Angkhana fights on after 20 long years

Angkhana fights on after 20 long years

During the peak of the violence in the Deep South, prominent human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was abducted and disappeared without a trace on March 12, 2004. Despite two decades having passed, truth and justice remain elusive, compounding his family's pain stemming from an unjust justice system.

Lest we forget, Somchai's disappearance occurred the day after he filed a complaint with the Royal Thai Police about the torture of Muslim villagers to extract false confessions regarding a raid on an army depot. He was renowned for advocating human rights protection for Thai-Muslim villagers, but his fearless exposure of power abuse in the restive South under martial law drew animosity from security forces.

Last seen being forced into another vehicle by a group of police after his car was rear-ended, Somchai's case was trivialised by then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and he was labelled an "outlaw's lawyer" by security forces, exploiting prejudices against southern Muslims.

Despite intimidation, Angkhana Neelapaijit, his wife, has fought against an unsympathetic legal system and state authorities to uncover the truth about her husband's disappearance. After 11 years of legal battles, all five police involved in the abduction were acquitted due to "insufficient evidence". The verdict highlighted Thailand's entrenched culture of impunity, which allows heinous crimes to continue unchecked.

According to Amnesty Thailand, there were over 100 reported cases of enforced disappearances between 1991 and 2014, not including at least another nine cases involving political refugees following the 2014 military coup. The fate of all these individuals remains unknown, and no perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Another case highlighting such impunity involves the disappearance of indigenous land rights activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen. Although a murder charge was filed against former Kaeng Krachan National Park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, the man last seen with Billy, he continues to enjoy career advancement in the forest agency.

Ms Angkhana's pursuit of truth and justice, not only for her family but also for other victims' families, led to the passing of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act on Feb 23, 2023.

This law ensures that cases like Somchai's cannot be swept under the rug, as it eliminates the 20-year statutory period for investigations. In the Somchai case, this period has yet to begin, highlighting the urgency of reopening the investigation. The Neelapaijit family's call for action must be answered.

Despite the passage of the anti-torture and enforced disappearance law a year ago, little progress has been made. The number of these crimes remains unchanged, with few cases officially reported and prosecuted. While the law now covers a broader range of offences, including torture and violence in families and schools, perpetrators have yet to be charged under its provisions.

Bureaucratic inertia is a big part of the problem. The National Committee on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act, chaired by the Justice Minister, seldom convenes, resulting in stagnation. Making the law work properly requires an organic law and ministerial rules and regulations, yet these have not been established. The sub-committees on fact-finding, case monitoring, and compensation have yet to be set up too, further delaying progress.

Crimes committed by government officials present insurmountable challenges. Merely having laws is insufficient. The culture of impunity thrives due to the lack of rule-of-law, institutional resistance, and a top-down authoritarian system that condones violence.

While addressing these structural obstacles and reforming the military and police takes time, the immediate priority is to ensure the effectiveness of the anti-torture and enforced disappearance law.

First and foremost, the investigation into the Somchai case must be restarted. The authorities in charge must expedite their duties and ensure that both the military and the police adhere to the anti-torture law.

Legal enforcement to punish violators must also be ensured. In addition to renewing the Somchai investigation, a "white list" of human rights defenders should be established to protect their safety.

On the 20th anniversary of Mr Somchai's enforced disappearance, the cabinet approved Thailand being a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. While commendable, true commitment from the country would be demonstrated by bringing the perpetrators to justice.

As Thailand aims for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the upcoming 2025-2027 term, it must recognise that its commitment -- or lack thereof -- on the ground will directly influence its candidacy and ultimately shape the election outcome. Tangible efforts to uphold human rights will resonate far more powerfully than mere expressions of aspirations because actions speak louder than words.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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