NGO bill problematic
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NGO bill problematic

Seksakol Atthawong, an aide to the prime minister, is having a field day at work. His online campaign to gather 1 million signatures to expel Amnesty International (AI) -- the international rights advocacy group -- has gathered momentum.

AI has been criticised by some locals -- mostly right-wing groups -- for its campaign to protect anti-government political activists' right to freedom of expression.

Earlier this week, Mr Seksakol gleefully prepared to submit the 1 million signatures to the Interior Ministry, which oversees the records of non-government organisations in the kingdom. He claimed that AI's branch in Bangkok has run campaigns that violate several Thai laws, and should be classified as an illicit organisation.

To legitimise his campaign, he has even said his reasoning resonated with the public, who question the motives of some NGOs.

He claimed that a recent Nida poll showed there is growing criticism of some NGOs for causing social divisions in Thai society.

The Nida poll came out with perfect timing -- only a week after the cabinet approved a bill on the Promotion and Development of Non-Governmental Organisations.

Given the circumstances, campaign's like Mr Seksakol's or those of people who responded to the Nida poll, signal that NGOs in society might be entering a dark age.

The government is jumping on the bandwagon of nationalist governments, like the one in China, or those increasingly looking inward, like India's, to tighten monitoring of foreign NGOs.

Like it or not, the anti-NGO sentiment might signal the end of Thailand as an open society, too.

Currently, there are about 86 international NGOs and more than 25,000 local ones in the country. Contrary to public perception, Thai authorities already have several laws regulating these NGOs, including the defamation law under the Criminal Code, Section 112 and the Computer Crime law. As for checking finances, there is the anti-money laundering law to check donations.

Yet the government is passing a new law to regulate NGOs.

Thailand is known as a hub for foreign NGOs in the region. These organisations came to open their offices in Thailand, including the capital Bangkok, during the 90s, which was the golden age of democracy in the country. At the time, Thailand was dubbed the poster boy of democracy in Southeast Asia.

Politicians at the time, led by the late Surin Pitsuwan, envisaged Bangkok being a second Geneva -- a city where foreign organisations could open offices and settle their international staff members.

Becoming a hub for NGOs requires a level of openness and pro-democracy laws to guarantee freedom of expression.

So far, society has tolerated NGOs. Even if some of their campaigns touch on politically sensitive issues, the government has never expelled any NGO.

Yet the bill -- which is to be tabled in parliament for its final reading soon -- will become a game-changer that turns Bangkok into a second Beijing instead of Geneva. If passed, it will give the authorities the power to further audit and regulate NGOs.

Our society should soul-search and hold healthy debates about the role of NGOs here. Society must not forget that NGOs are indeed a barometer of freedom and democracy in a country. Like it or not, their freedom is our freedom, too. So, instead of trying to muzzle civil society, the country should discuss how to find a way to better support these NGOs -- local or otherwise -- so they can better serve society.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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