Most people regard Angkhana Neelapaijit as an accidental heroine. She was thrown into the spotlight when her husband, dedicated Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, disappeared in a controversial and depressing case that began during the Thaksin Shinawatra administration -- and ended last week when the Supreme Court acquitted five police officers initially suspected of being involved in his disappearance in March 2004.
The "accidental heroine" label is only partially true. The disappearance of Somchai was certainly a big turn in Angkhana's life, but had she not been reared tough throughout her roller-coaster family life, she might not have stood resiliently during Somchai's absence, the struggle that turned her into an unwavering human rights defender herself.
"I beg people not to attach Somchai's credentials to me all the time. I am what I work for," Angkhana said.
Last November Angkhana, 59, became the first Muslim member of the National Human Rights Commission since its inception 16 years ago. In the climate of military rule, her tenure is likely to be full of uphill tasks.
Angkhana believes she got her steely character and hunger for knowledge from her mother, a student of Assumption Convent School, who was forced to leave her education to become a dressmaker.
Her parents and their three daughters lived in rented houses and had to move several times. Despite the struggles in her life, Angkhana, the eldest, was sent to good Catholic schools. Her mother passed away when Angkhana, then 18, was in the first year of nursing school.
The rhythm of her life gave her no pause. Not long after graduation, Angkhana married Somchai, who was then the chairman of Muslim Youth Association of Thailand. Somchai also happened to be a workaholic, a determined lawyer who was praised for his dedication to helping his oppressed and marginalised clients, but not someone who gave financial stability to his home.
"During my first pregnancy, Somchai was studying Islamic law in Pakistan," said Angkhana.
After five years of juggling between working as a nurse and dressmaker (a profession she inherited from her mother), Angkhana decided to quit everything to dedicate herself to her children to make sure they received all the care they deserve. Somchai worked hard and was often away from home. As well as bringing up all five children, Angkhana also managed the household finances.
Somchai had a lot of friends, some of whom borrowed money without paying him back -- not even after his death/disappearance. Some of his clients paid him in kind, not cash. This meant that sometimes Somchai, who had hepatitis B, didn't even have enough money to see the doctor.
"The electricity and water were sometimes cut off. Nitty gritty things began to take their toll and we argued almost every day," recalled Angkhana. "After the first decade with him, I gave up feeling unhappy. Realising I couldn't change him, I just changed myself and my attitude."
Angkhana has become a pillar for the children who are now successful in their lives, who now comprise a judge, a UN staffer, a Ph.D student, a European Studies Centre staffer, and a master's degree student at Chulalongkorn University. Their first daughter Sudpradhana is now 35, and their second daughter, 33-year-old Prathabjit, is often seen alongside her mother as Somchai's case has been heard over the past many years.
For Angkhana, the time spent with her husband was not always romantic or smooth, but she respects, loves and feels deeply proud of him and clings, with fondness, to many memories of them together. Somchai was abducted on March 12, 2004, in Bangkok while he was working on cases involving alleged Muslim insurgents. Five police officers were charged in relation to the disappearance. In 2004, the court sentenced one of them, Pol Maj Ngern Tongsuk, to three years in jail for coercion. But the Appeal Court acquitted all five defendants in 2011, and last week the Supreme Court ended Angkhana's hope for justice by upholding the decision.
"Islam teaches that we will see what Allah wants us to see. So even though it's painful that we didn't get to see his body and know how he suffered, we shall remember the good things he did," said Angkhana.
"I felt guilty that I didn't talk to the children quietly and privately after things happened. Our house and our life has since been under the spotlight. My children are thankfully strong enough but they do cry and miss their father," added Angkhana, recalling how Somchai has inspired the children with the love of respecting people's rights.
During the first years of Somchai's absence, Angkhana struggled to make ends meet and see to the needs of the children's education and psychological conditions. Not only that, she had to fight through the backroom politics, smashing any obstacles -- big or small -- to get to any clues about her husband's death. Her fight ended up becoming a case study for other incidents of "enforced disappearances".
Angkhana was known in security quarters as a daring, stubborn and outspoken widow who has always reminded the world about Thailand's chronic impunity. She strongly supported the wife of the missing Karen land rights activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen on her quest for justice. Angkhana is also a key member of The Sombath Initiative that is looking into the disappearance of Laos' senior community development figure Sombath Somphone.
Along the way, Angkhana found herself in a bigger world, nationally and internationally. She helped set up the Working Group for Justice and Peace in 2006, and was nominated as a member of the National Legislative Council after the 2006 coup. She then worked in a subcommittee under the previous NHRC leadership, whose term ended last year.
Despite her outstanding endeavours in the past decade, she was cautious that a chauvinist mentality might pose a challenge to her candidature for the NHRC job, which she applied for last year. Despite this, the constitutional draft committee chairman, Gen Ood Buengbon, wasn't bothered by such unfounded jibes. In fact, she was the only one among the NHRC candidates who was not tainted by any complaints and eventually got the highest votes from the National Legislative Assembly in August.
The path towards a new role as a defender, a protector and an exposer of human rights violations in Thailand was still not rosy. She was rebuked on social media for staining the fame of her husband by allowing the coup-installed body to vote for her.
Angkhana wasn't disturbed -- she doesn't owe anyone anything.
As an NHRC member, the next six years will be very tough as expectations are high, and rights violations are likely to be even more prevalent under military rule. This was the second time she applied for the position and she's determined not to be docile or dictated to by any unwarranted force.
"The definitions of freedom in the eyes of the government and the people are different. I think we need to adhere to the international principle in pursuing our job in protecting and guaranteeing the basic rights of expression," said Angkhana.
"The NHRC should have integrity and freedom to issue statements or give comments in response to the pressing issues," added Angkhana, amid worries from society that the NHRC's influence and scope for work is lessening.
The past decades have seen the subcommittee of civil and political rights under one commissioner, but now the NHRC chair is taking responsibility on political rights and Angkhana was given the tasks on civil rights.
"I hope that I've deserved justifiable respect to carry out my commitments as I've been entrusted in the job by the legislature -- not by certain individuals," maintained Angkhana.
Eleven years after Somchai's disappearance put her in the spotlight, Angkhana's uphill journey hasn't ended. Maybe it's just beginning.