Asia: NGOs display `lobby cretinism' over ASEAN human rights commission

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

October 25, 2009 -- The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is made up of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Brunei and Singapore, which are all authoritarian states. It also includes the semi-democratic Malaysia, along with the Philippines and Indonesia, which are more or less democratic. Would anyone expect a gathering of government leaders from these countries to set up a genuine human rights commission? Apparently, some NGOs from the region did think so.

However, they got snubbed. Not only did the governments decide to appoint the human rights commissioners themselves, they also refused to meet with half the NGO delegates, and allowed only Dr Surichai Wangaeo of Chulalongkorn University to speak on behalf of the NGO delegation. Who is Dr Surichai? He supported the 2006 military coup in Thailand and was an appointee to the military junta’s parliament. The Thai NGO team that was involved in so-called “civil society” discussions also included people who supported the military coup.

The inaugural ceremony of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, held in Thailand on October 24-25, kicked off with a speech from Thailand's Abhisit Vejjajiva, head of the present military-installed government. Abhisit’s government has presided over some of the most draconian censorship seen in Thailand for 40 years, along with the use of an internal security law which curtails the right to peaceful protest. His government has imprisoned political opponents under the lese majeste law and it was also responsible for shooting pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok last April. In addition, Abhisit’s Democrat Party has set up a paramilitary Blue Shirt gang to commit acts of violence against government opponents. Yet in his speech, addressed to the king, who wasn’t actually present, he unashamedly said things like: “Human rights is an important component of our people’s lives, and it is important for the people-based community we plan to build.”

For the members of civil society, he had this to say: “You should rest assured that you now have a new partner with whom to work.” These lies are no longer shocking, since Abhisit has lied about most of his government policies and about the use of lese majeste.

How could NGO activists go along with all this nonsense? Are they stupid or just plain dishonest opportunists? Or have they been blinded by their lack of politics?

The “lobby NGOs” like to claim that they represent “civil society”, despite never being elected by anyone. Some are even against elections and voting. They forget that civil society can only increase the democratic space and defend rights if it is organised into mass social movements, which act against authoritarian governments and elite vested interests. Instead of trying to talk to government leaders, it would be better to concentrate energy and resources in building such mass movements or supporting movements which already exist, such as the pro-democracy Red Shirts movement in Thailand and opposition movements in other ASEAN countries. Any human rights commission worth its salt must be totally separate and independent from governments and must have the courage to condemn all violations of freedom. The Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong is one good example among many.

After the “collapse of Communism”, much of the NGO movement turned its back on “politics” and the primacy of mass movements and political parties in the 1980s. Instead they embraced “lobby politics” and/or community anarchism. 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. That is why they can deliberately ignore the fact that most ASEAN countries are run by dictatorships.

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. They prefer trying to gain invitations to enter the corridors of power, rather than getting rid of elite power. This method of working also dovetails with grant applications from international funding bodies. It leads to a de-politicisation of the movement.

On climate change, the NGOs which met in Bangkok in October also ignored the fact that ASEAN governments were mostly unelected. They tried to suck-up to local governments by using a nationalist agenda to blame only the West for climate change. This lets local elites off the hook. It also makes alliance-building with movements in the West more difficult.

Activists in Europe and the USA are well aware that Western nations should shoulder the majority of the burden, but the issue is how to tackle the profit-driven market system which destroys the planet and creates great inequalities.

ASEAN countries need to invest more in improving the lives of citizens. The rich need to be taxed and military budgets slashed in order to fund such projects. We need modern technology under real democratic control, in order to build solar power stations, wind turbines, electrified public transport and efficient housing. On this important point, the NGOs meeting in Thailand were silent, preferring to suggest some kind of de-industrialisation along the lines of the Thai king’s reactionary “Sufficiency Economy”.

The era of NGOs being radical forces in society is long over. For activists who wish to build a better society, the time has come to reassess the past and find a better, alternative form of struggle. For those only interested in a career, just stay put and hope the funding doesn't dry up.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn worked in the faculty of political science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He was forced to leave Thailand after being charged under Thailand's anti-democratic les majeste laws. He is an activist with the socialist Turn Left Thailand group. Visit and]