held in March 2020. For the second year, Manushya Foundation found that CSOs’ overall sustainability in Thailand had worsened, scoring 5.0 in 2019, compared to 4.9 in 2018 (on a scale from 1 to 7, 1 meaning that sustainability has enhanced, and 7 that has impeded). The assessed dimensions that deteriorated in 2019 include legal environment, organisational capacity, financial viability, advocacy, and public image. CSOs’ ability to provide services remained the same, and only the sectoral infrastructure slightly enhanced in 2019 compared to 2018.
To ensure the health of our panelists and participants during the Covid-19 pandemic, and due to the Covid-19 Emergency Decree which remains enforced in Thailand, the CSOSI report was launched online this year. Seven panelists represented different regions and different issues in Thailand. During the discussion, they highlighted how restrictive laws are used against communities, the lack of community involvement in policy making, lack of accessible funding for grassroots and CBOs, challenges faced while providing prohibited services, such as safe abortion, to communities in need, the lack of protection provided to HRDs, and the multiple challenges faced by sex workers in Thailand. Moreover, panelists provided practical solutions to relevant stakeholders, such as government authorities and donors, to resolve challenges and enhance the sustainability of CSOs in Thailand.
In opening remarks, Ms. Laura Pavlovic, Director of the General Development Office, USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia, explained that CSOs’ sustainability is assessed in 60 countries globally. She highlighted that USAID made a lasting commitment to the CSOSI and to working with CSO actors, because it recognises the truly critical role CSOs play in supporting democratic, economic, and social development, through their efforts to engage citizens and governments in issues that matter most to citizens. USAID perceives CSOSI as a platform for dialogue and planning with civil society partners and government actors. Ms. Laura noted that the report is an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past year and how different stakeholders can support civil society actors in their invaluable work.
Ms. Emilie Pradichit, Founder & Director, Manushya Foundation, also provided her opening remarks, welcoming all participants and thanking the panelists for their invaluable contributions. Kicking off the discussion, Ms. Emilie posed the question whether CSOs in Thailand are provided with an open environment and all necessary resources and tools to build a real democracy and to perform their important work serving their communities. She pointed out that these important aspects and challenges faced by CSOs in Thailand, are discussed in the CSOSI report, making the report very relevant for various stakeholders.
Ms. Emilie Pradichit, Founder & Director, Manushya Foundation
“Even though elections took place in March 2019, we do not think these were free and fair. Today, we are still governed under a military-backed government led by Prayut Chan-o-cha, former head of the NCPO. Currently, pro-democracy protests are happening almost every day. Events in 2019 have led to these protests, with civil society actors being sick and tired of not seeing any democratic change in the country”.
Opening the discussion, Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Coordinator, Southern Working Group for Monitoring International Mechanisms, explained the struggles faced by civil society actors in Thailand’s Deep South, where an armed conflict has been ongoing for many years now. Ms. Asmah highlighted that in the past years there has not been much change, which, in the long run, affects civil society’s work in the region. Ms. Asmah pointed out that CSOs in the Deep South face severe challenges to sustain, as they heavily rely on volunteers who do not receive any pay, with people working on their holidays, early in the morning, and late at night, which decreases the efficiency of the work. She noted that this is caused by a lack of access to funding and the reliance on donations or people using their own money to support activities. Ms. Asmah pointed out that even though a lot of funding is provided to the Deep South, funding does not reach grassroots. Many CSOs in the Deep South are unable to achieve funding as they cannot register, and because they advocate for issues the State perceives as a ‘threat to national security’. Not having access to funding severely affects the continuity of CSOs’ work. Lastly, Ms. Asmah pointed out that, in the Deep South, CSOs face challenges due to military presence in the region: people are visited by military, which put pressure on civil society workers and puts them at risk. To resolve issues, Ms. Asmah noted that larger organisations have to connect with grassroots so that resources will be shared, and so that scopes of projects respond directly to the needs of the people. There is a need to develop capacity to work as a collective, and to do our work in a sustainable way.
Ms. Asmah Tanyongdaoh, Coordinator, Southern Working Group for Monitoring International Mechanisms
“In the Deep South, CSOs face challenges to sustain: we have to rely on volunteers. We do not receive any pay, we have to work on our holidays, early in the morning, and late at night. This decreases the efficiency of our work”.
Continuing, Ms. Sulaiporn Chonwilai, from Tamtang group, talked about Tamtang’s invaluable work assisting women in Thailand to access safe abortion services, an act criminalised in Thailand under Article 301 of the Criminal Code. Ms. Sulaiporn noted that while safe abortion services are offered at large public hospitals under specific exceptions outlined in article 305 of the criminal code, women are often unaware of these services and lack information. She noted that this is caused by the fact that safe abortion is still a taboo in Thailand, and the Ministry of Public Health does not openly provide information about safe abortion services. Ms. Sulaiporn also pointed out that the fact that safe abortion is criminalised in Thailand is a severe challenge complicating Tamtang’s work. However, she explained that change might be on the horizon, as the Constitutional Court ruled in February 2020 that Article 301 of the Criminal Code is unconstitutional and needs to be repealed or amended within one year. In November 2020, the Cabinet approved a law amendment, allowing women to terminate their pregnancy until 12 weeks. However, Ms. Sulaiporn pointed out that this is not in line with international standards, which are set at 20 weeks instead of 12. She noted that 12 weeks is still problematic, as only three percent of women seeking safe abortion is pregnant for less than 12 weeks. Ms. Sulaiporn also touched upon the funding issue, and explained that Tamtang is fully reliant on foreign funding as they are unable to receive domestic funding due to safe abortion being taboo and immoral for Thai society. This is challenging, because if Tamtang does not have funding, they solely rely on donations from the women they assist. However, as Ms. Sulaiporn pointed out, women who make use of Tamtang’s services are often poor and already have to spend a lot on their pregnancy, so it is almost impossible to receive donations from them.
Ms. Sulaiporn Chonwilai, Tamtang group
“Women lack information about safe abortion services and often do not know where and how to access safe abortion. In Thailand, safe abortion is still a taboo and it is crminalised. The fact that safe abortion is criminalised complicates our work”.
Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, Justice for Peace Foundation, provided us with a comprehensive overview of threats faced by HRDs in Thailand, and how laws are used against them by government authorities and businesses. Ms. Angkhana first of all pointed out that laws used against HRDs include the Computer Crime Act, Articles 116 (Sedition) and 326 (Defamation) of the Criminal Code, and laws restricting people’s right to assembly. Ms. Angkhana explained that Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases are often filed against HRDs to silence them so that they cannot continue their work, and that most cases are filed against women. She noted that HRDs face severe challenges when they face cases against them: it is very costly to bail HRDs out, cases are lengthy and often take more than one year, and HRDs have to travel to the court multiple times for which they need to take time off work. Ms. Angkhana pointed out that women, particularly those living in rural areas, face additional challenges, as they are unable to take care of their families if they have to travel to court, and can face sexual harassment, such as slut shaming. Additionally, many HRDs do not receive any support in their cases. She noted that even though the government provides financial assistance through the Justice Fund under the Ministry of Justice, this does not compensate all the troubles HRDs have to go through, including the mental health impact they suffer. Ms. Angkhana also noted that even though the Thai government released its National Action Plan (NAP) on Business and Human Rights (BHR), the NAP does not define the term HRDs well, so even when they get harassed by businesses, they do not receive the protection and support they require. Pointing out the importance of protecting HRDs against getting sued, Ms. Angkhana pointed out that human rights institutions are significant, however, in Thailand, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) is not free, and commissioners have been questioned many times. Lastly, Ms. Angkhana explained that enforced disappearance and murder of activists are significant problems in Thailand because the government lacks policies and legislation to ensure protection against such crimes, and that those who are victim of violence are perceived as ‘deserving violence’ due to the propaganda spread against them.
Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, Justice for Peace Foundation
“SLAPP cases are filed against Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) to silence them and so that they cannot continue their work. HRDs are victims of judicial harassment, facing challenges, heavy charges and lengthy court cases. The court process is very expensive, and HRDs have to travel to courts multiple times. When women are charged, they face additional challenges: they face sexual harassment and are unable to take care of their families”.
Continuing the discussion, Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, who works on forest policies and land conflicts, explained that forest laws in Thailand do not correspond with the lifestyles of the people living in forest areas, that the government does not consider people’s livelihoods and land, and that cases are increasingly filed against community members living near in and forest areas. Villagers living in the forest are casted as criminals while they are the guardians of the forest. Ms. Nittaya noted that she and other community members, have been a victim of forest legislation themselves as they were charged for trespassing national park area. Ms. Nittaya explained that she and her network have been fighting against forest policies harming local communities for a long time, however, they face challenges as they rarely receive any support and have to build their own capacity. She highlighted that HRDs’ energy to continue their fight decreases because they lack legal knowledge, knowledge on how to fight cases in the court, and resources. Besides that, they face harassment as they are visited by government officers and are sued, which creates fear among HRDs. Ms. Nittaya also pointed out that while the problematic Forest Reclamation Policy and NCPO Orders 64 and 66 under which many community members have been charged, have been repealed in 2019, new forest legislation (the 2019 National Park Act) was passed in the same year, and includes similar provisions. Lastly, Ms. Nittaya explained that these laws are problematic because the government had not listened to the input provided by the people who would be affected by the laws. Even though the government held public hearings, villagers were not involved and they are not part of the government’s solutions. Consequently, solutions and laws of the government do not correspond with the lifestyles of local communities.
Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community leader, Isaan Land Reform Network
“We have been fighting against forest policies harming local communities for a long time, but we do not receive any support, and we have to build our own capacity. Lacking knowledge and resources required to fight decreases our energy to continue”.
Mr. Direk Hamnakorn, Green World Network, provided an overview of the difficulties faced by CSOs in Thailand’s Deep South to ensure that communities’ rights are respected and upheld. He pointed out that the government has not learned from its past experiences and from previous human rights violations that occurred. He noted that the government’s development policies in the Deep South only benefit certain groups, but definitely not local communities. In the area, the government pursues development projects, such as the Thepa coal-fired power plant, which are opposed by local communities due to the adverse impacts the plant would have on the livelihoods of communities, as well as on the environment and natural resources. In the case of the Thepa coal-fired power plant, villagers protested against the project, and demonstrators were harassed so that they would be discouraged from acting against the project: some were put in prison and cases were filed against them. Problematically, the Appeal Court found 17 people guilty and the case is now considered by the Supreme Court. Despite that these incidents have happened as a result of development policies in the area, the government has not reviewed its development policies, and continues to pursue development projects that do not correspond with communities’ local economy and system. Mr. Direk explained that over 30 schools in the area joined forces to speak out against development policies, however, Islamic schools are facing harassment and are portrayed as insurgents who want to cause insecurity in Thailand’s Deep South, and who are a threat to national security. Mr. Direk highlighted that the government has to listen to the people and have dialogues with them regarding development policies, so that development policies respond to local people’s lives and are sustainable.
Mr. Direk Hamnakorn, Green World Network
“The government has not learned from its past mistakes and human rights violations that occurred resulting from development projects. The government has not reviewed its development policies and continues to pursue development projects that do not correspond with communities’ local economy and system”.
Ms. Sugarnta Sookpaita, Migrant Workers Federation, joined our launch online from Chiang Mai, and explained us about the challenges faced by migrant workers, and by CSOs working to advance migrant workers’ rights. She explained that until now, migrant workers face issues regarding their registration: even though the government put systems in place for registration, these are inaccessible by migrant workers, who are forced to use agencies which charge them high fees. Ms. Surganta also pointed out that while legally, migrant workers should receive a percentage of their salary for 90 days after losing their jobs, in reality, migrant workers under Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) have to find a new job immediately and cannot access unemployment funds. She noted that during covid-19, migrant workers laid off from their jobs are even more affected: they do not have the required documents to receive social security, and employers cannot do it for them through online systems. Ms. Sugarnta also spoke about the issues faced by labour movements and unions. She explained that as the economy decreased in 2019, labour movements became weaker because people have less time to work pro-bono or volunteer, and very limited funding is available to them as migrant workers do not meet donor requirements: domestic funding is only provided to those obtaining Thai citizenship, and other funding is only provided to registered organisations. Ms. Surganta ended with highlighting that CSOs’ work is very valuable because they support the government in its development work. Therefore, the government should acknowledge this and should collaborate with civil society actors. However, instead of doing so, the Thai government perceives civil society actors as enemies of the state, obstructs their activities, takes advantage of them, spreads propaganda against them, and does not provide them with required support.
Ms. Sugarnta Sookpaita, Migrant Workers Federation
“The government should acknowledge the invaluable work of CSOs. CSOs support the government in its development work, and the government should collaborate with them instead of perceiving them as enemies of the state, obstructing their activities, taking advantage of them, and spreading propaganda against them”.
Mr. Sirisak Chaited, Sex worker activist, who also joined us online from Chiang Mai, provided an overview of the issues faced by sex workers in Thailand, which is being criminalised under the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, 1996. Mr. Sirisak first laid out the demands of sex workers: (1) the law criminalising sex work to be repealed; (2) sex work to be protected under labour laws, and (3) the government to stop arresting sex workers. He explained that working on sex workers’ issues in Thailand is very important because sex work is not viewed as work with dignity, and because the state infringes upon people’s freedom to use their own body to work by criminalising sex work. Mr. Sirisak also noted that the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act is foremost used by the government to take advantage of sex workers: while the government allows entertainment businesses where sex work occurs to exist, law enforcement officers harass individual sex workers, arrest them, and order them to pay 80 to 300 THB bribes on a daily basis. Mr. Sirisak also highlighted that it is problematic that sex workers are not protected under labour laws because often times, sex workers’ rights are severely violated at the workplace. He explained that sex workers often cannot take days off, face wage deduction, as well as sexual violence by customers. However, he pointed out that, as sex work is considered illegal, the workers cannot go to the police if violations occur. Mr. Sirisak concluded that sex work is work, and that the government should repeal the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act. Currently, their movement to advance sex workers’ rights and repeal the act is supported by 15,000 people.
Mr. Sirisak Chaited, Sex worker activist
“Working on sex workers’ issues in Thailand is very important because sex work is not viewed as work with dignity, and because the state infringes upon people’s freedom to use their own body to work by criminalising sex work”.
After sharing their most challenging issues faced while performing their important work to enhance the rights of their communities, panelists proposed solutions required to enhance the sustainability of CSOs in Thailand, and agreed that the following solutions are required:
1. To sustain financial viability: Funding has to be provided directly to grassroots. Grassroots can contribute to sustainable development, they have capacity to grow, and they can design their own projects and activities in line with their lifestyles. This can be achieved through efficient sub-granting mechanisms for grassroots groups, and through donors reviewing and amending their restrictive funding requirements, so that funding can be accessed by grassroots as well, even though they are not registered.
2. To improve the legal environment and CSOs’ advocacy work:
HRDs need protection so that they can perform their important human rights work and so that they receive assistance when they face SLAPP cases against them. To achieve this (1) Thailand needs legislation protecting HRDs facing court cases; (2) HRDs need to be empowered so that they can work independently, create their own collectives, and can access funding by themselves; (3) HRDs’ capacity needs to be built so that they know how they can fight for their rights in a safe way, and (4) HRDs’ court hearings need to be closely monitored so that they are treated fairly in the court, and to put pressure on involved stakeholders.
There is a need for a free and fair human rights commission which can independently investigate human rights violations whenever they occur.
The government should have open dialogues with the people regarding development policies, so that development policies correspond with the lives of local people, and are sustainable.
To enhance the rights of sex workers, the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, 1996, should be repealed.
3. To improve the public image of CSOs: The government should no longer perceive CSOs as enemies of the state, but should acknowledge their invaluable work and the support they provide to the government in doing its development work.
Lastly, one of the online participants requested panelists to share some best practices to achieve government reform.
Ms. Sulaiporn Chonwilai, Tamtang, shared that to achieve government reform, civil society needs to voice out as much as possible, so that the public at large knows CSOs’ demands and requests, and can support CSOs to push for reform. She noted that voicing out is very important, because if CSOs do not do so, the government can do whatever it wants. CSOs have to continuously voice out, because if they discontinue, it turns silent and engagement is lost. CSOs then need to start over again, which is tiring. Lastly, Ms. Sulaiporn also highlighted that it is necessary to have representatives of CSOs in decision making processes and in processes of drafting laws.
Ms. Nittaya Muangklang, Community leader, Isaan Land Reform Network, also shared a best practice to achieve government reform, and emphasised the need to strengthen and empower local communities and grassroots. Local communities need to know their rights, and have knowledge and understanding of what the government is doing and how legislation can affect them.
The discussion of this report launch highlighted the challenges faced on the ground by civil society actors while undertaking their work. It became clear that the most pressing issues are the restrictive laws that are used to charge local community members who aim to defend human rights, and the fact that the government does not listen to local communities and does not consider their needs and demands while drafting legislation and policies. With respect to funding, it is problematic that funding does not reach grassroots and communities who are most in need of receiving it and who can contribute to sustainable development of the country, through projects that correspond with the needs and lifestyles of local communities.
We would like to thank all panelists who joined us during the report launch, and provided their invaluable input and contributions, which are significant to raising awareness of the challenges faced by civil society actors in Thailand. We would also like to thank all experts who provided their invaluable input for this report during the Expert Panel Meeting in March 2020. Finally, we are very grateful to USAID for providing local communities with an opportunity to voice out their concerns, and to ensure that their voices are heard by relevant stakeholders, such as donors and government authorities.
Access the CSOSI Report 2019 here
Access the pictures of the report launch here