In 2015, two years before the state-driven collapse of Cambodia’s political opposition, the national government dominated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) approved the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO).
When the law was first put forward in 2011, it was met with significant opposition, and for a time, it was shelved. Opponents said the law requiring official registration of all non-governmental organisations would stifle civil society while creating a chilling effect for local groups, grassroots associations, and community organisations across Cambodia. Under LANGO, failure to register with the state would automatically criminalise those groups.
The CPP claimed the law was intended to prevent international terrorist groups from using Cambodia as a base of operations. But rather than an improved state of security, the years that followed the passage of LANGO ushered in a new era of single-party rule paired with a steady unraveling of civil society perhaps even beyond what activists had feared.
Now, Thailand’s own community of non-governmental organisations is on alert as the country’s military-backed government takes steps to follow suit with its Cambodian counterpart. The Thai Cabinet in February approved a draft law that would bring to heel the country’s non-governmental organisations by requiring them to register under a new set of guidelines established by the Interior Ministry. The law has received backing from Thailand’s National Intelligence Agency, the Office of Public Sector Development Commission, as well as advocacy from Social Development and Human Security Minister Chuti Krairiksh. With that momentum, the Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations is soon headed to the Parliament for consideration there.
Already, Thailand’s Draft Act has been openly criticised by human rights groups that claim the proposal would give the regime excessive control over essential civil society functions, including the monitoring of human rights abuses, democratisation initiatives, environmental advocacy and more.
The Thai regime claims the law is necessary to create transparency for the many non-governmental organisations in Thailand, many of which the government claims do not work for the public interest. If the Draft Act becomes law, these groups would have to register with the Interior Ministry’s Department of Provincial Administration and disclose the sources of their actions and income through audit reports that would be published for the public.
The push for transparency has ulterior motives, with the bill having suspicious timing.
Since early last year, student-led groups have organised demonstrations and protests calling for democratic reforms in Thailand, namely the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and a more democratic constitution, while others have gone a step farther, calling for reforms to Thailand’s powerful monarchy.
Some have claimed that the protests are backed by foreign funds or accused liberal groups of acting under the influence of outside powers. The ultra-royalist group Thai Pakdee claimed earlier this year that the human rights group iLaw, was out to overthrow the Thai monarchy, backed by the US government and the Open Society Foundation, which is an initiative of billionaire George Soros, a common target of unfounded conspiracy theories. More recently, American academic David Streckfuss, who lost his academic position at Khon Kaen University, was accused without evidence of being linked to the CIA, the main intelligence agency of the US.
To supposedly address these claims of shadowy influence, Section 6 of the Draft Act would place restrictions on organisations that receive foreign funding while giving authorities broad discretion to determine which activities may be implemented using funds from international sources.
More concerning could be the criminalisation of individuals subject to arbitrary powers by authorities to ban groups falling outside its favour. The Draft Act willfully allows unequal treatment of certain groups and consequences for those who might be critical of the government – all without the ability to legally challenge the decision. For example, community organisations or academic institutions could be classified as not-for-profit organisations under Section 4, and subject to registration and then criminal prosecution.
The rights experts worried the Draft Act would ‘impinge on the rights to freedom of expression and association of millions of individuals’
Thailand’s Draft Act on NGOs has also drawn criticism from three United Nations Special Rapporteurs, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Irene Khan and Mary Lawlor acting in their official capacities, who warned, among many things, the definition of a not-for-profit is too broad and could “encompass a wide range of civil society organisations, community groups, people’s committees, sport clubs, cultural gatherings, religious organisations, political parties, trade unions, cooperatives and even online informal groups.”
The rights experts worried the Draft Act would “impinge on the rights to freedom of expression and association of millions of individuals.”
Appropriate registration would also require advocacy, clear communication and clarity from the government. But because of the vague, opaque wording of the act as currently written, most small groups and ad-hoc organisations would likely not think to register, while others might consider the burdens of registration too much to consider. The Draft Act is hardly fair in this regard, as the registration timeline would be, as of now, just a month after the enactment of the law. Failing to register would be prohibitively expensive, and individuals associated with an unregistered group could face up to five years in prison. Many organisations may see the proposal as introducing too much risk and cease their operations entirely.
The Draft Act places the government in control of activities that are often benign, making the Interior Ministry the arbiter of which activities might be deemed offensive. Any activities that have foreign funding would require the approval by the ministry and worse, the Draft Act would allow authorities to inspect an NGO registered with the Act, accessing data such as private email without any prior warning. Organisations could be subject to criminal and legal witch hunts engineered by the government.
The Thai government, like many countries around the world, backs false claims about foreign funding of non-governmental organisations partially to provide a distraction from their poor human rights records. However, these claims also delegitimise, marginalise and fuel suspicions of those who voice concerns about government activities.
While the headline event of the LANGO years was the 2017 demolition of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s main opposition, the state also used LANGO and other laws to unravel civil society groups such as the American-backed National Democratic Institute, which Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed had broken the law’s rules regarding political neutrality, and the environmentalist Mother Nature, whose leaders were accused of being a part of a network backed by foreigners that intended “to create social unrest and move to topple the elected government.”
But paranoia over foreign funding didn’t start with Thailand or Cambodia. For example, Ethiopia in 2009 created a law that stated that any organisation that received more than 10% of its funding from overseas was a foreign NGO, and was banned from activities that concerned human rights and democracy.
In fact, over the past several years a slew of countries have passed draconian measures aimed squarely at civil society organisations, from China, India, Uganda, Egypt, Kenya, Russia, and more. According to the United Nations, between 2014 and 2016, more than 60 countries have enacted laws or restricted freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.
Part of this wider pattern, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is rooted in illiberal regimes reaffirming their sovereignty as political elites grow increasingly wary of popular activism. The combination is resulting in a wave of measures aimed at curbing mass mobilisation.
Thailand is, in the broader picture, just another example of how far the civic space around the world has shrunk dramatically since the larger democratic recession began nearly 20 years ago.
In Southeast Asia, this trend continues despite the strong chorus of regional and human rights actors attempting to deploy traditional forms of pressure on repressive governments. Authoritarian regimes such as that of Thailand continue to roll out draconian laws that impose both legal and less-than-legal restrictions, all against a rhetorical backdrop of a public space for free speech and expression.
The proposed law would be a fatal blow for a robust civil society in Thailand that is deeply interconnected to both the UN and the wider region. As with other political freedoms in Thailand, the time and space for civil society is running out.
Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.