Why is the Draft NGO Law a Danger to Democracy in Thailand?
On 24 February, the Thai Cabinet approved a draft law that requires all Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs) to be registered with the Ministry of Interior. NPOs’ actions must comply with the rules prescribed by the law and administered by the Ministry of Interior. If the draft passes into law, it will be detrimental to the development of all non-profits organizations whether INGOs, grassroots communities, or small local civil society organizations and NGOs.
Below are the potential damages of the draft act if it passes into law:
1. Severe Punishment for non-registered organizations
The draft law states that non-profit organizations must officially register with the Department of Provincial Administration of the Ministry of Interior. In order to be registered, their activities and the organization’s aim must be approved by the Ministry of Interior. Unregistered organizations in Thailand could be jailed for up to 5 years, fined up to 100,000 THB (approx. 3,200 USD), or both, which are shockingly severe punishments and completely disproportionate to the so-called ‘crime’.
“We wish to point out that prison sentences and high fines as punishment are not necessary, nor proportionate to the violation of non-registration. Failure to register should not automatically result in the dissolution of the organization, nor should it result in the criminalization of its members.”
UN Special Rapporteurs' Communication to the Thai Government, 26 March 2021
2. No clear and precise definition of a Non-profit organization; thus anyone and any group of people could be targeted under the law
In the draft law, the definition of ‘non-profit organization’ (the words they use for NGOs and CSOs) is very broad, meaning that any group, even just a group of students getting together to advocate for something, could fall under this definition and could be subject to the severe punishment if not registered. Its impact could be far-reaching, as summarized perfectly by the UN Special Rapporteurs, in their Communication issued on 26 March to the Thai Government regarding the draft law;
“The definition of non-for-profit organizations in the Draft Act is broad...As a result, the restrictive measures to be introduced by this draft Act would impinge on the rights to freedom of expression and association of millions of individuals”
3. The Draft NGO Law is targeting Foreign Funding & INGOs
According to the Draft NGO Law, any non-profit organization receiving foreign fundings will also be scrutinized as the Thai government accuses some NGOs of having received funding from foreign shadowy groups to destabilize the country with pro-democracy protests. Thus, to combat this ‘threat’, the draft law gives Thai authorities the sole discretion to determine which activity may be carried out using funds from foreign or international sources, leaving ample room for abuse.
The Draft NGO Law also targets International NGOs (INGOs). In Thailand, 86 INGOs are registered and the government stated there are many unregistered INGOs operating in the country, working in support of foreign interests, which will have to be registered and comply with the law.
4. Broad Powers given to Thai Authorities to surveil offices without any warrant
This Draft NGO Law, if passed, will even permit Thai authorities to enter NGOs and CSOs’ offices to search and investigate them without any prior notice or warrant. This law would give Thai authorities excessive power to control essential civil society operations, with the aim to silence people from telling the truth and stop CSOs from monitoring human rights abuses, promoting democracy, advocating for land and environmental issues, and much more. It would devastate civil society and violate people’s freedom and rights in so many aspects.
5. Limited Public Hearing on the Draft NGO Law and Exclusion of Local Groups
The Office of Council of State conducted an online public consultation on the Draft NGO Law between 12-31 March 2021, a shockingly short period of time. Many local NGOs and grassroots communities were not able to participate and submit comments on time due to the short timeframe and limited access to the internet. After civil society groups raised concerns over the controversial public hearing process, the Office of the Council of State stated in their letter to Amnesty International Thailand that the proposed draft is currently being rewritten as there are many comments and concerns from several parties that need to be taken into consideration.
On 4 June 2021, Thai CSOs Thailand submitted a letter to the President of the Parliament and to 40 Provincial Offices of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) simultaneously and made the 5 following demands:
The State has already established specific legal channels for obtaining information about non-profit organizations, including registration of associations, foundations, or other legally recognized organizations, to exercise control over or direction over the operations of these organizations. Additionally, if any organization engages in illegal activity, existing laws can be used against them. As a result, there is no reason to have a law that "controls" or "threatens" public gatherings. Thus, the legislation is redundant and unreasonable.
This Draft NGO Law violates the 2017 Constitution's intent to conduct an effective public hearing process to assess the draft law's potential impact, according to Article 77 of the 2017 Constitution.
The purpose of this Draft NGO Law is to empower government officials to exercise control over public benefit or non-profit organizations, by controlling the formation of the organization, the conduct of activities, the earning and spending of funds, and the termination of activities, as well as the organization's termination and criminal prosecution. As a result, it violates the people's right to freedom of assembly and expression guaranteed by the 2017 Constitution.
The government intends to obstruct and not promote public gatherings, as the public has proposed the draft 'Promotion and Development of Civil Society' Bill. Instead, the government introduced a Draft NGO Law on the Operations of Non-profit Organizations at the same time, the content of which contradicts with the other Bill developed through public participation.
Approval of the said Draft NGO Law is considered to severely impede and limit people's rights and freedoms. It does not respect or recognize the value of the many public gatherings undertaken for public benefit in Thailand, while CSOs are necessary "partners" for the development of Thai society.
“If the Draft NGO Law becomes legislation, we will lose space to make our voices heard, to raise issues and take action! We cannot let that happen!”
“In particular, it would would become extremely difficult for organizations to be critical of the government or work on political topics”
UN Special Rapporteurs' Communication to the Thai Government, 26 March 2021
The Nation Thailand: Cabinet okays new law forcing NGOs to register with govt. February 24, 2021. Available at: https://www.nationthailand.com/news/30403014
UN Special Rapporteurs: UN Special Rapporteurs’ Communication to the Royal Thai Government. March 26, 2021. Available at: https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=26320
Human Rights Watch: Thailand: NGO Law Would Strike ‘Severe Blow’ to Human Rights. April 2, 2021. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/02/thailand-ngo-law-would-strike-severe-blow-human-rights
MARK S. COGAN: Thailand’s proposed NGO law will devastate civil society. May 4, 2021. Available at: https://southeastasiaglobe.com/thailands-ngo-law/?fbclid=IwAR3Se_JZP584ugHOMfIMb2KnDBC1ws0izfgqrubn5Li2g-YYBpPIsKRkZ0A
Icj: Thailand: repressive draft law on the operation of not-for-profit organizations must be revised or scrapped. March 31, 2021. Available at: https://www.icj.org/thailand-repressive-draft-law-on-the-operation-of-not-for-profit-organizations-must-be-revised-or-scrapped/
Amnesty International: Thailand: NGO law would strike ‘severe blow’ to human rights. April 2, 2021. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/04/thailand-ngo-law-severe-blow-human-rights/
Globe, Thailand’s proposed NGO law will devastate civil society. Available at: https://southeastasiaglobe.com/thailands-ngo-law/?fbclid=IwAR3Se_JZP584ugHOMfIMb2KnDBC1ws0izfgqrubn5Li2g-YYBpPIsKRkZ0A
Thai Post: เครือข่ายองค์กรชุมชนกว่า 40 จังหวัดยื่นหนังสือผ่าน ผวจ. ถึงรัฐบาล-รัฐสภา ค้านร่างกฎหมายว่าด้วยการดำเนินงานขององค์กรที่ไม่แสวงหาผลกำไร ด้านภาคประชาสังคมชี้เป็นกฎหมายควบคุมประชาชน-กลัวรับเงินต่างชาติ. June 4, 2021. Available at: https://www.thaipost.net/main/detail/105270
Manushya Foundation,Third Universal Periodic Review Cycle: UPR factsheet-Civic Space in LAO PDR. Janurary 2020. Available at: https://www.manushyafoundation.org/lao-pdr-upr-factsheets
CIVICUS, Manushya Foundation and FORUM-ASIA, Lao People’s Democratic Republic Joint Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review,35th Session of the UPR Working Group. July 18, 2019. Available at:https://www.manushyafoundation.org/joint-lao-upr-submission
CIVICUS, regulating political activity of civil society. October 2018. Available at: https://www.civicus.org/documents/RegulatingPoliticalActivityOfCivilSociety.pdf