11 July 2024

There was one aspect of the recently-concluded senate election that was largely overlooked as the media and observers were busy trying to shine the light on what they saw as the influence of major political clans in the election process.

Having monitored the adversarial online conversation during the country’s first self-elect’ senatorial vote in the past two months, I was agitated by the resurrection of state-related propaganda about what it claimed to be “foreign funding” for democracy and human right groups to interfere with Thai politics, particularly the election for members of the Upper House.  

Most active in pushing such charge were influential state and army-related IO accounts on Facebook and X (Twitter) which openly sought to discredit  “Senate67”, the pro-democracy campaign spearheaded by Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), a human rights NGO, to push for transparency and fairness in this convoluted and opaque selection process.

Prior to the vote, iLaw, along with the Progressive Movement of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit,, and other constitutional reform movements, had a coordinated and separate election literacy campaign to encourage people to be senatorial candidates to vote, organized  a mock-up selection process, and hosted online space for candidates to introduce themselves to the public.

One post accused iLaw of “making up a list of pseudo-candidates to report to its funders”, while another exposed what it claimed to be iLaw’s foreign funding sources – the information of which was mainly drawn from the iLaw webpage that details its funders and projects.

All these were intended to suggest that iLaw received foreign funds to interfere in domestic politics.

Others showed group photos of Thai democracy and rights activists and journalists taken during their attendance at workshops or public events, in Thailand and abroad, with foreign sponsors named in accompanying narratives.

Last year iLaw, along with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights and Move Forward Party (MFP), were also framed by the coordinated army and state-related IO campaigns as foreign agents receiving US funds to interfere with the general elections in which the young political party won a landslide victory.

To what extent these narratives have an impact on the public perception about the local NOGs is hard to phantom given the long and deepening state of political divide.

But Nida poll conducted after the May 14 elections suggested over 50% of the respondents surveyed did not believe in the foreign interference theories.

Nonetheless, I suspect this misinformation campaign would be further used by the far-right in the establishment to counter civil and political rights activists.

On my routine net serving, I spotted the June 9 Facebook post of Thai United Nation Party’s party deputy spokesman Pongpol Yodmuangcharoen talking about the draft legislation to prevent foreign agents’ interference in the country’s domestic affairs, similar to the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 which mandates US firms working for foreign countries to submit their financial revenues or face criminal offense.

Pongpol suggested it’s time Thailand have such law that suits the Thai context and claiming that foreign donations worth over 585 million baht made their way into Thailand in 2022 with parts of the fund going to anti-monarchy activities.

Calling the draft bill “Foreign Interference Protection Act (FIPA)”, he insisted that it’s not meant to be a threat but rather “control” of local NGOs, media and individuals receiving foreign funding to ensure they operate in accountable and transparent manners.

His post drew supportive response from his followers with more than 1,300 likes, 142 comments and 272 shares. Influential pro-Prayut Facebook account ‘Cheer Lung’ shared his post and garnered 2,000 likes, 142 comments and 230 shares.

To me, this sounds alarmingly explicit. Even the Prayut administration did not try to come this far.

Back in January 2022, it did approve two draft laws to regulate public information and activities of NGOs in Thailand.

But the draft law on NGOs faced such stronger and united opposition from the academia and rights groups which were alarmed by its broadly-defined measures designed to mute critics of the government, employing such terms as “undermining national security, public order and safety and good moral of the society.”

It also attempts to make mandatory financial transparency and reporting of activities, and the registration of individuals and organizations receiving foreign funding.

The two legislations were pending in the House of Representatives until the dissolution of the parliament in February 2023 to pave way for the general elections in May last year.

In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has a law that explicitly deals with foreign interference in domestic affairs, called Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA).

Other neighboring countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam have laws and regulations restricting activities of local and international NGOS and foreign funding of similar nature to Singapore but called them differently.

Between 2001 and 2003,  these countries started to legislate the laws that follow Singapore’s FICA model, according to Asia Center’s research report titled ‘Foreign Interference Laws in Southeast Asia: Deepening the shrinkage of Civic Space’, released in February 2023.

At this point, the status of the draft legislation pushed by Pongpol is still unclear. But there is certainly a need for a wider public debate on the issue if it is going to be revived.

Kulachada Chaipipat is a media consultant and adviser to Cofact Thailand.