Two U.S. lawmakers are urging Thailand to drop provisions of a draft bill restricting NGOs, saying it would harm civil society and negatively impact the delivery of humanitarian assistance to neighboring Myanmar.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s government is seeking to pass a controversial bill regulating not-for-profit organizations in Thailand, including prohibiting groups from engaging in all activities that he says could be detrimental to national security or social harmony.
Local and international NGOs have opposed it, saying it threatens civil society work and hampers free speech.
In their letters to the Thai and U.S. governments, Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Sen. Jeffrey A. Merkley of Oregon said the draft, if enacted, “will represent one of the most restrictive NGO laws in Asia and will have an irreversible effect on civil society in Thailand.”
They urged the Thai government to “revoke harmful provisions” of the draft, according to a statement released on Tuesday.
The legislation also “threatens to eliminate what could soon be the last available place for Burmese civil society organizations to operate,” Markey and Merkley said.
“We, therefore, call for an urgent, coordinated, whole-of-government approach to pressure the Thai government to drop all consideration of this dangerous law,” the senators said in their letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.
In January, Prayuth’s cabinet approved the draft bill in principle.
A government ministry then launched a public survey of the bill as required by the constitution. That survey ends this week and the bill will be returned to the cabinet before being forwarded to the parliament for deliberation.
The survey “shows 70 percent of the respondents favor the bill. However, most of them are government agencies-related people. NGOs are not supporting this draft law,” Nattacha Boonchaiinsawat, a Thai parliamentarian with the progressive Move Forward Party, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
Nattacha said the parliament’s house committee on political development, mass media and civil participation, which he chairs, had invited relevant ministries and officials in November to answer concerns about how the bill would affect freedom and rights.
“The Office of Council of State said it aims to counter money-laundering … but we recommended that they use the existing anti-money laundering act and not issue a blanket law like that,” Nattacha said.
The foreign ministry “admitted that many countries had expressed concerns regarding this bill,” he said. “But the government still failed to convince us why this law is needed.”
Thai authorities did not respond immediately to BenarNews’ request for comment. Previously, government officials had said the new bill would make NGOs more transparent.
Tight leash on NGOs
According to the draft bill viewed by BenarNews, NGOs are prohibited from operating in ways that “affect the government’s security,” affect “economic security,” or “relations between countries,” “affect public order, or people’s good morals, or cause divisions within society,” “affect the public interest, including public safety,” or “affect the happy, normal existence of other persons.”
Critics said those terms could be interpreted to mean any activity by any organization. Close to 1,870 NGOs issued a statement earlier this year opposing the draft, saying the administration is trying to regulate their charity work.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law said the draft contains “heavy-handed provisions to control” the NGOs’ activities and threatens “to violate numerous aspects of international law.”
The bill would regulate not only NGOs based in the country but others including from Myanmar. A military coup last year forced many organizations and activists to flee the country and take refuge in Thailand.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the draft would have a “severe negative impact” on efforts to support vulnerable communities in Thailand, including thousands fleeing Myanmar.
“In the hands of Prime Minister Prayuth and his quasi-military government, this law would amount to Armageddon for civil society groups and NGOs who stand up for human rights, political reform, anti-human trafficking and protection of the rights and interests of the most vulnerable groups in society,” he told BenarNews on Wednesday.
The two U.S. senators also called on the governments in Washington and Bangkok to do more to address the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and offer support to those fleeing violence.
“Cross-border assistance provides a critical lifeline for these vulnerable populations, and we urge your government to work with the international community to allow for its increased flow from Thailand into Burma, including in areas not controlled by the regime’s military,” they wrote to Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
The Thai government should also “allow unimpeded humanitarian access” for civil society groups and the United Nations to visit the refugees in Thailand, Markey and Merkley said, adding Bangkok should use its “voice as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] to press for a resolution” in Myanmar.
‘No more critical NGOs’
Bangkok political activist Sombat Boonngamanong said the draft bill “results from Prayuth’s discontent with NGOs’ frequent criticism of him.”
“The goal of the new draft law is to take control of the NGOs. If it is enacted, there will only be government-friendly NGOs left,” Sombat, president of the Mirror Foundation, an NGO based in northern Thailand, told BenarNews.
“There will be no more critical NGOs to help improve the country or offer critical views of the government.”
Robertson said the “passage of the law would usher in a massive, systematic crackdown on freedom of association, expression and other core civil and political rights in a way that we’ve not seen in Thailand in decades.”
He said even those who are not forced to cease operations would have to operate in fear, as “one complaint, one issue, or one tweet could start an investigation to shut them down.
“The U.S. senators are right to assess this draft law as a potential game-changer that could alter the political, economic and social development landscape of Thailand for the worse,” he said.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.