NGOs cuddle up to Thai military junta again

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A report from 22nd September 2016 described a meeting chaired by General Ake Narong-pipatnasai, one of the junta’s deputy Prime Ministers. The meeting was part of series organised by the “Committee for the Promotion of Civil Society Organisations”. The general proudly announced that the committee was to invite Generalissimo Prayut to open the 3rd October meeting on “Building a Strong Civil Society, Towards Complete Democracy”.

On the 3rd October the Generalissimo turned up to give his opening speech along with a clutch of other generals from the junta. Much hot air about “democracy” and “civil society” was spouted by the dictator.

Now, anyone who is aware about Thai politics will be used to the lies and nonsense spouted by the junta. But what is of concern is that a number of organisations are involved in this so-called project on civil society and democratisation. Prominent among them is the government body called “The Thai Health Promotion Foundation.” This organisation is one of the largest funding bodies of Thai NGOs. What is more, the Thai Volunteer Service (TVS) was also involved. This is an organisation which was set up to train NGO activists and is close to the NGO-Coordinating Committee.

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At a previous meeting the “Committee for the Promotion of Civil Society Organisations” even defined the meaning of terms such as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Peoples’ Organisations (POs) and the idea of the Active Citizens. Naturally all these groups and sectors come under the paternal umbrella of the military dictatorship!

Not only are these so-called NGOs merely “Government-Funded Non-Government Organisations” (GNGOs), but they have evolved into “Dictatorship-Supporting Non-Government Organisations and Dictatorship-Supporting Civil Society Groups” (DSNGOs and DSCSGs).

The NGO support given to those destroying Thailand’s democracy has long been documented, but it is worth briefly revisiting the definition of Civil Society. [See http://bit.ly/1UpZbhh and http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2 ]

After the end of the Cold War we were told that a well-developed civil society and a large middle class was the key to a free and democratic society. Yet in some cases, such as Haiti or Eastern Europe, organisations with clear business links or funding from the U.S. Government have masqueraded as “Civil Society Organisations”. Some NGOs even supported the Western war effort in Iraq. In authoritarian countries like Singapore so-called “Civil Society” groups are actually established by the government.

The belief that Civil Society is concentrated among the intellectual middle-classes or NGOs, overlooks the possible anti-democratic nature of the middle-classes and intellectuals, who often benefit from unequal societies and authoritarian states. Thai academic Somchai Pataratananun described how influential people like Prawase Wasi and Chai-anan Samudwanij were advocating the idea of “Elite Civil Society” in Thailand decades ago. This involved an unequal partnership with the state, where the state dominated Civil Society. It meant that the threat to “democracy” was seen as coming from the uneducated masses or people who voted for Taksin’s parties. This neatly encapsulates the ideology of the royalists and the military. In such a mainstream or elite vision of Civil Society, there is no place for the Red Shirts who were made up of primary school educated small farmers, urban taxi-drivers, street vendors or factory workers. For the NGOs, these members of the “ignorant poor” need to be looked after in a patronising manner and taught how to understand democracy.

When considering the issue of Civil Society in Thailand it is important to remember that we saw the middle-classes and the NGOs take part in many anti-democratic protests and we have seen them welcome two military coups.

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