Updated: June 22, 2020 07:00 AM GMT
Posters of missing Thai activists are pasted on a wall in Bangkok on June 15. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)
A prominent Thai Muslim rights activist whose husband disappeared in 2004 has thrown her support behind a civil society move to force Thailand’s parliament to outlaw enforced disappearances at long last.
Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former member of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission and an internationally recognized rights advocate, says that without proper legislation the victims of enforced disappearances and their relatives like herself will continue to lack any legal recourse for justice.
Angkhana’s husband was Somchai Neelaphaijit, a defense lawyer who disappeared without a trace while representing four Muslim men facing terrorism-related charges in Thailand’s restive southernmost region. Somchai was last seen on March 24, 2004, just before he was forced into a vehicle by a group of men outside a hotel in Bangkok. He has not been seen since.
His abduction bears an eerie similarity to that of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a young Thai political dissident in exile who was seized by a group of men near his apartment building in Phnom Penh on June 4 this year and manhandled into a waiting vehicle. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown, but he is feared dead.
Angkhana’s nearly two-decade quest to find out what happened to her husband and who was responsible for his disappearance has been stymied by an absence of proper laws that would have enabled her to seek justice, she said.
“The court didn’t allow my family to represent my husband [in absentia in court] because there is no evidence he was hurt or killed even though everybody, including Thaksin Shinawatra [who was then prime minister], believes he died,” Angkhana explained in an interview with a Thai newspaper.
"For 16 years, I have been calling for justice, but [the] authorities have never told me how they will mete it out. Instead, they have said: ‘Let it go’ [or] ‘You will not find him,’” she went on. “In fact, the state has the power to search for those forcibly disappeared. It is just a matter of will.”
Yet that will is lacking as Thai authorities have made only half-hearted efforts to investigate the enforced disappearances of Somchai, Wanchalearm or the 80 other Thai rights campaigners and political dissidents who have gone missing in unresolved cases since 1980, according to the United Nations.
In 2012, Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, but the country has failed to pass legislation in accordance with the agreement.
Rights campaigners say legislators have been dragging their feet on the issue on purpose because state officials have been behind most enforced disappearances in the country.
In the wake of Wanchalearm’s disappearance, which shocked many liberally minded Thais, opposition politicians and rights activists have renewed their calls for legislators to pass a proposed bill that would finally enable the relatives of victims to seek legal remedies by suing state authorities over their alleged involvement in such disappearances.
Angkhana, who is backing the bill, said she was concerned it would be watered down before it is passed by parliament, which is dominated by politicians allied with the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former military chief who spearheaded a coup to oust an elected government in 2014.
The rights advocate is helping lead a civil society campaign to have the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearances bill passed by parliament in an unadulterated form. The bill, if passed, would hold state officials accountable for their involvement in forced disappearances.
No such legislation exists, which has been a grave impediment to justice, Angkhana said. “The absence of a law breeds a culture of impunity. We have evidence [about who] abducted Somchai, but we can’t bring them to justice.”