When the personal is political: Defending human rights in Thailand

One Friday evening in 2004, Angkhana Neelapaijit was finishing household chores with her 5 children while waiting for her husband to come home from work.

As a human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit dealt with numerous clients that fell victim to impunity amid Thailand’s political turmoil.

Martial law had been imposed at the time in the country's largely-Muslim south, host to an ethnic separatist insurgency. Authorities were accused of torturing Thai Muslims to force confessions from them.

It was only 6 pm and Angkhana Neelapaijit couldn't contact her husband, but she didn't think much of it at first.

"I'm an optimist," Neelapaijit told Rappler. She thought that perhaps her husband was too tired that day and spent the night with his friends. He would be traveling south during the weekend, so he had to come home.

After continued attempts to contact him, she decided she needed help. But the police told her they can't start the investigation until after 48 hours. So she waited.

Somchai had his car with him. Maybe there was an accident. Maybe he went to a hospital somewhere. 

The police checked. There was no accident, and her husband wasn't brought to any hospital.

Later, reports came out that Somchai was grabbed by a group of men as he left a hotel in Bangkok, and was forced into a vehicle. Soon after, his car was found abandoned somewhere else in the city. 

Eleven years later, 5 police officers who were suspected to be behind Somchai's disappearance were acquitted by the Supreme Court. Somchai's clients identified some of them as their torturers.

The lawyer, meanwhile, remains missing to this day. 

Somchai's abduction is one of many enforced disappearances that have occurred in Thailand throughout decades of instability. The country endures fragile governments and coup after coup as attempts at democracy fail. Rights to free expression and protest are restricted up to this day, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Neelapaijit has no doubt in her mind that something serious happened to her husband, and that similar cases of disappearances are affecting other families all over Thailand. 

The 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award is conferred to her for "championing justice, case after case." She is recognized for her "unwavering courage" in seeking justice for not only her husband, but for victims of violence and conflict in southern Thailand. She serves as living proof that even those with humble beginnings can work to reform a flawed legal system and inspire national change.

From petitioner to advocate

While working on her husband's case, Neelapaijit began to become more and more familiar with the severity of the human rights situation in her country. 

"Most victims are living in fear and they are scared to complain to the police. They are scared to fight for justice, and it is difficult sometimes to obtain evidence. I think that the justice system is very weak in protecting the rights of the people," she said.

"During my struggle, I tried to convince the government to have a mechanism to protect the rights of the people, not only for the disappeared persons, but also to stop torture and illegal detention. And under the military government, it's not easy," she added.

"I had to leave my personal issues and go onto things that brought a wider range of cases." 

Neelapaijit was named commissioner at the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) in 2015. There, she utilized a grassroots approach by working with victims to get access to their families, lawyers, and compensation. She also worked to address issues such as sexual harassment, forced child marriages, human trafficking, and refugees seeking asylum.

To highlight a common case she works on, she explained the plight of sex workers in Thailand.

Migrants from neighboring countries including Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia come to Thailand to engage in sex work, where it is illegal. While these workers are allowed legal representatives once caught, assistance is limited before they are deported back to their homelands.

"Most women want to return to their countries without any charges. They have families back at home. But the representative from the neighboring country just says, 'They are bad women. Why do we have to protect them?'" she said.

WORK TOGETHER. 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee Angkhana Neelapaijit is pushing for a law that will stop torture and enforced disappearance in Thailand.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Last April 30, Neelapaijit was the subject of a disciplinary inquiry by the NHRCT. Human Rights Watch reported that the inquiry targeted her role in observing legal proceedings and documenting rights violations against opposition politicians and critics of the ruling military junta.

Along with fellow commissioner Tuenjai Deetes, Neelapaijit resigned in July. According to the Bangkok Post, they announced they could no longer work effectively due to an unconducive environment. Their resignations left the NHRCT with only 3 members.

ASEAN and protecting people's rights

Member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) experience comparable transnational human rights issues. With the displacement of Rohingya people in Myanmar, and extrajudicial killings linked to the Philippines' state-endorsed "war on drugs," Neelapaijit lamented that ASEAN has not done much to address these concerns.

"When you talk about ASEAN, I feel they only talk about business and political interests. They don't stress on human rights issues. They don't mention issues on migration, capital punishment that still happens in many ASEAN countries, and martial law that is still applied in some places," she said. 

I'm back to my roots, so I can concentrate on how Thailand can have that special law to stop torture and enforced disappearance. I think this is very important to my country.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee

Business interests of certain countries in foreign land clash with what Neelapaijit describes as a lack of transborder monitoring. She also noted that urbanization leads to citizens losing their land, and their battle for compensation is a long and tedious one.

"A Thai investor can have a mega project in our neighboring countries, and if there are extra damage to the environment, be it water or air pollution, who will account for it? When people lose homes after someone decides to build a trans-Asia railway, it's difficult to compensate them."

ASEAN has a non-interference principle provided in its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which ensures cooperation among member relations while observing respect of each sovereign member country. But when it comes to the Rohingya crisis, Neelapaijit believes that ASEAN taking a stronger stand will not violate the non-interference principle.

During the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, the ASEAN addressed the Rohingya plight but focused only on repatriation issues. Al Jazeera said that rights groups slammed a report produced by the ASEAN's Emergency Response and Action Team for allegedly whitewashing abuses committed against the Rohingya. The report did not even use the name "Rohingya," denying them their ethnic identity.

"ASEAN thinks this is interfering. But for me, I think that ASEAN governments should protect its people, and this is not interference. Countries have to work together for investigation," Neelapaijit said.

The work ahead

Following her resignation as NHRCT commissioner, Neelapaijit now hopes to focus on work that will pave the way towards Thailand having its own anti-enforced disappearance law. She noted how the Philippines has a law that penalizes enforced disappearance. (READ: It’s a first in Asia: ‘Desaparecidos’ law) 

"After my resignation, I'm back to my roots, so I can concentrate on how Thailand can have that special law to stop torture and enforced disappearance. I think this is very important to my country."

According to a report by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, there have been 90 reported enforced disappearances in Thailand from 1980 to 2019.

Neelapaijit believes there is still much to be done about the justice situation in Thailand. Part of this is ensuring that the voices of the marginalized are heard.

"I think we have to empower the people. The people are challenged by their government; by the governments of ASEAN. We need civil society to make government programs for the people," she said.

In the 2019 Global Peace Index, which ranks countries according to their level of peacefulness, Thailand ranked 116th place out of 163 countries – 3 places lower than in the previous year. Still, Neelapaijit is optimistic about justice in her country, even after decades of unrest. 

"Under a democracy, everything must be under the law. Even the police or military are not above it. We have to continue our struggle for this." – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.

image