By Kunnawut Boonreak
Dozens of concerned NGOs are asking the U.S. government to lobby Thailand to drop a draft law they say would effectively place civil society under government control, and deal a blow to the fight against human trafficking.
In a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week, 41 NGOs aired their concerns and asked for his agency’s intervention to persuade the Thai government to withdraw the so-called Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations, which the cabinet has approved.
If enacted into law, the bill to regulate Non-Governmental Organizations operating in Thailand would allow the authorities to inspect their offices and seize communications, among other measures, according to the NGOs.
“The provisions in the bill represent clear violations of the right to freedom of association, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Thailand in 1996,” said the letter to America’s top diplomat, dated June 17.
“As written, the draft law criminalizes the right to freedom of association, as it sets out criminal penalties for undertaking activities without prior legal registration – specifically, five years’ imprisonment and large fines,” it said.
The letter lists five key concerns about the bill: the government would have broad discretion to deny registration arbitrarily and would be able set criminal penalties; it would also allow restrictions on foreign funding and give the government intrusive supervisory power, while limiting free speech, the NGOs said.
“The bill permits the authorities to enter the offices of not-for-profit organizations for inspection and to obtain electronic communications, which could be used for intimidation. This also threatens to violate the privacy protections of trafficking victims or their families, as they may appear in confidential files kept by the organizations that support them,” the letter said under a section about intrusive powers.
It noted that many organizations assisting migrant workers in Thailand are not registered and would face serious, “and likely insurmountable, challenges in registering and complying with the onerous reporting program and financial reporting requirements.”
“By effectively placing Thai civil society under the control of government officials, the draft law would have a devastating impact on the country’s already deficient efforts at combatting human trafficking,” the letter from the 41 NGOs said.
The letter urged the U.S. State Department, “in particular the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office), to strongly advocate for the Thai government to withdraw this bill.”
On Friday, the State Department did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment about the letter.
The NGOs stressed that the bill, approved in principle by the cabinet of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in February, establishes a broad definition of non-profit organizations.
“There are abundant NGOs, but only 87 were registered lawfully. There are many others claim they are non-profit and they used funds for other purposes rather than for public interest,” Government Deputy Spokeswoman Ratchada Thanadirek told reporters on Feb. 23 after the cabinet action. “Therefore, the government has to regulate them for transparency.”
Both houses of parliament must approve the bill and the Constitutional Court must determine if it is constitutional. If it passes those hurdles, the bill will be passed along to the king to sign – and if he does – will be published in n the Royal Gazette.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday by BenarNews. He had previously declined to discuss the bill because, he said, he had not studied it thoroughly.
Article 19, one of the NGOs that signed the State Department letter, issued its own response earlier this year where it listed some sections of the bill that have raised concerns.
Among those are Section 4, which defines “non-profit organizations.” The NGO says almost any non-business group including student groups, protest movements and community organizations could be included and subject to enforcement of the law.
“In this way, the government could prevent individuals from freely associating or engaging in collective expressive activities,” Article 19, a London-based group, said in a report on March 31.
Article 19 said Section 5 of the bill notes that a non-profit organization must register under criteria established by the government and those organizations must act in compliance with the criteria. Section 6 allows organizations to accept funding from non-Thais but that money can only be used for activities permitted by the government.
Section 10 lists penalties for those operating not-for-profit organizations that fail to register with the government – namely imprisonment not to exceed five years and/or a fine to not exceed 100,000 baht (U.S. $3,175).
‘An existential threat’
“If this draft law passes, it will put Thai officials in the driver’s seat to run over the NGOs and migrant worker assistance groups who are the best sources of information about how Thailand fails to effectively tackle human trafficking and the continuous exploitation of vulnerable Thais and migrants,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch in a news release accompanying the letter.
HRW is among its 41 signatories.
“As a leading light in global efforts to end human trafficking, the U.S. government needs to stand up to defend Thai civil society groups who will face retaliation for their truth-telling about corrupt officials, abusive employers, and deceptive and dirty supply chains. This draft law is an existential threat against NGOs operating in Thailand and needs to be taken very seriously.”
Other signees offered similar concerns about the bill.
“This act was written with the intention to undermine the participation of civil society and is a provision that is contrary to freedom of association. Its adoption will affect non-profit organizations, including labor unions,” said Sawit Kaevwarn, general secretary of the State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation.
Papop Siamhan, director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, said government officials would not have proposed the bill if they understood and respected the principles of democracy.
“The creation of a law regulating the work of NGOs will undoubtedly serve as a tool for the government to silence NGOs. As a result, crucial information about the real state of human trafficking will remain non-disclosed,” he said.
The founder of the NGO Friends without Borders, which is not among the letter’s signatories, said the bill goes against international law.
“The government, private sector and individuals can perform any lawful activities, but this bill specifies certain activities allowed for an NGO. If the bill is enacted we have to bring it to the constitutional court because clubs, foundations or sports associations will all be affected,” Somchai Homlaor told BenarNews.
An analyst at Chiang Mai University, meanwhile, said it is not needed.
“There are other laws such as juristic person laws to regulate them. The revenues department examines their balance sheets,” social science professor Salai Bawi told BenarNews, referring to NGOs. “There are other laws already in place to punish any cheating organizations.”
Asia Democracy Network, Asylum Access Thailand, Fortify Rights, Freedom Fund, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, the Thai CSO Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood, the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee and the Thai Volunteer Service are also among the groups that signed the letter.