Thailand’s Missing Activists

At least 82 political activists and others have disappeared in Thailand since 1980 including the respected human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapajit, according to the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, who urged the government to take “decisive and sustained efforts to investigate” their whereabouts.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also called on the Thai Government to criminalize enforced disappearance in its legislation, in line with international standards. Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in January 2012 but has not yet ratified it.

“All of the families of those who have disappeared have the right to know the truth regarding the disappearance of their kin, as well as any progress and the results of investigations,” the high commissioner said.

It is unclear who the 82 activists are. The UNCHR didn’t give details. The odds are extremely slim, however, that any investigation will take place. Not only have previous governments ignored the disappearances, many activists remain in custody following the May 22, 2014 coup that brought army chief Prayuth Cahn-ocha to power.

On 29 December 2015, Thailand’s Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Appeals Court to acquit five police officers accused of involvement in the abduction and disappearance of Somchai, a Muslim lawyer who went missing on Mar.12, 2004 under the regime of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who ordered a tough crackdown on Muslim activists. Somchai was defending people arrested under martial law in the restive south. The suspects had accused the authorities of torturing them while in custody.

Witnesses reported seeing Somchai being forced into a car on the night he disappeared, according to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Two sitting prime ministers have publicly called on law enforcement agencies to throw their full weight behind investigations into resolving the Somchai case to no avail.

Because there is no crime of enforced disappearance in Thailand, the five police officers stood trial on counts of robbery and coercion. One police officer was convicted, but the others were found not guilty by the Bangkok Criminal Court in January 2006.

In 2011, the Appeals Court overturned the conviction against the police officer, found there was insufficient evidence to convict the remaining four accused and ruled that Somchai’s family could not stand as joint plaintiffs. In the latest ruling, the Supreme Court upheld these decisions. Under international law, family members of a victim of an enforced disappearance are also victims.

The High Commissioner said he was deeply disappointed that the judiciary had failed to take into account that the Civil Court had declared Somchai missing, and that important evidence was not taken into consideration in the case.

“The judiciary’s role is not only to interpret laws and procedures but also to protect and defend their citizens’ rights. The Supreme Court of Thailand missed an opportunity to protect the rights of the victims to truth, justice and redress in cases of involuntary and enforced disappearance,” Zeid said.

The UN High Commissioner also called on the Thai government to introduce legislation making enforced or involuntary disappearance a criminal offence. “There is a lack of adequate legal and institutional framework for the victims and their families to seek justice in enforced disappearance cases in Thailand,” Zeid said. “I urge the Thai authorities to immediately ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.”

Since 1980, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearances in Thailand.

Zeid said that despite pledges by Thai authorities to address human rights violations, the issue of enforced disappearances in which state officials have been implicated remains a serious concern.

The High Commissioner also expressed his concern about another more recent case, involving Pholachi Rakchongcharoen, a Karen human rights activist also known as “Billy”, who disappeared in April 2014. “The Thai authorities have a responsibility to ensure victims get all the help they need in finding their loved ones, to ensure the fair prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, and to commit to stamping out the deplorable act of enforced disappearances,” Zeid said.