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Rights Groups See 'Existential Threat' in Draft Thai NGO Law

FILE - A protester writes pro-democracy messages on images of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and top Thai generals during an anti-government rally in Bangkok, Feb. 20, 2021.
FILE - A protester writes pro-democracy messages on images of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and top Thai generals during an anti-government rally in Bangkok, Feb. 20, 2021.

Rights advocates are warning that a new law Thailand’s government is drafting to regulate nonprofit organizations poses an “existential threat” to the work of human rights groups in the country, and could force some to shut down or leave.

The proposal would require all not-for-profit groups to register with the government, declare the source of all their funding each year and how they spend it, and turn in annual audits and tax returns. Anyone running a group that fails to register could face up to five years in jail.

The draft would also allow the Interior Ministry to enter a group’s offices at any time and gather its electronic communications without a court order. It says, too, that groups could spend any foreign funding only on work “permitted by the Ministry” without elaborating.

The bill follows a wave of lawsuits and arrests of critics of both the government and the country’s powerful monarchy who are accused of sedition and insulting the royal family, a crime that can send the convicted to jail for up to 15 years.

The government says it needs the law to rein in the threat of shadowy groups that would use foreign funds to destabilize the country.

Critics say the proposed measure is a cynical reaction to the mass protests that roiled Bangkok last year with demands for more checks on the monarchy and for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down. Prayuth, an ex-general, came to power in 2014 at the head of a military coup and won a 2019 election his critics say was rigged, a claim the government denies.

‘To limit and to restrict’

International rights groups operating in Thailand condemned the government’s use of water cannons and tear gas, and later rubber bullets, to put down the protests. Some local nongovernment organizations have also offered free legal aid to those arrested.

“This particular law is clearly a response in order to limit and to restrict the ability of civil society activists and NGOs … to support the large movements happening in the country and to restrict that space that’s already closing in by the day,” said Josef Benedict, a researcher for CIVICUS, a global civil society advocacy group.

Rights groups say they fear the government might use its new powers to silence its critics by choking off funds from abroad for legitimate work or simply refusing to register them.

Seven international NGOs wrote a joint statement last month urging the government to scrap the bill.

“This draft law poses an existential threat to both established human rights organizations and grassroots community groups alike. If enacted, this law would strike a severe blow to human rights by giving the government the arbitrary power to ban groups and criminalize individuals it doesn’t like,” the statement said, quoting Malaysian lawmaker Maria Chin Abdullah, a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

‘Police, judge and jury’

The European Union delegation to Thailand says it joined representatives from member states and other countries at a May 7 meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry to stress the important work civil society groups do, including in the fight against COVID-19.

“Amid shrinking democratic space around the world, particular attention should be paid to avoiding unintended consequences in this regard whenever new legislative action is initiated,” the delegation told VOA by email when asked about the meeting.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the law would make the Interior Ministry “police, judge and jury” over NGOs and see Thailand’s civil society world start to shrivel to the size it is in Laos or Vietnam, dictatorships that brook no challenge to the ruling party.

“I expect multiple international NGOs could be thrown out of Thailand. They would not be able to register, probably there would be some prosecutions. Any organizations that do register would practice self-censorship and not speak about Thailand human rights violations or issues of what is going on in Thailand,” he told VOA. “I expect there would also be discriminatory application of the law against Thai organizations and groups. The law would become like a new weapon against Thai civil society.”

Critics of the draft also say its definition of a not-for-profit is dangerously broad and could in theory cover everything from the largest international rights group to a few rural villagers who band together to oppose a local government project.

The government insists Thailand needs a new law to help keep nonprofits from straying from the work they claim to be doing.

‘In a transparent way’

“We found that some of the NGOs, some civil organizations have conducted their activities not in a transparent way,” said Ratchada Thanadirek, a spokeswoman for the government. “They received some money and they do not act appropriately according to the purpose of their organization.”

She would not name any of the groups the government believes to be breaking with their mission statements and said she did not know exactly how the authorities believe they’ve been misusing their funds.

“There’s several activities that we found that [are] inappropriate and violates the law, but I don’t have details,” Ratchada said.

The spokeswoman would not respond to the specific concerns the groups raised about the breadth of the proposed law or the powers it gives the Interior Ministry but stressed that the draft was still a work in progress.

The public had only a few weeks to submit comments in late March. Ratchada said the groups could still work with sympathetic political parties to keep pushing for changes and nominate representatives to a committee the National Assembly will form to review the bill if and when it passes the first of three votes it will need to reach King Maha Vajiralongkorn for final approval.

“I understand the civil organizations, that they are not happy. I see their point, but that can be revised. It’s not ended here,” she said. “There’s room for revision.”

The government’s advisory team is now reviewing the draft and the comments it drew in March before sending it on to Prayuth’s cabinet for endorsement. It will head to the National Assembly from there.