BANGKOK, Thailand – Porlachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen went missing in 2014. At the time, the land rights activist had been assisting Karen villagers with a lawsuit against the authorities in Phetchaburi province, 190km southwest of Bangkok, who had evicted and burnt down their homes.
Five years later, his skull fragment was discovered by special investigators in a burnt oil drum. It’s renewed efforts from civil society to hold perpetrators of torture and enforced disappearances accountable.
Billy’s wife Pinnapa Prueksapan broke down into tears when she heard the news. She’s been fighting for justice over the last five years. But Thailand has no law against torture and enforced disappearance, which means that enforced disappearances are not officially recognised as a criminal offence.
It’s a situation that’s painfully familiar for Angkhana Neelapaijit—she’d also brought such a case before the courts 15 years ago, after her husband, human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, disappeared in Bangkok in 2004.
“After my husband disappeared, five police officers were arrested. Some eyewitnesses saw police push my husband into their car and nobody has seen him since,” Angkhana tells New Naratif.
“My husband’s case was the first time in Thailand a victim’s family took it to the court. Unfortunately, after 11 years, the Supreme Court of Thailand reached a verdict. It said there was no evidence and it acquitted all the accused.”
Today, Angkhana Neelapaijit is a leading voice in the country calling for laws that can take action against torture and enforced disappearances.
Missing in Thailand
According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, there are 82 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, dating all the way back to 1980. Thai academics have researched thousands of disappearances prior to this date.
Under international law, enforced disappearance refers to the forcible abduction, arrest, or detention of someone, followed by a refusal to acknowledge or address that person’s fate or circumstance. This leaves people who have been disappeared outside the ambit of the law, as it becomes very difficult to press a case or seek answers.
Thailand has been a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) since 2007. It has also been a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) since 2012. But it has yet to adopt any law criminalising torture or enforced disappearance.
Over the last 10 years, Angkhana and other Thai civil society actors have been lobbying for an anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill. They’ve made some progress. In 2016, while the country was still under the rule of the military junta, Thailand’s Ministry of Justice teamed up with civil society to draft the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act.
Many Thais were expecting this bill to become law. But it was dropped from the slate of bills passed by the National Legislative Assembly—known as the junta’s “rubber stamp” parliament—before the March elections.
“No reasons were given by the [legislative assembly] as to why this bill disappeared from the agenda right before the election,” says Sanhawan Srisod, Thailand team leader and legal advisor at the International Commission of Jurists.
“It took time to form this new government [following the March elections] and now nobody is talking about the bill.”
“I encourage other victims to stand up for human rights”
Following her husband’s disappearance, Angkhana went on to set up the Justice for Peace Foundation in 2006 to advocate for access to justice and to end impunity in Thailand. From 2015–2019, she served in the Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, but resigned ahead of the completion of her term. She said that, due to restrictions and an unsupportive work environment, she could no longer perform her duties effectively.
Days after her resignation, Angkhana was named the winner of the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award, often known as “Asia’s Nobel”. She joins an illustrious slate of previous winners, including Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia, and Vientiane Rescue, a volunteer-run group in Laos that responds to thousands of road accidents a year.
“I encourage other victims to stand up for human rights,” Angkhana told New Naratif shortly after receiving the award.
“Most victims are scared to come forward. Sometimes they withdraw their cases and the human rights violations continue. We can’t let the perpetrators walk free any more.”
Angkhana’s win, coupled with the tragic developments of Billy’s case, seems to have pushed the issue of enforced disappearances into the public eye again. But renewed efforts to get the bill passed could still run into familiar roadblocks.
Despite elections that took place earlier this year officially ending the rule of the military National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the 2017 Constitution allows the junta to appoint 250 members to the upper house of Thailand’s National Assembly. This means that those responsible for not passing the law before the elections are now sitting in the upper house of Parliament, with final say over any proposed bill voted on by the 500-seat lower house.
The Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act is currently with the Ministry of Justice. The International Commission of Jurists submitted recommendations to the ministry on 20 December. But the group also expressed concerns over the delays in enacting this law, and says that the latest draft continues to fall short of what stakeholders say will need to be done for the country to meet its international human rights obligations.
The issue of non-refoulement
One major concern of the bill raised by human rights groups is the issue of non-refoulement, which refers to the principle of “not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.”
The International Commission of Jurists say that they were informed that non-refoulement had been removed from the bill, because legislators claim that Thailand doesn’t have a custom of forcibly sending refugees or asylum seekers back to their home countries anyway.
But human rights activists point toward troubling examples that might challenge this claim. According to Amnesty International Thailand, one Cambodian was forcibly returned this year.
There have also been other cases that raise red flags: a Lao political activist and a Vietnamese blogger—both of whom were seeking asylum at the UN Refugee Agency in Thailand—recently went missing.
Then there are the cases that occur outside of the country: earlier this year, two Thai asylum seekers in Laos were found dead in the Mekong River. Other Thai exiles in Laos and Vietnam have been reported missing.
Such cases have led to accusations that Southeast Asian governments are collaborating to arrest and return one another’s dissidents.
“When there’s no law, then outlaw actions occur. We see the trend and we hope it doesn’t get any worse,” says Piyanut Kotsan, director at Amnesty International Thailand.
“Cases of enforced disappearance are now taking place between countries in the region. Thailand should take the lead and investigate the cases.”
“How far back are you willing to go?”
Jularat Damrongviteetham is the author of the chapter “Narratives of the ‘Red Barrel’ Incident” in the book Oral History in Southeast Asia: Memories and Fragments. The chapter covers a painful past: 1970s Thailand where the state violently suppressed (real or perceived) communist movements. The “red barrel” in the title refers to the red oil drums used to kill suspected communists; within one community in a southern province of Thailand alone, over 200 suspected communists were incinerated in such oil drums.
“If you start to investigate torture and enforced disappearance in Thailand, how far back are you willing to go?” she asks.
“I think a public inquiry would be good but I’m afraid under this government it would be difficult.”
Thailand’s current government is led by Prime Minister—and former military coup leader—Prayut Chan-ocha. The country’s human rights record has deteriorated under the NCPO regime he’d led. Many believe this may be the reason why the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act was dropped by legislators at the last minute.
Billy’s remains were discovered in an oil drum much like those used against suspected communists back in the 1970s. It’s a reminder that impunity and lack of accountability pervasive then continues today in Thailand.
“We organise an event every year for the International Day of the Disappeared, but we don’t want to keep doing this and getting nowhere,” says Piyanut of Amnesty International Thailand.
“We want something to be done. It’s a good thing that Billy’s wife and children know what happened. But they still don’t know how the case is going to end. And what about the 80 other cases of enforced disappearance?”