A new Draft Act on Operations of Not-for-profit Organizations is raising huge concerns among civil society a due to its extensive powers of surveillance and control of the finances of a wide range of associations. The broad scope of this law threatens almost any kind of association in Thailand.
Protesters rally against abuse of the rights of indigenous Karen in February 2021. Civil society plays many roles in this movement.
On 18 July, Jaded Chouwilai and Supawadee Petrat, 2 senior experts, announced their resignations from the Civil Society Organizations Support and Development Committee, one day ahead of the scheduled meeting which included the draft law on the agenda.
Supawadee said she resigned because of the government’s insincerity in its pledge to support and develop CSOs as shown by trying to pass a law to control them, ignoring the opinion of senior experts and civil society while disregarding another better draft that promotes the growth of CSOs.
“This shows clearly that the government wants to control and limit the basic rights and liberties of the people and flout the rights established in the Constitution and the basic human rights principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions regarding the human rights which Thailand has signed.
“The meeting on the 19th [July] is a meeting that is of great concern in that the state will use it as an excuse that they have already consulted the committee, in order to proceed with pushing forward a draft law that wants to control and limit the rights and liberties of association of the people and not listen to the voice of the people,” said Supawadee.
From anti-corruption to a wholesale slaughter of social associations
The tension in the legislative process stems from the content of the draft itself. A cabinet resolution on 23 February 2021 shows that Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered the Office of the Council of the State to draft principles for a law to control unregistered organizations that claim to be not-for-profit but which operate for profit, avoid tax and receive funds from non-Thai entities to conduct activities that may affect international relations or public order inside the Kingdom.
This order developed into a bill that gives the government authority over a wide range of people’s associations.
Section 4 of the bill gives a very broad definition of not-for-profit organizations to ‘include any group of individuals that are not established by any specific law but implement activities that do not have the purpose of seeking income or profits to be shared.’
The law requires not-for-profit organizations to register and comply with the criteria, methods and conditions to be declared by the Interior Minister (Section 5). Organizations that have been operating before the law come into force have 30 days to register (Section 11).
Section 6 states that not-for-profit organizations can use funds received from non-Thai entities for activities in the Kingdom only as permitted by the Minister. This Section also gives the state almost unlimited authority to check whatever they want:
‘The registrar shall have the authority to enter the office of a not-for-profit organisation to inspect the use of money or materials, or the implementation of activities … and have the power to investigate and obtain and make a copy of electronic communications traffic made by the not-for-profit organisation for further investigation.’ (Section 6, Paragraph 3)
Any person who operates an organization in the Kingdom without registering with the registrar shall be punished with up to 5 years of imprisonment or fined up to 200,000 baht, or both (Section 10).
Enemy of the state
The registration and operations of associations and foundations are currently regulated under the Civil and Commercial Code which requires that foundations be registered with the Ministry of Interior. There are also many other kinds of groups that are either required to be registered under other laws, or not required to be registered at all.
However, Jaded said the draft can be interpreted as the government seeing civil society as an enemy or criminal that needs regulation, although civil society has in fact been helping development in areas that the government could not reach. So many civil society organizations have voiced disagreement with this draft.
He said the CSOs undergo strict budget checking with the Interior Ministry and with their funders when they receive grants.
“I understand that it is a misinterpretation by the government, which sees that some CSOs or NGOs get money from abroad, which everyone has a right to receive, so that everyone mobilizes to create chaos This is an idea that has been around for a long time already.”
Article 19, an international human rights NGO, published a report claiming the law is fundamentally flawed and incompatible with the right to freedom of association under international human rights law.
“If passed, the Draft Act will greatly expand the power of Thai authorities to monitor and control the activities of organizations and groups of all types, structures, sizes, and degrees of formality, with devastating impacts on Thai civil society. The Thai government should immediately withdraw the Draft Act from consideration,” stated the report.
Wanchai Boonpracha, the committee's remaining senior expert, said this law would discourage the people from forming groups to help society.
“Imagine that we want to form a group to do some good deeds. Like now, the Zen-Dai group has formed groups to help those who are infected with Covid-19 and have nowhere to go. If they have to register and report everything, and they do not do so on time, there is a chance they will go to jail.
“Who will then form a group? There will only be help from individuals which will be even harder to control. Being in a group at least makes us able to do more checks. Help from individuals is good, but it will probably not be as good as having groups,” said Wanchai.
Slight ray of hope
Currently, the bill is being processed by the Council of State, the state body responsible for the final draft of laws. It will be then go to the Cabinet for consideration, undergo a public hearing period, and go back for more Cabinet comments before being passed to the parliament for consideration.
According to Wanchai, the meeting on Monday was chaired by Deputy PM Wissanu Krea-ngam, who asked the secretary to carefully note the committee’s firm insistence of wanting to get rid of the draft and appointed 3 senior experts to address the issue in future.
Wanchai said another law presented by the CSO development and support committee is undergoing a similar process, but has better principles and mechanisms that support the growth of CSOs. He said the committee has been opposed to merging the two versions.
“If registration leads to support, then there is no problem. But this, if you do not register, then you are breaking the law. This violates the rights and liberties of association,” said Wanchai.