In a panel discussion, the wife of a disappeared exile slammed the official process as ineffective, an MP pledged to restrengthen the watered-down anti-torture bill, and the granddaughter of a leading political family implicated in an enforced disappearance generations ago apologised for what her ancestors did.
Participants hold candles and photos of the enforced disappearance victims during a commemoration period.
The panel “People must not be disappeared, the law must be fair,” was held at 14 October Memorial on 27 August, to address the lack of progress in the Thai authorities’ investigations of alleged state-directed abductions and to seek comments on the recently approved bill on the Prevention of Torture and Enforced Disappearance.
Partners and friends of disappeared Thai exiles who were reportedly abducted after the 2014 coup also attended the event. There was also a moment of commemoration.
From disappearance to oblivion
Since the 2014 coup, nine activists living in self-imposed exile have been forcibly disappeared. Two were later found dead. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances 2020 report notes 75 outstanding cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand.
Pranee Danwattananusorn, the wife of Surachai Danwattananusorn, a Thai activist charged with royal defamation, said no petition she submitted to the authorities to discover her husband's fate had yielded any result. She hoped there would be an improvement after Thailand became an absolute democracy.
Surachai fled to Laos after the 2014 coup from where he criticised the junta. He disappeared on 12 December 2018 along with Chatchan Bupphawan and Kraidej Luelert while living in self-exile in Laos. Chatchan and Kraidej’s mutilated, concrete-filled bodies were found by the Mekong River a couple of weeks later. Surachai’s body was nowhere to be found.
Anchana Heemmina, leader of the Duay Jai Group, a civil society organization that advocates human rights in the Deep South of Thailand, said arrests without warrants in the South, legally allowed by Martial Law, the Emergency Decree, and the Internal Security Act, resulted in reports of people being abducted and tortured.
She said 33 disappearances have been recorded in the area together with 45 complaints of torture since 2011. No investigation of those responsible ever happens and there is also no system of compensation, so victims’ relatives are compensated haphazardly and some receive nothing.
Judicial reform needed
On 24 August, Parliament finally approved the draft Act on Prevention of Torture and Enforced Disappearance. Despite the bill being watered down by the Senate, the law still criminalises torture, acts of inhumane and degrading treatment and enforced disappearances by the authorities.
Regarding the law, Anchana said it would at least be useful in making torture less easy and would give torturers second thoughts regarding their future careers. However, it would require “an understanding from the officials.”
“We have to create an understanding with law enforcement and those who benefit from the law,” said the Duay Jai Group leader.
Bencha Saengchantra, a Member of Parliament from Move Forward Party (MFP), said she hopes to see the Act amended to be more progressive.
The Senate amended the draft prior to the final vote, making the appointment of an Anti-Torture and Enforced Disappearance Committee the responsibility of the Cabinet as opposed to Parliament; stripped the Committee of its authority to inspect detention sites; and decreased the maximum jail term punishments from 40 to 20 years.
“This law is not a panacea, but a palliative that can help with the problems of justice in Thailand. Not just the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act, but the entire judicial system from its foundations: state officials, prosecutors, and judges, all must be systematically reformed in order to make the whole process fair and truly deliver justice to the people,” said Bencha.
Tisana Choonhavan, a prospective MFP MP candidate, also expressed apologies to the family of Haji Sulong Abdulqadir Tohmeena, known as Haji Sulong, a leader from the South who disappeared in 1955 after being charged with rebellion for promoting idea of autonomy for the southern region and Muslim Malay rights there.
She said the disappearance took place under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, at a time when Phin Choonhavan, her great-grandfather, was Prime Minister and Pol Gen Phao Siyanon was Police Chief.
Former Chair of the Pattani Provincial Islamic Council, Haji Sulong has been considered a political icon for Malay Muslims in the three southernmost provinces, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, for more than six decades.
In 1947 Haji Sulong led a petition campaign for autonomy, language and cultural rights, and implementation of Islamic law. As a result, he was accused of rebellion in 1948 (the case was later dismissed by the court) and later jailed for allegedly defaming the Thai state.
In 1955 Haji Sulong, along with his eldest son Ahmad Tohmeena, were forcibly disappeared after reporting to the Thai authorities.