Posters of missing Thai activists are pasted on a wall in Bangkok in June 2020. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)
I was taking a train in Manila in March 2004 when I received a call from Munir Said Thalib, then chairperson of my former organization, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. Munir requested me to issue a statement on the enforced disappearance of Thai lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit on March 12, 2004. It has been exactly 17 years since Somchai involuntarily disappeared.
While Munir’s case is another story, it is important to remember that six months later he was poisoned with a lethal dose of arsenic on a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam via Singapore.
Munir, Somchai, Sombath Somphone and Jonas Burgos are among prominent cases of unresolved human rights violations in Southeast Asia. It is ironic that the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration invokes the “respect for and promotion and protection of fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.”
Today is yet another painful reminder of the enforced disappearance of a human rights lawyer in Thailand, the “Land of the Free.” Somchai, a prominent Muslim lawyer who was seen being dragged into a car in Bangkok, had filed a case of torture against the police in southern Thailand on behalf of five men who were in its custody.
Five policemen who were charged with pulling Somchai away from his car were released. Police major Ngern Thongsuk was convicted by the Court of First Instance in 2006. Five years later, the Supreme Court overturned the decision. All the accused were acquitted.
I witnessed one of the first hearings of the Somchai case in 2004. It was then that I met his wife Angkhana, a nurse, who vowed never to leave any stone unturned to uncover the hidden truth about her husband’s disappearance. I was fortunate to be with her several times in Thailand, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines and Switzerland.
Angkhana is as determined and as indefatigable as Argentina’s members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Linea Fundadora. She has learned to wholeheartedly embrace the issue of enforced disappearance as her own. She became one of Thailand’s commissioners on the National Commission on Human Rights but had to resign over issues of independence. Angkhana is one of the family members of the disappeared who transcended their state of victimization and chose to become human rights defenders.
Angkhana links arms with victims and rights defenders not only in her own country but also in the Asian region and the world over. She links arms with female relatives of the disappeared such as Laos’ Shui Meng Ng, the Philippines’ Edita Burgos and Pakistan’s Amina Masood — her sisters in pain, in struggle and in hope.
With them and with the innumerable victims of enforced disappearances, she finds the real meaning of solidarity. She forges lasting friendships with people who, like her, envision a world without desaparecidos. By virtue of her crusade to search for truth and justice for her husband and for the countless other victims in her country and in the rest of the world, she has garnered prestigious human rights awards, which include, among many, the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights and the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
On this day, with pain in her heart, she sums up the almost two decades of the Somchai case characterized by delays, lack of competence, procedural obstruction and harassment.
She laments the ordeal she continues to suffer, such as online bullying after her engagements with UN mechanisms. She noted that the military-supported information operation against her spiked after a military coup. It worsened when she worked on civil and political rights in Thailand’s southern border provinces as a national human rights commissioner.
After denouncing human rights violations in her country, Angkhana earned the ire of the military. A victim of fake news, dehumanization and hate speeches, she remains unflinching in her human rights advocacy.
The key impediment to the progress of Somchai’s case is the absence under Thai laws of a crime of enforced disappearance. Codification of the offense of enforced disappearance is stipulated under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance that Thailand signed in January 2012. Despite regional and international pressure, the promised ratification did not happen. Thailand promised to enact a domestic law first before the convention could be ratified. The draft law, however, pales in comparison with international standards. No domestic law has been adopted.
Unknown to many, Thailand is smeared with many other cases of enforced disappearance and human rights violations, including the unresolved case of the 1992 Black May massacre. The Democracy Monument immortalizes the 1992 victims of enforced disappearance and other rights violations and is a manifestation of the Thai people’s continuing struggle for democracy.
Anathema to democracy, enforced disappearance is one of the cruelest forms of human rights violations. The 17-year old unresolved case of Somchai Neelaphaijit is in stark contrast to Thailand’s beautiful image as the “Land of the Free.”
Where is Somchai? For 17 years, Angkhana, in solidarity with the human rights community in her country and the rest of the world, has been asking this nagging question.
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is the president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.