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On 12 March 2004, human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit went missing in Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng district, after eyewitnesses saw him being pushed into a car by a group of men. He remains missing to this day.

Somchai had been representing five people suspected of being involved in the January 2004 raid on an army camp in Narathiwat. He was also campaigning for the repeal of martial law in Thailand’s Deep South.  His disappearance came a few days after he exposed allegations that his clients had been tortured and forced to confess while in the hands of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD).

Shortly after Somchai went missing, five police officers were arrested and charged with robbery and coercion for their alleged involvement in his abduction. In December 2015, the Supreme Court acquitted them on the grounds that the evidence used in the case was weak and witness testimony were unreliable. Without confirmation that Somchai had been murdered or injured, the Court refused to allow his family to step in as plaintiffs on his behalf.

Somchai’s wife Angkhana Neelapaijit spearheaded the search for her husband. Today, she is a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and was previously a national human rights commissioner.

We speak to Angkhana 20 years after Somchai’s disappearance about her life since her husband went missing and her hope for Thailand after the enforcement of the new anti-torture and enforced disappearance law.

Two decades without answers

Angkhana Neelapaijit

In October 2016, the Department of Special Investigation informed the Neelapaijit family that it had decided to suspend its investigation after 11 years because it could not find the culprit. Angkhana said she was told by the then-Director-General of the DSI that it was because the investigation into Somchai’s disappearance would affect the department’s performance indicator to spend 11 years investigating and still not be able find a culprit. She was also told to bring them any evidence she might find, and the investigation would start over.

The file on Somchai’s case also briefly went missing. In 2013, the DSI said that protesters raided their office and that they subsequently lost the file. Angkhana met with the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Justice, and a few days later, the DSI announced that the file had been found behind a table.

However, Angkhana questioned whether the file had really gone missing or if there was a file at all. She said that she noticed on her visits to the DSI that security in the building was so tight that it would not have been easy for anyone to raid it. She had also never seen the file.

“At that time, I asked them if there was really a file on Somchai’s case, or if there was just a folder. Was there anything inside? Because I asked them many times to see it, and they never let me see what investigation they had done,” she said.

To this day, the Neelapaijit family does not know what happened to Somchai. In 2012, the Cabinet under then-Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra compensated them on the grounds that state officials were likely involved in Somchai’s disappearance. Like other families of victims of state violence compensated at the time, Angkhana questioned why the government did not prosecute the culprits when they believe that state officials were responsible.

“One thing you have to admit is that in a case of human rights violations or finding a missing person or the culprit, the important thing is political will. If the government has the will to do something, it can be done. It’s just a matter of whether they will do it or not,” she said.

The right to the truth

Angkhana speaking to the media at an event marking the 20th anniversary of Somchai disappearance on 12 March 2024., behind her is a neon sign in Somchai's image.

In August 2022, the Thai parliament passed the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act – the first law of its kind ever implemented in Thailand. It became law on 24 October 2022 when it was published in the Royal Gazette with the provision that it would come into force after 120 days, or on 22 February 2023.

The hope is that it would end the impunity that the authorities have enjoyed from the absence of any clear criminal punishment for torturing people to extract information or confessions, or for making people disappear.

Under this law, enforced disappearance is a continuous offence and the statute of limitations in such cases starts only when the victim’s fate is known. It also requires the authorities to investigate cases of enforced disappearance until the victim is found, a culprit is identified, or evidence is found confirming the victim’s death. In addition to legal spouses, parents, and children, the Act also allows partners to step in as plaintiffs on behalf of a victim even without marriage registration, as well as any of the victim’s dependents or sponsors.

Angkhana, who was part of the ad-hoc drafting committee for the Act, said the committee tried to include international human rights principles in the legislation. She noted that the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance states that victims have the right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance, and so the authorities are obligated to continue investigating until the truth is found. In other countries, especially in Latin America, decades could pass before someone discloses information on where the victim’s body is hidden, and the remains are returned to the family. It is therefore important, Angkhana said, that enforced disappearance is characterized as a continuous offence.

However, Angkhana said she has not seen any initiative from the government to address cases of enforced disappearance and search for the missing. Conversations mainly revolve around preventing torture and training law enforcement officers, she said.

The Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Committee should make the first move, Angkhana said. Since it is the government’s job to investigate enforced disappearances and the Committee is tasked under the Act to receive and investigate complaints, the Committee should meet with each family and figure out a remedy instead of making them come to the Committee to file complaints.

Meanwhile, Thailand intends to run for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Although Angkhana said that UNHRC member states are not necessarily free of human rights violations, being a member means being put under the spotlight.

“It’s another challenge. Whatever commitment Thailand makes, if Thailand doesn’t do it, when you are sitting on the Council, you will be challenged. There won’t be any prestige in that,” she said.

An ordinary woman

Angkhana giving a speech during an event marking the 20th anniversary of Somchai's disappearance on 12 March 2024.

Somchai’s disappearance turned his family’s life upside down and left them in limbo. Angkhana noted how, when filling out forms, her children are not sure if they should say that their father is alive. She is also unsure what her marital status is – divorced or widowed.

“I still think today that if this didn’t happen, I would be an ordinary woman. I would be retired now and would want an ordinary life,” she said.

“When I’m alone, I always think back that if it didn’t happen, if Somchai hadn’t gone missing, I would probably live a simple life. Sometimes I see elderly couples together, husband and wife, and when I see them, I have never thought that one day we would get to live our lives as elderly people holding hands, because in our lives, we have never gone anywhere together, because [Somchai] always had his work and he always said that he would keep working until he had no energy left.”

Describing herself as an introverted former nurse who dislike being social, Angkhana said she lost her privacy in the process of speaking out for justice. Nevertheless, she said that being in the spotlight means she could speak for other people. Now, she wants to make sure no one else goes missing.

“I feel that what I want is to do something beyond the individual or doing something for one person. What I want to do is to make this systematic. Whoever will go missing, whoever has been disappeared, or any official who is thinking of disappearing people in the future, they won’t do it again. I’m proud that one day I can get to a point where I can help other people,” she said.

Protesters at the 18 July 2020 protest at the Democracy Monument holding missing person posters with images of victims of enforced disappearance.

She also said that she feels that the society is becoming more open, and other families are speaking out. When pictures of the victims of enforced disappearance appeared in the student-led protests of 2020, Angkhana said she felt that something that used to be covered up by the authorities could no longer be hidden.

“I may die without knowing the truth, but I hope that the next generation will continue to question the state, that they will continue to remember those who were disappeared, that they will continue to make demands about these things,” she said.

“Even if I’m not here anymore, but from my experience in other countries, I see that the families and society must help each other keep asking questions. Asking questions is part of preventing this from happening again, because in fact, enforced disappearance can happen to anyone. Officials themselves can also be made to disappear.”

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