Civil society has deep historical roots in Thailand, going back to religious institutions and early voluntary associations. Both Buddhist and Christian institutions have played a crucial role in providing education in Thailand. Buddhist monasteries served as venues for traditional education, while modern schools were first established by Christian institutions. The oldest and best known of the Christian institutions are Bangkok Christian College and Assumption College. The Chinese also set up early voluntary associations with a philanthropic orientation. The best-known philanthropic entity, Poh Teck Tung Foundation, is now Thailand’s biggest non-governmental charitable organization.
The legal framework for Thai civil society organizations (CSOs), including philanthropic and charitable entities, was modeled, at least in part, on Western legal systems, and particularly on the French and German civil codes. Thailand’s first Civil and Commercial Code, adopted in 1925, formally recognized associations and foundations as not-for-profit organizations, and the Cooperatives Act recognized cooperatives three years later. The Labor Act, which provided for the formation of labor unions, did not enter into force until 1956. However, it was rescinded in 1958 after a coup, which also led to the banning of trade unions until another coup took place in 1972. The Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1975 and the Thai Labor Protection Act passed in 1998.
The current legal framework generally facilitates the work of CSOs. However, concerns about national security and the perceived need to curb illegal activities, such as money laundering, have resulted in restrictions on CSOs. For example, the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) is authorized to request relevant CSO documents, suspend suspected CSO transactions, and enter the premises of any CSO under Section 16/1 of the Anti-Money Laundering Act, 1999 so long as the AMLO has “sufficient evidence.” Also, for the first time, Thailand is considering two specific NGO/NPO Bills that could potentially drastically change the entire non-profit sector. Most CSOs are currently set up as foundations under the Civil and Commercial Code.
The Thai elections in May 2023 saw the progressive reform party, “Move Forward,” take a decisive lead, winning the most seats and popular vote ahead of the populist Pheu Thai Party and various military-backed parties. The shape of the new government remains in question, but there could be significant opportunities for reform if Move Forward is able to exercise its mandate.