Recently the exiled Ji Ungpakorn issued a statement (available here) about the position of Thai NGOs in the ongoing political crisis. He traces the role of NGOs in the anti-Thaksin protests of 2005 and 2006; their response to the September 2006 coup; and NGO statements about the yellow shirt protests of 2008 and the red shirt protests of 2009. Ji argues that “in the present political crisis in Thailand, it is shocking that most Thai NGOs have disgraced themselves by siding with the Yellow Shirt elites or remaining silent in the face of the general attack on democracy. It is shocking because NGO activists started out by being on the side of the poor and the oppressed in society.”

How has this come about? Ji looks back to the history of the NGO movement. Here are a couple of extracts:

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. Instead they embraced “lobby politics” and Community Anarchism. The two go together because they reject any confrontation or competition with the state. They reject building a big picture political analysis. 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 way of working, also dove-tails with grant applications from international funding bodies and leads to a de-politicisation of the movement. The NGOs also oppose Representative Democracy 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. …

Since the poor voted on mass for Thai Rak Thai, the NGOs have become 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 work. Many Thai NGO leaders are self-appointed middle class activists who shun elections and believe that NGOs should “nanny” peasants and workers. 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.

I don’t agree with all of Ji’s points, and am not in a position to make a judgement about some of his specific claims, but I think he is correct to highlight the failure of the NGO movement to develop a broad based and empowering political strategy that reflects the fundamentally transformed socio-economic conditions of the people they claim to represent. Thaksin stole the NGO’s grass roots thunder and they are going to have to do some solid re-thinking and re-positioning to win it back again.

Siding with the Yellow Shirts is a sure strategy for political irrelevance.