This post looks at how the Thai state funded NGOs before the coup, and how the new regime might use these mechanisms for their own purpose.
The Thai state provides a limited amount of finance to NGOs. The amount and the range of funding windows has increased rapidly in the last few years. Not enough to compensate for the withdrawal of foreign donors who now consider Thailand as a low priority because of its middle income status and relative lack of strategic interest. Nevertheless, the low importance of foreign funds means that the Thai state funding mechanisms are important for the overall structure and power relations within the NGO part of civil society.
The biggest public funding scheme for NGOs is the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (THPF). The foundation receives 2% of alcohol and tobacco taxes, which are expected to rise much faster than inflation. The THPF redistributes these funds to Thai NGOs for projects more or less related to health. As the main funding source in a context of shrinking foreign aid to NGOs, it has funded projects in a wide,range of sectors. Some progressive NGOs have even received THPF support for networking, education and lobbying campaigns against free trade, on the grounds that uncontrolled free trade will have a negative impact on the health and nutrition of the poorest in society. Of course, most of the THPF funding goes to more mainstream NGO activities.
The polarization of Thai political life and the civil service has encouraged some but not all of the THPF staff to encourage applications by pro-poor NGOs. As almost everywhere else! Only the biggest NGOs can manage the complex application and reporting procedures, although at least everything is in Thai, which isn’t true when NGOs apply to foreign donors. Small organizations are in most case not eligible for THPF funding anyway, because only formally registered NGOs can apply for funds, although Thai legislation permits the activities of unregistered civil,society groups.
The coup has led most NGOs to suspend their operations, and activists of some progressive NGOs have moved either into full time organizing of the anti coup movements, or gone into hiding. But sooner or later, the new regime will try to surround itself with civil society allies. How genuine and how much base these will have depends on many factors. It seems likely that the regime will maintain the structure of the THPF and the smaller state funding mechanisms, but put their own people in charge. There could be a selective harassment, audit and prosecution of ‘redshirt’ NGOs that have received THPF funds, while any evidence of wrongdoing by yellow NGOs could be forgotten. Or the paperwork could just be ‘lost’ as has happened whenever accusations of corruption have been made agains the Democrats (the former opposition, bitterly opposed to the universal franchise and to populist or redshirt power).
Under the coup regime, the THPF and other state funds are likely to initially work as slush funds for rewarding cronies and paying for simulated
popular support for the regime. Over time, the regime may feel that it needs to work with some NGOs on public health, regional development and education issues, in order to reduce the worst impacts of liberalization. There would be lots of candidates among the yellow NGOs, but it remains to be seen firstly whether a militarised yellow civil society can be built up on the ground. Secondly whether the generals will be willing to pay the very high financial costs of such a strategy. And thirdly whether by engaging with the poor and dispossessed some of today’s yellow NGOs might finally begin to understand how the country’s wealth is produced, and why it is so unfairly concentrated in so few hands.