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Time to end culture of impunity around disappearances by Kavi Chongkittavorn | The Nation


What do Angkana Neelaphaijit, 52, Akharawin Laosophaphant, 25, and Somchai Chamee, 16, have in common? All three – who come from different generations, as well as varying economic, sociocultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds – lost their loved ones through forced disappearances by one unified group: state security forces.

Angkana lost her husband Somchai in March, 2004, while he was fighting for justice for a group of young Thai-Malays who were alleged to have been part of the separatist movement in the South. At the time, he was the light at the end of the tunnel for those in southern Thailand facing discrimination and arbitrary arrests. For them, he represented a tiny and solitary hope.

Over the past four years, Angkana has been exhausting all available means to bring the perpetrators to justice. Her efforts so far have proven futile. Her husband’s killers are police officers who wanted to prevent Somchai from further exposing police torture of suspects in detention. They decided to shut him up forever. Those involved in the year-long investigation, including her, know exactly who the killers and their collaborators were. But the arms of the Thai justice system are too short to reach one of their own.

She has now transformed into a tough and persistent campaigner to stop forced disappearances in Thailand. The Working Group on Justice for Peace (WGJP), which she co-founded to help families and relatives of victims of forced disappearances, is campaigning for Thailand’s ratification of the UN Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The government of Surayud Chulanont ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, recognising the urgent need to address the culture of impunity that enshrouds police detention.

At an event held to commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared over the weekend, Angkana was joined by Akharawin Laosophaphant, whose father Kamol disappeared from a police station in Khon Kaen in February of this year. As a well-to-do Thai-Chinese businessman, Kamol took on the rather unusual task of fighting police corruption, which brought deadly consequences. When Akharawin told me his father’s story, his eyes were brimming with tears. Everything was still very fresh in his mind and he could not hold back them back.

His father’s disappearance served as a baptism by fire for Akharawin. A few months ago, he was just a rich kid working for his brokerage company. Now, he has quit work and vows to concentrate on the campaign to end enforced disappearances in Thailand and to bring those policemen responsible for his father’s disappearance, who he knows by name, to justice, no matter what it takes or how much time. He is also helping WGJP and members of other support groups to cope with their traumas and to fight injustice

Akharawin’s baby face and innocence were in great contrast with Somchai Chamee’s saddened eyes and tanned face. As a 16-year-old teenager, he looks far too old for his age and he was not smiling. He was only 11 years old when his father, Meesai, was taken from his home by force in Chiang Rai in early 2003. It was a time of madness when the Thaksin government was embarking on its infamous “shoot-to-kill” anti-drug campaign that led to widespread extrajudicial killings throughout the country. After the first phase of the three-month campaign, more than 2,500 suspects were killed. There has been no explanation whatsoever until this day about what happened to him, not to mention the estimated 200-plus disappearances in the three southernmost provinces between 2003 and 2005.

As a member of the Lahu minority, the population of which is over 150,000, Somchai is not alone. Now, at 16, he has to take care of his mother and two sisters. In the past, dozens of his community members as well as other minority groups were forcefully dragged away from their homes without any explanation. The Thai authorities called them the “Thai-phukhao” people, which literally translated from the term hilltribes.

Sila Chahae, 30, is one of a fortunate few Lahu who managed to escape death and now lives to tell others of his plight. He was kept in a pit that measured four-by-four metres and was seven metres deep, along with seven other persons for one week without a toilet or access to water. Other minorities might have different horror stories to tell but one theme remained constant – they were made to suffer at the hands of state security forces.

Today, Sila is also helping the WGJP. He confessed that it is dangerous to talk to a journalist, but he also said that it is far more dangerous to stay silent and not tell others about what is happening in this country. As long as the powers-that-be in various uniforms continue to be intransigent, Angkana, Akharawin, Sila and others will fight on until justice is served.

Thailand is a country full of paradoxes and contradictions. Since 1932, the Thai people have constantly struggled to become a democratic country, and have gone through hellfire in the process. The authorities often reiterate that the country has a strong and rich legal tradition that dates back hundreds of years. But when it comes to protecting human rights and dealing head-on with this country’s culture of impunity, political meddling often trumps any sense of righteousness.

How could one comprehend Thailand’s administration of justice in which those who violate intellectual-property rights are punished more severely than those who violate human rights? To this day, nobody has been prosecuted for human-rights violations here. Somchai Neelaphaijit’s disappearance is still the only case that has reached such a high level of scrutiny within the judicial process. Even at the highest level, nobody has been brought to justice. The country still does not have a law specifically relating to enforced disappearances.

It is about time that any one guilty of causing a forced disappearance be punished for this heinous crime, just as people are in the other 73 countries that have ratified the UN convention.

After joining the UN in 1946, Thailand has been inspired to be a good global citizen. In the ensuing six decades, we have ratified numerous UN conventions and protocols, especially those relating to international bills of rights. But somehow our moral judgement has lapsed along the long road of nation-building and democratic experiments. The implementation of rights has been greatly lacking and supplementary domestic laws are also hard to come by.

Internationally, Thailand has a bad reputation concerning its progress on reports of forced disappearances. For the past 16 years since it has filed its first disappearance case of Thanong Po-arn, the country has not made one iota of progress related to the 35 reported cases of disappearances, including Somchai’s case. Domestically, hundreds of families and relatives still have not been able to have closure on the forced disappearances that occurred during the past atrocities, including the October 14, 1973 and October 6, 1976 student uprisings, the bloodshed in May 1992, and the hundreds of disappearances in Thailand’s Northeast and South.

As our country stands today, all stakeholders, especially the politicians in power, should have enough confidence in their country to follow international and universal norms on human rights. Without respect for human rights, how can we can promote and protect human dignity, which is the main tenet of our Constitution?

The Nation: 1 Sep 2008: Thailand