Are Thai NGOs tools of the junta?: Pinkaew Laungaramsri

Tools of the state. Political opportunists. Foes of democracy. These are all rather harsh descriptions of NGOs. But for Pinkaew Laungaramsri from Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Social Science, they are truly the roles many NGOs have played in recent Thai political history.

This opinion piece, an excerpt from Prachatai’s new book A Molten Land: The Mandatory Transition, is perhaps one of the most fierce criticisms of NGOs in Thailand yet. But still, it is one that NGOs and civil society must heed. When Thailand’s new constitution granted the junta greater powers, while depriving the people of their rights, where was resistance from civil society?

NGOs: an extension of the state bureaucracy?

For a long time now, I have observed a trend whereby Thai NGOs are morphing into an extension of the state bureaucracy. More and more NGOs are choosing to work alongside the state, to the point where they can be said to be one part of the state. Meanwhile, their activist functions are neglected. For at least the past ten years, the effectiveness of NGOs in promoting the power of the people, in changing society and in balancing the influence of the state and corporations has been unclear. Does Thai civil society really represent the voices of the people?

Dependence on the government as a source of funding has affected the direction of NGOs. Plunged in perpetual funding insecurity and unable to rely on themselves, NGOs cannot hope to choose their own work or meet the needs of the people. Besides co-operating with the state more often, NGOs are pressing their lips shut when it comes to criticism. Compromise has twisted the goals of NGOs until they desire only the continuation of their funding. We shouldn’t be surprised when NGOs run to whatever sources of funding they can find, even if that source is the junta.

Though NGOs in Thailand used to fiercely critique populism, they were willing to be collaborators with the junta as soon as it invited the private sector and civil society to assist in administering rural subsidies. The NGOs leapt at the chance! Tracing these developments, one should not be surprised that NGOs have willingly sat in junta-appointed committees, the National Reform Council or the National Reform Steering Committee. These developments have been a long time coming, culminating in a Thai civil society that shamelessly operates as an extension of the state bureaucracy.

Working only to preserve themselves has made Thai NGOs this way. It has changed the role of NGOs in Thai politics, the way they analyse Thai politics and how they view their own relationships with those in power — which has only implicated NGOs in the current state of Thai politics all the more. NGOs have become organisations that work to promote the state bureaucracy’s strength. In exchange for their survival, they have become allies of the state bureaucracy, without thought to Thailand’s future and the health of its democratisation. Such dreams, it seems, are no longer the work of NGOs.

NGOs swinging right

Disappointed with elections, NGOs decided that their works need not be relevant to democracy. They became ready to work with whoever came into power, in order to ensure the survival of their works and organisations. Past goals of curbing the state’s power and increasing the power of the people — once the rallying point of NGOs — evolved into concerns with self-preservation and power. This is the current state of Thailand’s civil society.

When I say that NGOs are moving towards the right, this statement is relative. NGOs evaluate what regimes will offer the most benefits. If a democratic system gives more rewards to politicians than NGOs, politicians become rivals while the junta becomes a source of collaboration. However, the allegiances of NGOs will change should they view the junta as failing to provide the benefits that they had hoped for.

But there is no point to NGOs existing if they have no principles regarding how the politics of this country should be. This dilution of NGO principles over the past 10 years has made the regime and substance of Thai politics irrelevant to civil society movements.

Urgent social problems

The dictatorial constitution that the junta has installed as the nation’s legal framework has made change difficult, if not impossible. The upshot is that we no longer have to think about reforming laws, cabinet resolutions or civil society’s bargaining power. This military government, which the people never chose, will inevitably pass laws according to its will.

Over the next 10 years, land rights will also be an urgent issue. This is true not just of Thailand, whose land rights situation is following in the footsteps of Laos. What I’m talking about is the wholesale selling of land to corporations with long-term contracts, while the local people have no idea what will be done with their land. I’m talking about the Special Economic Zones that are cropping up all across the country, which are eating up huge swaths of territory. Land rights are set to be the fuse that ignites large scale protests in the future.

But the problem is that NGOs have never been set upon the work of mobilising the masses, something that is now extremely difficult in Thailand’s present conditions. There is also the question of whether NGOs are even aware of the land problems that are plaguing our neighbouring countries. Do they realise that these problems are shared by Thailand’s provinces? If they do, do NGOs really have the capacity to bring these issues into the public eye?

The key question is, in the wake of the coloured shirts — and in this society devoid of just laws but weighed down by a dictatorial constitution — who will act as the catalyst to mobilise those who have had enough of the junta’s rule? In my opinion, the answer lies in a post-NGO society and with Thailand’s younger generation — with groups who dare to think, and question the deterioration of Thailand’s democracy.