Webinar on “Civil Society Under Threat in Thailand?”

The webinar offered insight into the Thai government’s proposed Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations, into the act’s substance, and into popular efforts to resist its adoption. The speakers addressed the implications of the act’s adoption for civil society organisations operating in Thailand. The webinar attracted 63 attendees from diverse backgrounds.


 Friday, 6 May 2022: The past year has seen the government of Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha working toward the introduction of an Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations. Draft versions of this act have contained provisions on the registration of civil society organizations and on their financial reporting and disclosure, as well as broad and nebulous prohibitions on activities that are allegedly not in the national interest. Observers fear that these provisions and prohibitions represent grave threats to freedom of expression and of association in Thailand. Critics further contend that the act may not only violate the Thai constitution and international law but also enable the Thai state to intimidate advocates for rights. 

The webinar opened with a discussion of the characteristics of civil society in Thailand. Civil society organisations in Thailand are active in many different sectors, such as HIV advocacy, safeguarding the rights of LGBTQ communities, protecting migrant workers, keeping tabs on environmental issues, and even responding to the COVID pandemic. In fact, since the Thai government is not capable of meeting a range of society’s needs, civil society organisations have tried to fill gaps in services to the public. However, the concept of a civil society organisation was not well known among Thais even twenty years ago.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Michael Montesano (moderator) Ms Julie Hunter, and Ms Chiranuch Premchaiporn formed the panel of speakers. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Analysis of the proposed act requires understanding why Thailand does not need a law on non-profit organisations, what effects such a law will have, how civil society organisations are reacting to the proposed bill, and why the Thai government thinks that a law on non-profit organisations is a good idea.

Ms Julie Hunter and Ms Chiranuch Premchaiporn sharing a background and international law analysis. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The speakers argued that there were already adequate regulations to oversee the operation of non-profit organisations, ranging from the tax code to regulations on human resources and employment. Some civil society organisations want to see a law which will potentially enhance the role of civil society as an equal partner with the government. But, so far, the draft bill on not-for-profit organisations is just another regulation to undermine the right of association in Thailand. Civil society organisations are still trying to educate the public that their right to association will be severely limited if the bill becomes law.

If the proposed bill is rectified, Thai authorities will have the discretion to decide which civil society organisations are “good” and which are “bad”. Any individual or organisation that upsets or criticises the government can potentially be deemed “bad civil society”, and the authorities can exercise targeted oppression against such groups. Civil society organisations will have to avoid working in several areas, while some activities might even have to go underground.  The not-for-profit organisation bill will potentially damage Thailand’s reputation as an international hub for international non-governmental organisations.

While civil society organisations have been slow to react to the possible adoption of the draft bill, they did manage successfully to stand against the first draft. In that draft, the definition of “association” was so broad as potentially to affect every association in Thailand, even including COVID response groups. The earlier draft specified that every association would have to register with the Ministry of Interior, and the government was clearly approaching the issue from a security perspective without understanding the oversight of non-profit organisations. There were heavy criminal penalties involved and no mechanism for due process or appeal.

The government has now made amendments to the proposed bill. The second draft includes more supportive language for civil society, but the second half of the current draft, especially Section 20, lends itself to broad and vague interpretation and might thus still be abused. Non-profit organisations supporting migrant workers on the Thailand-Myanmar border and even COVID response volunteers could, for example, find their work affected under this law if the government quoted security concerns or the notional public interest. The bill will also leave authorities with discretion to decide which organisations can be said to have “good morals” and which are causing “division in society”.

The draft bill on not-for-profit organisations also includes burdensome restrictions on foreign funding and overwhelming disclosure requirements. Penalties for violations are disproportionate. Nor has the bill been drafted to meet international legal standards such as those of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, which guarantee any non-profit organisation voluntary registration, limited interference, and privacy rights.

The government’s explanation for the draconian law is that it seeks to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing activities in accordance with international law. However, the Financial Action Task Force responsible for tackling money laundering and counter terrorism worldwide has only one recommendation for non-profit organisations, which requires that “the laws and regulations that govern non-profit organisations be reviewed so that these organisations cannot be abused for the financing of terrorism”. Financial restrictions are supposed to be targeted and not overbroad, in contrast to those that the Thai government is proposing in its draft bill on non-profit organisations.

Thai ultra-royalists have called for eviction from the country of international non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and for permanent bans on their operations. Conspiracy theorists accuse prominent rights groups of being threats to national security and interfering in Thailand’s internal affairs. In this light, the possibility that the Thai government is looking at India for a precedent in curbing the activities of Amnesty International was raised during the webinar.

The question-and-answer session of this webinar proved extremely rich and informative. Participants’ questions concerned the impact of social media on the role and importance of civil society organisations in Thailand, the existence of a mechanism for offering feedback on the draft bill on non-profit organisation,  the process of implementing the law if it is approved, the reasons that the bill’s supporters do support it, public opinion on the proposed law, the reason for the apparently sloppy drafting of the act, and whether Myanmar and Thai authorities have been in dialogue on the regulation of non-governmental organisations.