Somchai's disappearance a stain on the country's conscience

opinion March 12, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Ten years after his abduction, the fate of the human rights lawyer remains unknown, proof that a culture of impunity still reigns in Thailand

Ten years ago today, prominent Thai Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was abducted in the heart of Bangkok, allegedly by a group of five police officers. 
No one has seen him since. He is presumed dead. 
At the time of his abduction, Somchai was representing a group of men from the deep South who claimed they had been tortured by police officers.
Insurgency in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat had just shifted into full swing at the time of Somchai’s disappearance. He was the first person to raise the issue of torture by security officers and, unfortunately, he and his family paid dearly for it. 
Losing Somchai was a great tragedy in more ways than one. Media, civil society organisations, the international community and his family have been working hard over the past decade to ensure that Somchai did not die in vain. 
Events commemorating his life have been carried out in the days and weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary of his disappearance. A human rights award has been named after him.
The issue that Somchai touched upon – lawless behaviour of government security officials and the culture of impunity that permits it to occur – is a sad reflection on Thai society. Regrettably, many of us prefer to ignore it; discussion of it makes us uncomfortable about ourselves, our government and our society.
But if we cannot see the point that Somchai tried to raise and if we are not able to appreciate his sacrifice and how see his actions have helped improve the standing of our people, our society and our country, then we don’t deserve to hold his memory in our hearts.
A culture of impunity still afflicts Thailand, especially in the highly contested and conflict-ridden southernmost provinces where a decade-old insurgency has claimed about 6,000 lives.  
Unfortunately, our governments and officials don’t seem to realise that it is in just such places as the deep South where Somchai’s message matters most. Without justice and without a sense of fair play, the ongoing violence in the deep South will never be brought to an end. 
Abduction, extra-judicial killings and torture continue to hamper any peace process governments try to put together. 
As part of an effort to keep the issue alive, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has just released a report titled “Ten Years Without Truth”. Chronicling events after Somchai’s disappearance, the report says they demonstrate “a lack of political will to resolve a case that remains emblematic of the culture of impunity in Thailand”.
To say there has been a cover-up in the aftermath of Somchai’s abduction would be an understatement. But this is Thailand and amazing things tend to happen in this Kingdom of ours – like Somchai’s case file supposedly going missing after anti-government protesters broke into the Department of Special Investigation office last December. How convenient! But after a big uproar, the authorities said the file had been found. 
Besides placing the blame on an anti-government mob, Mother Nature has also been pressed into service as a convenient excuse for the authorities. Police Major Ngern Thongsuk, one of the five officers accused of abducting Somchai, was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison. He was later released on bail and went missing, supposedly in a mudslide in northern Thailand. As if that weren’t painful enough for Somchai’s family, a court in 2011 acquitted all five police officers because the evidence was supposedly inconclusive.
And, of course, there have been attempts to buy the silence of Somchai’s family. All have been in vain. His wife, Angkhana, has said her dignity is not for sale.

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