5 Things to Know About Thailand’s Proposed NPO Bill

Published: May 2021

In February 2021, the Thai Cabinet approved a bill drafted by the Office of the Council of State, entitled the Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations (draft NPO law” or “Bill”). The draft law presents a highly securitized approach to the non-profit sector which, as currently envisionedthreatens to violate numerous aspects of international law. ICNL and other– including UN Special Rapporteurs and local civil society organizations – submitted comments on the draft Bill during the March public hearing period, raising various concerns about the Bill 

Among other issues, we highlight five key concerns with the current draft NPO law:

1. Groups cannot operate without being registered, subject to criminal penalties.

Section 4 of the draft bill broadens the definition of an NPO to include informal groups,[1] and Section 5 requires all NPOs to register with the Ministry of Interior.[2] What this means, is the Bill as written would require every gathering of individuals carrying out any activity besides income or profit-sharing activities – such as a book club, football team, or community clean-up group – to register with the government or face criminal penalties. Section 10 outlines the criminal penalties for not registering, which include up to 5 years and/or fines of 100,000 baht (~$3200 USD) for “any person who operates a not-for-profit organization in the Kingdom without getting registered.” A mandatory registration requirement, especially applied to an overly broad definition of NPOs, undermines effective regulation of NPOs, opens the door to dangerous government overreach, and violates international law.

Furthermore, Section 5 requires NPOs to register under unspecified “criteria, methods and conditions” prescribed by the Minister of the Interior. As written, the bill allows the Minister of Interior to decide on registration criteria, giving scant assurance that registration procedures will conform to good regulatory practices. This language essentially grants the Minister a “blank check” to impose whatever registration requirements they feel are appropriate.

2. The Bill authorizes invasive inspections and burdensome reporting requirements.

Section 6 of the Bill allows the Registrar to enter any NPO office to inspect the “use of money or materials” and to obtain electronic communications, for any reason, and without any suspicion of criminal activity or due process protections. Section 6 further requires all NPOs to “disclose sources and amounts of funds or materials used in their implementation each year,” as well as annual tax returns, without any distinction as to the size or income level of different groups. Thus, a grassroots mutual aid organization, formed by three neighbors to deliver food to those in need, and which receives no external funding, would be subject to the same inspection and reporting requirements as a 100-employee public health organization with a substantial operating budget. Section 6 not only invites unjustified government interference in NPO affairs but could chill civic activities and burden service delivery and COVID relief with unnecessary administrative work.

3. The Bill vests full control and oversight of NPOs with the Minister of the Interior.

Section 4 of the Bill places regulatory authority of NPOs with the Ministry of Interior and its Department of Provincial Administration. The Ministry of Interior, with its security focus, is particularly ill-suited to regulate NPOs. Lacking the necessary expertise, it may seek to stifle legitimate civic activity, and in so doing, suppress community efforts to address public concerns. For this reason, it is exceedingly rare for a ministry of interior to play this role. While the regulatory authority for NPOs varies by country, we typically see organs with greater expertise on civil society, such as ministries focused on justice or social welfare, courts, or charitable commissions, overseeing the sector.

4. The Bill institutes blanket restrictions on foreign funding to NPOs.

Section 6 of the Bill permits NPOs to accept money or materials from non-Thai natural persons, legal entities or groups of individuals only for “activities in the Kingdom as permitted by the Minister.” This provision gives the Minister of Interior full discretion to authorize or block any foreign funding. Such blanket restrictions run counter to the right to free association, which embraces the ability to seek and secure resources, both domestic and international. Additionally, such restrictions diverge from Financial Action Task Force guidelines, which call for a “proportionate” and “targeted approach” in dealing with non-profits and allowing “legitimate charitable activity to continue to flourish.”[3]

5. There is no possibility of appeal under the Bill, including for termination.

The Bill fails to provide any appeal process for decisions taken by the Registrar, including suspension or termination. Section 9 of the Bill states that NPOs that violate or fail to comply with any of the substantive provisions will have their registration revoked, regardless of “any pending appeal to the revocation of registration.” Thus, almost any violation, no matter how minor, could result in revocation or termination of NPO registration. Under international norms, these are among the severest restrictions on free association, and are only permitted when there is a clear and imminent danger resulting in a flagrant violation of national law. In the absence of the right to appeal these decisions to an independent body, such provisions could easily lead to abuses of power and disproportionate actions by authorities.

The Council of State is reportedly considering these comments and may issue an updated draft NPO law soon. ICNL will continue to monitor legal developments around draft NPO laws in Thailand. For more information, as well as specific recommendations, read our detailed analysis, available in English and Thai.

[1] i.e., “a group of individuals which are not established by any specific law, but implement activities that do not have the purpose of seeking income or profits to be shared.” Draft Act, Section 4.

[2] Except for potentially “Associations and foundations that have already registered per the Civil and Commercial Code, and the not-for-profit organizations registered under other laws.” Draft Act, Section 5.

[3] https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/reports/BPP-combating-abuse-non-profit-organisations.pdf