STORIES

Opposing the NPO Bill: Community groups mobilise to protect freedom of association in Thailand

By Sulakshana Lamubol

Photography by Luke Duggleby

Fifteen years ago, villagers in the mountains of Northeast Thailand took up a fight against a gold mine that polluted the environment, contaminated water and food sources and made people sick. Once a loose gathering of community members, the group turned into a courageous collective under the banner of Khon Rak Ban Kerd, advocating for the right to a clean environment. After years of protests and court battles, they claimed victory as the mine closed down in 2018.

But with the government’s recent introduction of the draft Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) Bill, success stories like this might soon become few and far between. The bill is expected to turn up the notch on state control of Thailand’s activist community, including human rights defenders and community groups like Khon Rak Ban Kerd. The bill will grant the authorities the power to shut down any activities found to be disturbing “public order” or damaging “public morale.” 

Human rights defenders and community organisers believe the bill will be another tool for the government to undermine citizens’ rights following the Emergency Decree and the Public Assembly Act.

“The government saw that in the past two to three years, the people’s movements, especially those calling for political reforms, grew so large because they receive foreign funding and support from international NGOs,” says Lertsak Khamkongsak, a community organiser and the leader of the Commoners’ Party. “And so they realised that if they can issue a bill that can stop such support, it would weaken the people’s collective power.” 

A blueprint from abroad

The draft bill came about in 2021 after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered the Council of State to study legal frameworks abroad and draft similar legislation to regulate the operations of non-profit organisations in the country. 

Following the Cabinet’s approval in principle of the bill on 23 February 2021, a Cabinet member stated that there is a lack of sufficient oversight of non-profit organisations, resulting in misuse of public funds and corruption, hence a need to regulate NPOs. 

Informing the Cabinet’s decision were samples from countries including the UK, US, France but also Russia, Cambodia, Iran and China, some of which rank bottom on the Global Freedom Score by the US non-profit organisation Freedom House. 

But once passed, the bill would not only affect international NGOs or non-profit organisations but also community groups such as Khon Rak Ban Kerd, who fight for clean soil, air and water. Any group conducting regular non-profit activities, ranging from trade unions, charity groups, cross-border humanitarian aid groups, LGBT+ clubs to indigenous people’s associations, can face closure if conducting activities deemed causing “social division” and affecting “national security and international relations”. 

Anti-NGOs narratives

Damaging public narratives against NGOs, particularly those that receive foreign funding, have been around for a long time in Thai society, said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, former Director of Prachatai and current coordinator for Constitution Advocacy Alliance (CALL). Those targeted often include groups working on civil and political rights, touching on sensitive subjects such as constitutional amendments, lese-majeste law, and issues related to freedom of speech.

Groups like Amnesty International Thailand and iLaw, a group advocating for legal reforms, regularly face backlash campaigns from the right-wing groups. Advocacy groups receiving foreign funding are often branded as “nation haters”, “foreign agents”, or “traitors”. 

However, groups working to advocate for the environment and rights to manage natural resources also face common misunderstandings from the larger society. For example, they are often labelled as “growth blockers” as they tend to oppose large mega infrastructure projects that do not consider people’s participation. However, the role of NGOs in society entails much more than is usually understood by the public, Chiranuch said. 

According to the National Statistics Office, there are around 84,000 non-profit organisations around the country, with most being religious groups, charity groups and chambers of commerce. However, those working on sensitive political issues and advocating for significant structural and policy change seem to be getting the most attention are the main target of the draft law.

Assembly is the people’s weapon

For community-based groups like Khon Rak Ban Kerd, the power of years-long organising helped them protect the right to a healthy environment and reparations through protests, organising blockades to the mining entrance, administrative lawsuits, and international human rights mechanisms. Finally, after more than a decade of tireless campaigning, in 2018, the administrative court ordered the mining company to cease its operations and pay compensation to all 149 villagers. 

“Even though we have won our battle, many of our brothers and sisters are still facing lawsuits for exercising their freedom of expression criticising various institutions,” said the Khon Rak Ban Kerd’s statement on 15 May 2022, the 8-year-anniversary of the group’s darkest day, when 50 armed men attacked the villagers occupying the entrance of the mine, leaving dozens injured. Yet, despite the threats, they continued to make their demands heard. 

“The elite one percent of the population are enjoying their privileges by exploiting our labour, while the 99% of the people like us are struggling in a never-ending cycle of hardships just to fight for security in our lives. That is why we need to organise ourselves to fight with the state and corporations that are always looking out to exploit us,” the statement reads on.  

Phonthip Sayomchai, a Khon Rak Ban Kerd leader, believes the bill would directly affect the future of their group’s organising and ability to advocate for their rights. 

“The fact that we were able to mobilise so strongly that we can shut down the mine ourselves is because we have built solidarity through organising,” said Phonthip. “But our mission is not yet completed because the company still has the concession, which means it can still be reopened anytime. If that happens, our ability to organise against mining is key, but it might already be taken away by then.” 

Among those opposing the NPO Bill is Vipa Matchachart, a member of the women workers’ cooperative “Try Arm”. She stressed that organising and assembling people as groups are vital to securing demands from the government. Moreover, as a leader in the workers’ movement, she is aware that the ability to organise without the state’s suppression is key to the workers’ power.

“Instead of supporting the people’s rights to assembly, they are pushing for this bill to suppress our voices,” said Vipa. “When unfairly dismissed workers go to demand compensation as we are entitled to, they said we violated the public assembly act or the emergency decree. Why do they not go after the employers who actually committed the crime for not paying the workers’ compensation?”

The NPO Bill would also grant the authorities access to groups’ financial information.

The authorities would also have the power to order non-profit groups found to violate the stated prohibitions to stop their activities; otherwise, they can face up to a 500,000 baht fine with an additional 10,000 baht per day for every day the group does not oblige the order. 

The bill would also require public disclosure of donations and funds, a requirement some said can deter people from donating given the current political climate with the state’s surveillance. If found to be not disclosing their finances within a certain timeframe, the group can be ordered to stop the operations until they deliver the information, and fined up to 50,000 baht with additional 1,000 baht per day for every day not following the regulations. 

The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) recently held a public hearing on the draft bill, a requirement under Section 77 of the Constitution. Once completed, the Ministry will send it back to the Cabinet for review to be sent to Parliament.

However, critics point out that the participatory process is flawed as it is conducted online only and in a limited period of time, excluding many people who stand to be affected by the law. 

“Let’s count how many people in this country who could be affected by this law but cannot participate in this online public hearing process? We on the ground keep saying no but they won’t hear us,” said Phonthip.

People mobilising against the NPO Bill

Having exhausted all participatory channels, on 24 May around 500 people, including networks of community groups, activist collectives, unions and human rights organisations who are members of the People’s Movement Against the Draft Laws that Undermine Freedom of Association marched to the Government’s House to demand a permanent stop to the bill.

“We have provided our opinions and input for the online public hearing, yet the government still continues to push forward this law,” said Supaporn Malailoy, representative of the network, during the negotiations with the Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, Anucha Nakhasai, who met with the protesters to receive the group’s petition. “We want an answer now or we will not leave.”

While the government refused to respond, the networks continued to organise educational activities at the protest site with public forums, music bands, and free tattoos. 

Having set up their camps in front of the United Nations building since 23 May, they said they will continue to occupy the road until the Cabinet issues a resolution to stop the bill. 

“It’s been eight years since the military junta and this successive government came into power. What have they done to prove that we can trust them, when they only issue bills that take away our rights?” said Phonthip. “It is obvious that this authoritarian government doesn’t give any space to the people.” 

Sulakshana Lamubol is a freelance writer based in Bangkok, Thailand. She worked as a reporter for an alternative media before shifting to work in regional and national human rights organisations focusing on women’s rights and civil/political rights.