An award in his honour is just one way of paying tribute to the rights lawyer, who paid with his life for the cause he espoused
Thirteen years ago, Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent Thai Muslim human rights lawyer, was abducted in Bangkok by a group of police officers.
The outspoken lawyer became Thailand’s most famous victim of forced disappearance. His fate remains unknown to this day, but Somchai is presumed dead.
At the time of his abduction, Somchai was representing a group of men from Thailand’s Malay-speaking South who were accused of being
part of the insurgency. They were said to have been tortured by police who did not seem to realise that an
accused person will confess to any crime to escape torture. They were probably more interested in closing their case with a “confession”.
This latest wave of insurgency in the far South had just resurfaced
and shifted into full swing at the time of Somchai’s abduction.
He was the first person to raise the issue of torture. What Somchai did was help pave the way for future human rights defenders, lawyers
and activists to do the same.
Thai people and the international community know of his sacrifices. During the past weekend, pro-rights lawyer Pawinee Chumsri was awarded the Somchai Neelapaijit 2017 Award for her work in protecting human rights. In honouring her, we honour him.
Pawinee served as a human rights lawyer at the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which represented political defendants prosecuted by the state, especially under the coup-installed regime in the Military Court.
Like Somchai, Pawinee had worked in the conflict-ridden southernmost border provinces where a state of emergency has been effect for a decade and where the culture of impunity among authorities is still widespread.
Anti-dictatorship student activist Jatupat Boonpatararaksa, or Pai Dao Din, came second, followed by the Loei-based Rak Ban Kerd group and a group of 14 Myanmar labourers for their exemplary efforts to protect human rights.
The award in Somchai’s name was a way of letting the world know that he had not died in vain.
Thai state and society have a
tendency to let bygones be bygones
in the hope that people will forget
a tragedy over time.
Be it the 1976 slaughter of
students at Thammasat University or the 2004 massacre of unarmed demonstrators in Tak Bai district in Narathiwat, Thai society and the state don’t want to be reminded of such atrocities, as it could force them to look at themselves closely and question their own values.
Sadly, many of us prefer to ignore it and go on with our lives. We see
ourselves living in an indifferent world where it is fine to turn a blind eye
or a deaf ear to the government’s
And yet we take to the streets, beat ourselves senseless in the name of democracy and democratic principles. Sadly, we cite these principles and values only when it serves our purposes.
Thirteen years after his forced
disappearance, there are still some in society who saw the point that Somchai had tried to raise and
appreciate the sacrifices he made,
and for that reason want to keep his memory and spirit alive.
Needless to say, his work and
contribution have helped improve
the standing of our society. If we can’t see it, we don’t deserve to hold his memory in our hearts.
Attempts have been made to buy the silence of his family. But his widow Angkhana has made it clear that she is not about to sell her soul and her
dignity for any price.
Sadly, the current state of affairs in Thailand is an indication of the
challenges ahead. Just recently, after years of debate, the government has dropped legislation to criminalise the torture and disappearance of human rights activists.
According to UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, the lack of a law on disappearances leaves a legal loophole. This means security officials who abduct people and kill them may never be brought to justice.
Since 1980, the UN working group on enforced disappearances
documented 82 cases in Thailand. Among the victims were Somchai and Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen,
a Karen activist who disappeared after being detained by officials in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi in April 2014.