Mad authoritarianism

23 04 2021

There’s been considerable discussion in recent days of a draft law that would allow state monitoring of NGO funding and supervision of their activities. This amounts to a predictable deepening of control by an authoritarian regime. At the same time, it is reflective of a quite mad authoritarianism as the regime has increasingly come under the influence of ideas of conspiracy that dominate the “thinking” of mad monarchists.

Thai PBS reports that the effort to strictly control civil society organization and dominate political space by limiting NGOs by the “monitoring of NGO funding and supervision of their activities” through the Bill on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations “stems from fears of foreign intervention in local politics and adverse impacts of NGOs’ foreign donations on national security.”

That report cites Amnesty International as saying that other states have also introduced “restrictive laws and policies, and stigmatising rhetoric…”. The examples provided include “Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Hungary, and the Philippines.”

In the Thai case, the bill appears to reflect the increasingly frenzied deep yellow shirt conversations about CIA (meaning the USA) and Jewish (meaning George Soros) conspiracies to undermine the monarchy. There’s no evidence for such conspiracies, just an ever-mounting social media gnashing of teeth and tan ever-higher piling of buffalo manure, some of it egged on by organized anti-Western bloggers and “news” outlets. Such sources have waged a campaign against “colour revolutions” and, since the rise of the red shirts, have increasingly focused on Thailand. In Thailand, their deeply conservative narrative has been couched in “radical” terms, railing against “American imperialism.”

This narrative caught on among yellow shirts who themselves had dealt in fictious notions of conspiracy against the monarchy that constructed accounts of the Finland Plot to bring down the monarchy and of Thaksin Shinawatra’s anti-monarchism.

Such conservative fictions were easily imbibed by military monarchists. One result is this bill to control civil society groups. It was the post-junta cabinet, dominated by military monarchists that “in late February approved in principle the Bill on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations, which would require NGOs to report their financiers and amount of funding, to have their accounts audited, and to ensure that their activities are lawful.”

Thai Enquirer refers to the Bill as the “Operation of Non-profit Organizations Act,” and notes that the “legislation was proposed by the Council of State…” which cited the concerns that resulted in the draft bill, including that NGOs “receive funding from foreign persons or entities.” Nothing new there; it has been a standard operating procedure for decades. However, in these reactionary times, there’s a view that this “might adversely affect the relationship between Thailand and that of other countries.”

Thai Enquirer explains what the Bill will do:

This draft bill, if passed into law, would require NGOs to register themselves with the Director General of the Department of Provincial Administration, prior to commencing its activities in Thailand. Once registered, they will be additionally required to comply with rules and conditions prescribed by the Minister of Interior, in addition to those requirements set forth in the legislation.

In addition, NGOs would be subject to an annual disclosure viz-a-viz sources of funds and must file an annual tax report to authorities. And, more horrendously, the NGOs can only receive funding from foreign persons, entities, or groups of persons, only for the purpose as prescribed by the Minister of Interior. Failure to comply with these requirements would subject the NGOs to criminal sanctions. Potentially imprisonment for persons involved.

It is unclear whether receiving funds to engage in political advocacy such as calling for the amendment of the constitution would be one of the permissible purposes. However, given the government’s track record and how the government MPs have reacted to iLaw’s requests, it is reasonable to fear that the purpose of political advocacy would not be permitted.

The article continues, noting that the regime:

does not wish to appear subtle about its motives either. It includes as material substance of the law that the bill would effectively ensure that NGOs are operating in Thailand without “Tai-ya-jitr” (hidden agendas). It remains unclear what “hidden agenda” means in this context. Is advocating for democracy … under the authoritarian regime regarded as a “hidden agenda?” … One might therefore reasonably conclude that this law is aimed at curtailing the activity of liberal NGOs….

The regime “has provided numerous hints about how it intends to use the law,” citing “a senior intelligence official specifically cited a statement signed by 13 human rights organisations … as demonstrating the need for further control over organisations working in Thailand.” That statement by human rights groups “condemned the government’s use of force against protesters.”

As The Interpreter observes:

Since a military coup in 2014, however, civic space and fundamental freedoms have taken a beating in Thailand. Authorities have harassed activists, cracked down on protesters and obstructed the proceedings of civil society. But these actions have failed to fully extinguish dissent, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government has now proposed a draconian new law governing associations and organisations, which, if passed, would do more to crush civic space and undermine Thailand’s role in the region than any other effort by the Thai government in the past decade….

Under the proposed legislation, any group engaged in non-profit activities – no matter how small, informal or unorganised – would be required to register with the ministry. Student groups, community organisations, protest movements, artistic collectives, social clubs and short-lived associations would all fall within the remit of the law.

It establishes a “mandatory registration scheme overseen by the Ministry of Interior” and gives “authorities expansive powers to control and monitor groups of all sizes and types.”

Under the current authoritarian regime, the proposed law’s “broad terms and steep penalties would likely be wielded arbitrarily against independent-minded individuals and organisations.”

It imposes harsh penalties for failing to register: “individuals associated with an unregistered group could be punished with up to five years’ imprisonment.”

…The law would give the Ministry of Interior sweeping powers to determine the conditions under which registered groups operate. Activities backed by foreign funds would require pre-approval by the ministry, with foreseeable consequences for groups that frequently come into conflict with the government. More worrying still, the law would allow officials to inspect a registered organisation’s office and access its emails without justification or judicial oversight. It provides no safeguards against governmental misuse or arbitrary application of the law.

…Moreover, the selection of the Ministry of Interior as the ministry responsible for enforcing the law is telling. The Ministry of Interior oversees local administration and internal security within Thailand. As a result, it frequently comes into conflict with community associations, non-governmental organisations and other groups that would be governed by the law. The surveillance and enforcement powers granted by the law would bolster the ministry, to the detriment of those seeking to hold government officials accountable for corruption, human rights abuses or other misdeeds.

Such requirements and such intrusive surveillance mean that the government would determine which NGOs could register and what they could do, if they receive international funding.

The Interpreter further observes:

Adding to the law’s recklessness, the timeline set forth for registration – 30 days from the date of enactment – does not provide enough time for the ministry to register the thousands of currently unregistered groups operating in Thailand. If it were passed, numerous organisations would be forced to cease operations, and many would never reopen.

That is likely one of the aims of the legislation.

Each of the reports mentioned in this post reports on responses from NGOs. Among many issues, they note that the law is in conflict with several provisions of the constitution – not that such matters have ever bothered this regime – and that the law would allow “authorities to harass civil society groups and activists critical of the government by categorising them as NGOs.”

The Interpreter concludes:

If enacted, the proposed law would devastate Thai civil society and could lead to an exodus of international organisations currently based in Thailand.

Clearly, the regime’s support for the monarchy and the need to suppress anti-royalism puts it in alliance with all kinds of mad monarchists. For them and the regime, only conspiracy theories can “explain” attacks on their beloved monarchy and monarchist ideology. When mixed with the regime’s military-induced love of hierarchy and order, the outcome is a political system that is deeply authoritarian. The threat is to make Thailand forever authoritarian.


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25 04 2021
Monarchism and secrecy | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] cabinet approved draft amendments to the Official Information Act. As with changes proposed for the registration and operation of NGOs, the approved amendment promotes and supports political authoritarianism that is rooted in […]

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