The faces of the disappeared

Of the dozens of human rights defenders killed in Thailand in the past decades, many are unknown. This exhibit of portraits within portraits seeks to change that

Montha Chukaew, 54, and Pranee Boonrat, 50, were shot and killed while they were on their way to a local market on Nov 19, 2012. They were members of the Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand. Photos: Luke Duggleby/Protection International/Redux

From time to time, one comes across a news report about a man or a woman, killed for demanding their rights or standing in the way of influential figures.

But as you step into photographer Luke Duggleby's exhibition, "For Those Who Died Trying", you'll be impressed, saddened, or even angered, by the sheer number of them.

Thirty-five portraits of 37 human rights defenders, either killed or abducted in Thailand in the past decades, are on display at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre until Sunday.

The soaring number is meant to shock the audience, Duggleby recognises. A day ahead of his exhibition's launch -- "For Those Who Died Trying" opened on Tuesday -- the British-born, Bangkok-based photographer paces back and forth, as he places his photographs on their stands.

"Initially, I wanted to create a mosaic and hang all the portraits together on one wall," he said. For practical reasons that didn't happen, but the actual display still allows viewers to understand the problem's magnitude in just one glimpse.

The subjects of Duggleby's work fought for land rights, against corruption or environmentally destructive projects that threatened their community and livelihood. They were silenced as a result.

Some names are familiar to most. Cases such as those of disappeared lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit -- allegedly abducted and killed on March 12, 2004 -- or Karen rights activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen -- mysteriously disappeared on April 17, 2014 -- have attracted the media's attention.

Boonsom Nimnoi, 44, was shot dead on a road close to his home on 2 September 2002 in Baan Laem, Petchaburi Province. He was a member of the Amphur Baan Laem Ocean Conservation Group and leader of a campaign against a polluting petrochemical plant. For Those Who Die Trying, exhibition Luke Duggleby/Protection International/Redux

However, the majority remained unknown to the public.

"It's important that their fight and their death are not forgotten," argued the photographer, whose work consists of portraits within portraits.

In "For Those Who Died Trying", Duggleby set up his shots to show funeral photographs or pictures cherished by the victims' families placed on the side of a road, next to speeding cars. In other cases, they stand in deserted fields or forests, or even on the doorstep of the victims' homes.

These are all the locations in which these human rights defenders were killed or last seen.

The photographer said the idea behind the exhibition came about when, nearly five years ago, he met with environmental activist Jintana Kaewkao in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

Jintana, who spoke out against a coal-fired power-plant project near her community, had been attacked by gunmen. In 2008, her home was riddled with bullets, and she told the photographer about her experience.

Later, he heard of the death of Charoen Wat-aksorn, also an anti-coal campaigner, shot in 2004 as he stepped off a bus.

Listening to a personal account of someone who survived, and then learning of others' less fortunate fate in similar cases prompted Duggleby to act.

Chalor Khaochua, 38, was shot on his way home from prayer at a local mosque on Koh Lanta. He was condemning the illicit drug trade. Luke Duggleby/Protection International/Redux

"That's when I saw the fine line between life and death when you take on such a fight," he adds. From late 2014 onwards, he drove across the country, from village to village, stopping in locations where he knew of a killed human rights defender.

The photographer didn't have any contact details for the victim's families, no telephone number or address.

He set out, equipped only with his GPS and a case description -- the victim's identity and the name of a village, tambon or amphoe, usually taken from a Thai news website. Once he reached his destination, he asked around for information.

"In a village environment, someone getting killed in such circumstances is a really big deal and people will remember the details, even if 20 years have passed."

From his own research, the British photographer found 20 to 25 cases and returned to Bangkok after a couple of weeks with 17 portraits. But he sensed that there were more and couldn't stop midway.

By chance, Duggleby's project met the eye of human rights advocates at Protection International's headquarters in Brussels. They rapidly connected them with their Bangkok office.

With the non-profit organisation's networks and sources, his list grew to include 50 human rights defenders killed in Thailand.

In total, he drove nearly 10,000km during his two trips, from Chiang Rai and Udon Thani to Satun province.

Getting the families' approval for the portraits was most important to Duggleby. While he worked with them on the photographs, he learned of how they had tried to preserve their relative's memory.

Even though he had moved out of their original home, the son of one such victim -- Kamol Lansophaphan, an anti-corruption activist who questioned the purchase of a land belonging to State Railway of Thailand in Khon Kaen province -- recreated his father's work desk in his new house, after he was abducted in 2005.

However, some families had moved on and couldn't be traced, while others refused to take part in Duggleby's project, often out of fear of reprisals.

Since he completed his project in January last year, more human rights defenders have been killed.

Out of the 37 assassinations or enforced disappearances cases he covered, only four made it to the courts and only one led to a conviction. As Thai law still doesn't recognise and define enforced disappearance as a crime, perpetrators are nowhere close to being held accountable.

Even on the eve of his exhibition's launch -- which received a lot of media attention and was attended by several human rights advocates, including Somchai Neelapaijit's wife Angkhana -- the photographer remains pessimistic about whether his work could impact legal proceedings.

"But I hope that it will give power and strength to people who do want to fight."

"For Those Who Died Trying" is on view until this Sunday at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Free admission.

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