Thailand: People’s Movement versus laws which undermine freedom of association.

An open letter to The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

Cc Gita Sabharwal, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Thailand

Dear Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of UNESCAP,

We, the People’s Movement Against the Draft Laws that Undermine Freedom of Association, are writing to express our serious concerns regarding Thailand’s Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations, which the Thai Cabinet approved in principle on January 4, 2022. Passage of this draft law would systematically violate the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression of non-profit groups, so we urge you to call on the Thai government to scrap this draft law when Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha opens your upcoming 78th session of the Commission on May 23, 2022. 

The draft law would enable officials to unilaterally order the temporary or permanent shutdown of any non-profit organization (NPO) operating in Thailand if they conduct activities or make public representations that the Thai government considers affects Thailand’s “relations between countries”; “affect the happy, normal existence of other persons”; affect “public interest, including public safety”; infringe on “public order,” or “people’s good morals;” or “cause divisions within society.” Non-profit organizations also are forbidden from doing anything that infringes on “the rights and liberties of other persons” or impacts the “government’s security, including the government’s economic security.” None of these terms are defined in any way, providing maximum discretion to officials, including the military and national security officials who are the originators of this draconian, rights-abusing legislation, to arbitrarily act against any organization. 

The law will undermine freedom of association for all people, not only non-profit organizations. The gathering of two or more persons to carry out a public interest activity is a right and freedom guaranteed in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand and several international conventions, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). Public activities can be diverse and may include a demonstration to demand monarchy reform, a campaign to rewrite the Constitution, a rally to oust Prayut, to oppose development projects and unjust laws, charity events, recreational and entertainment activities, to acquire knowledge, etc. The Prayut government, however, views that these activities should be subject to stringent regulation by the state, otherwise they could pose a threat to our national security or public morals. 

May 22, 2022 is the eighth anniversary of the military coup that brought Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to power. The authoritarian government has ushered in nearly a decade of repression of the poor, the community-based women and human rights defenders, youth activists, and ordinary people.

We express our outrage and urge you not to be complacent in the face of an effort by the military regime and the NCPO government to suppress and stymie our rights and freedoms.  The draconian suppression by the State has seen dissidents subject to enforced disappearances, assassination, physical assaults, and judicial harassments. Laws have been weaponized to intimidate the poor, women, and people, to harass and prohibit peaceful public assemblies by the people who want to express their opinions in good faith.  Now, another effort is being made to impose a law to further stifle our right to freedom of association. As The Community Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) Collective in Thailand stated on International Women’s Day, women in Thailand are forced on a daily basis to confront the tyranny of the State. Women represent the majority of taxpayers and voters, yet we are not served by our government. Society and the government always rely heavily on women to protect and ensure the welfare of the family and society. During the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, they have relied on women even more, but haven’t funded or materially-supported mothers or caregivers in any tangible way.  Again instead of representing women they ignore women, instead of protecting women, they bully women. This is the reality of Prayuth’s government in Thailand and is the reality we urge ESCAP to understand.

The Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations is the latest attempt to narrow the little remaining space for freedom of assembly and association. 

As the upcoming UNESCAP session will be guided by the theme “A common agenda to advance sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific,” and provide an opportunity to discuss and shape the future of regional cooperation centered around a new form of multilateralism and regional cooperation, the inclusion of the rights to associate could not be more urgent for UNESCAP’s agenda. It is impossible to imagine Thailand realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a context where civil society and the people are repressed by the government. Civil society in Thailand addresses all 17 SDG Goals, and this law will undermine those important efforts, especially SDG Goal 16 “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions” and SDG Goal 17 “Partnership for the Goals.” A robust civil society is necessary for the realization of human rights and democratic processes. Thailand is already considered a “flawed democracy” on the UN Democracy index. If freedom of association is restricted even further through the passage of this law, the country risks slipping further down the index and becoming a “hybrid regime” with lower levels of political participation, an inability to ensure a fair judiciary or to hold the government accountable to limiting corruption and restriction of the press.

We do not support the promulgation of any draft law that only serves the interest of a particular group of individuals while leaving pro-democracy activists to languish in jail, making them vulnerable to judicial harassment and other forms of harassment. We are opposed to the introduction of legislation while the country remains undemocratic and there is no respect for human rights. We therefore demand as stakeholders that UNESCAP to support our collective advocacy for the drafting of a people’s Constitution that will pave the way to a truly democratic society.

Thai civil society organizations support human rights, social welfare, civic activity, and humanitarian work in Thailand, and there is also a regional dimension to civil society in Thailand, with important international humanitarian and human rights organizations operating in Thailand to assist refugees and displaced persons fleeing the crisis in Myanmar (Burma) and supporting the provision of assistance into Myanmar. These efforts will also be put at risk if the draft law passes, given the provision that prevents civil society from undertaking actions that ostensibly jeopardize Thailand’s friendly relations with its neighboring countries. Similarly, Thailand has long served as a refuge for political and rights activists fleeing from repressive governments in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and non-profit organizations supporting these refugees would also face significant threats to be shut down if this bill is enacted. 

We, The People’s Movement against the Draft Laws that Undermine Freedom of Association, are mobilizing a public protest in front of the UN Headquarters in Bangkok from May 23, 2022 onward. We are calling for direct negotiations with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to revoke all the cabinet resolutions that approved the principle to have NPO law. 

The People’s Movement against the Draft Laws that Undermine Freedom of Association

May 20, 2022