How Thailand’s NGOs Have Betrayed The Rural Poor

by heavilyarmedsovietspacemonkey

A quite informative excerpt from an article about how and why many Thai NGOs have betrayed Thailand’s rural poor and sided with the anti-democratic elites (you can download the PDF here). This article by the Thai-British political activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, who had to flee to the United Kingdom after facing a lèse majesté charge in Thailand, has been published on his own website, Red Thai Socialist.

>>After the “collapse of Communism” the NGO movement turned its back on “politics” and the primacy of mass movements and political parties in the 1980s[19]. Instead they embraced “lobby politics” [20] and/or Community Anarchism[21]. Despite the apparent contradiction between lobby politics, which leads NGOs to cooperate with the state, and state-rejecting Community Anarchism, the two go together. This is because they reject any confrontation or competition with the state. Lobbyists cooperate with the state, while Community Anarchists hope to ignore it. They both reject building a big picture political analysis[22]. Instead of building mass movements or political parties, the NGOs concentrated on single-issue campaigns as part of their attempt to avoid confrontation with the state. This method of working also dove-tailed with grant applications to international funding bodies. It led to a de-politicisation of the movement. Thus, NGOs cooperated with both military and elected Governments in Thailand since the early 1980s. In 1989 they were invited to be part of the state’s 7th National Economic and Social Development Plan and by 1992 NGOs were receiving budget allocations from the Ministry of Health. The Social Welfare department and the department of Environment also provided funds[23]. This raises the issue of “GNGOs” ie., Government funded NGOs. Can they really be called NGOs?

The NGOs also oppose Representative Democracy, along Anarchist lines, because they believe it only leads to dirty Money Politics. But the Direct Democracy in village communities, which they advocate, is powerless in the face of the all powerful state. It also glorifies traditional and conservative village leaders which are not subject to any democratic mandate. Eventually, the idea goes together with a failure to defend parliamentary Democracy. Their anarchistic rejection of representative politics, allowed them to see “no difference” between an elected parliament controlled by TRT and a military coup. Instead of bothering to carefully analyse the political situation, the distrust of elections, votes[24] and Representative Democracy allowed NGOs to align themselves with reactionaries like the PAD and the military, who advocate more appointed public positions.

Initially, in 2001, the NGOs loved-up to Taksin’s TRT Government. They believed that it was open to NGO lobbying, which it was. TRT took on board the idea of a Universal Health Care System from progressive doctors and health-related NGOs. But then, the NGOs were wrong-footed by the Government’s raft of other pro-poor policies that seemed to prove to villagers that the NGOs had only been “playing” at development. What is more, the increased use of the state to provide welfare and benefits by the TRT Government went against the Anarchist-inspired NGO idea that communities should organise their own welfare. After their about-face in attitude to TRT, the NGOs turned towards the conservative royalists and the army.

The link between the ideas of conservative royalists and the NGOs had been forged even earlier in the late 1990s, when NGOs started to take up the Kings theory of the “Sufficiency Economy”, claiming that it was the same as their Anarchist ideas of Community Self-Sufficiency, which argued for a separation from market Capitalism[25]. Thus, both NGO-COD and the Thai Volunteer Service enthusiastically promoted the Sufficiency Economy. Later, Yuk Si-Araya, an ex-CPT activist turned right-wing nationalist and supporter of the PAD, argued for the Sufficiency Economy on the same basis[26]. He also argued that “Western-style” democracy was incompatible with Thai culture. Finally, the conservative royalist and medical doctor, Prawase Wasi, provided the bridge between the NGOs and the conservatives in the state[27].

Again, despite the apparent contradiction between the conservative elite’s idea of “Sufficiency Economy”, which is really a reactionary ideology aimed at keeping the poor “happy” in their poverty, and the Anarchist Community Self-Sufficiency, which is more about villagers becoming independent from the state, the two ideas fit together. Both reject state welfare and the use of the state as an instrument to redistribute wealth. Both also fail to challenge the power and authority of the ruling elites and the state. Both Community Self-Sufficiency and Sufficiency Economy claim to oppose the modern capitalist market, yet the military junta managed to write Sufficiency Economy into their 2007 Constitution alongside extreme neoliberal free-market policies. The utopian nature of both sufficiency theories allows them to be very flexible and detached from reality. The Anarchistic distrust of state-organised welfare, helped the NGOs to oppose the Taksin Government. For many NGOs, welfare should be organised by communities. But this anti-state position opened the door to accepting a neo-liberal concept of a small state, a view shared by the conservative royalists.

Just because Anarchism can fit together with lobby politics and conservative royalist ideas, it does not mean that all Anarchist organisations automatically link up with conservative elites. The Assembly of the Poor (AOP), a mass movement of poor farmers, which was led by some NGO activists, never supported the 2006 coup and never supported the PAD. However, it was one of the honourable exceptions. The key point about the Assembly of the Poor is that it was a social movement with mass involvement of the poor, unlike most NGOs or NGO networks. Many AOP activists remain extremely hostile to military coups and the strong hand of the state. AOP tactics emphasised mass protests rather than trying to get positions on state-sponsored committees, although they have also adopted lobby tactics as well[28].

The political situation, before and just after the coup, was extremely messy and difficult. There was not much to choose from between the two elite sides, except for the important fact that TRT held power through the electoral process. In this situation the NGOs should have remained neutral and with the poor and they should have opposed the coup. But they were angry that TRT had won over their supporters and were distrustful of TRT’s use of the state to build welfare programmes and stimulate the economy.

Because Community Self-Sufficiency, separated from state and market, are extremely utopian ideas which are not particularly popular with rural people, there was a danger that NGOs which advocate such ideas could become elitist in outlook, seeing villagers as hopelessly misguided. Since the poor voted on mass for TRT, the NGOs became viciously patronising towards villagers, claiming that they “lack the right information” to make political decisions. In fact, there was always a patronising element to their practical work. Many Thai NGO leaders are self-appointed middle class activists who shun elections and believe that NGOs should “nanny[29]” peasants and workers. They have become bureaucratised. They are now fearful and contemptuous of the Red Shirt movement, which is starting a process of self-empowerment of the poor. Of course, the Red Shirts are not angels, but in today’s crisis, they represent the poor and the thirst for freedom and Democracy.<<