The cabinet this week approved a bill considered by many as a mechanism to muzzle non-governmental organisations and/or people's organisations that are critical of the government. It's shameful that an elected government would issue such a contentious bill.
The bill on the promotion and development of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was proposed by the Social Development and Human Security Ministry. After getting the nod from the cabinet the bill will now go to the Council of State before it is sent to parliament for vetting. It is reported there is another version of the bill proposed by the Interior Ministry.
Under the bill, NGOs are required to register with the state. At the same time, a committee will oversee NGOs affairs. It will comprise the permanent secretaries from the Finance, Interior and Social Development and Human Security ministries as well as the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and Community Organisations Development Institute, two non-profit agencies with close affiliations with the state, among others.
Minister of Social Development and Human Security Chuti Krairiksh insisted there is a need to regulate NGOs' performance and the bill will serve that purpose.
In his opinion, several NGOs are fake. Some, financed by foreign donors, seek to damage or discredit the government, to raise their profile and gain support from foreign donors. With such a bill, the minister said these agencies will be weeded out.
Under the bill, all the registered NGOs will have their balance sheets examined to ensure they do not misuse donated money. But he must know that spending by these NGOs is audited by the donors.
The minister said the bill will promote some cash-strapped civic agencies as it may well give the donors tax exemptions. With such a tax mechanism, public donations to civic groups will increase. This is "empowerment" as interpreted by Mr Chuti. But is it?
While the minister insisted the bill has been through a public consultation phase, Yingcheep Atchanont, manager of iLaw, said he has no idea if the bill has in fact been discussed, at least among umbrella agencies of social activists like the NGOs Coordinating Committee (NGO-COD).
Mr Yingcheep has every reason to be concerned about a hidden agenda behind the bill. Amid escalating polarisation, the state and some extreme right elements have attempted to discredit a few NGOs with claims they receive foreign donations. They single out those scrutinising injustices perpetrated by the state and cases involving Section 112 of the Criminal Code (or the lese majeste law), and also charter amendments, branding them as nation-haters.
The move has justified fears the bill will clip the wings of civic agencies that challenge unjust laws and law enforcement. The government must be open to scrutiny. If it practises good governance, there is no reason for concern and the new law should not be used in a dubious way.