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Somchai Neelaphaijit--Reading between the lines (1)

To mark the fifth anniversary of the police abduction and forced disappearance in Bangkok of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit on 12 March 2004, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is distributing a series of three extracts from the newly-released English translation of a book by his wife, Angkhana, first published in Thai to mark the same date in 2008. The book, Reading between the lines recalls her husband's efforts for justice during his own life, and her family's struggle to uncover the truth and hold the perpetrators to account after his disappearance. It is rich in personal recollections as well as details about the case, including translations of many communications and court records. It is an important addition to the literature on forced disappearance in Asia, and especially, English-language material on forced disappearance in Thailand, of which there is very little. The 144-page book, which has been published by the Working Group on Justice for Peace, is available to download from the AHRC website at: http://material.ahrchk.net/docs/ReadingBetweenTheLines.pdf.

The first extract is from chapter 1, "When Somchai Neelaphaichit disappeared".

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Khun Somchai liked to help others, both those who were inferior and those who were stronger. Khun Somchai used to tell me: "There is one person I have never helped--my own wife."

Khun Somchai always helped people in the three southernmost provinces, ever since I knew him. Many times I saw him dejected about some problem or other that had come up, but in a short while he got over it and was ready to fight on.

Later, when his health began to weaken, he started to grumble about wanting to rest, about wanting a new generation of lawyers to make a greater sacrifice working for the disadvantaged.

He helped others without ever hoping that he would be rewarded. Our home was full of certificates of honour and dozens of prizes. The only thing he got very little of from his hard work all his life was money.

He helped so many people that I began to ask him why people who had been denied justice didn't stand up and fight for themselves. I believed that the plaintiffs and all the various victims of violence were the people with the greatest right to call for justice for themselves and their families.

But the answer that I always got from Khun Somchai was "fear". Khun Somchai always told me that I was lucky to have been born without knowing fear. For me, the best way to manage fear is to meet it head on.

Many times I have thought that fear makes us selfish, protecting ourselves and our families without caring how much people around us are suffering; some people must suffer injury or even death so that the rest of us are kept safe.

About 1 month before Khun Somchai was disappeared, I started to get a strange feeling which slowly grew, both from Khun Somchai and from what was happening outside.

Khun Somchai seemed to be easily startled and wary, while around the house there were often strangers standing and sitting around. But Khun Somchai was Khun Somchai; he wouldn't say what was happening.

Many times I pressed him, because I felt something was wrong. But the answer was always silence. Sometimes I had to go and ask the people standing outside late at night if there was anything I could do to help them. 

About 2 weeks before Khun Somchai's enforced disappearance, he told me that he had a friend who was an Assistant District Officer in Narathiwat Province, who had told Khun Somchai that his name was on a backlist as Terrorist no 1.

After Khun Somchai was disappeared, this friend was transferred to a nearby province with a promotion.

Khun Somchai also spoke about a case where police officers from the Crime Suppression Division had gone to investigate the theft of weapons from Pileng Camp in Narathiwat and had arrested and detained 5 people, all of whom complained of being tortured.

I saw that he was very bitter when he heard this, which appeared in the letters that he wrote, appealing for justice, to various state agencies on 11 March 2004, just one day before he was disappeared:

"As a result of these actions, all 5 defendants were forced to make confessions as desired by the police officers. Confessions and evidence obtained from confessions using physical ill-treatment, intimidation, denial of family visits and denial of opportunities to meet lawyers while being interrogated are a violation of all the rights of the defendants. Such actions are not allowed under criminal procedure law. This is a complete negation of basic judicial process."

While he was appealing the case of the tortured defendants, he was trying to collect 50,000 signatures (according to the 1997 Constitution) to repeal martial law.

Khun Somchai said that martial law gave a great deal of power to the military, who could detain suspects for 7 days without a court order or charge, and family and lawyers were not allowed visits. Most people who had been detained complained of torture while in detention. At the same time, there were reports that a number of people had disappeared without trace after being taken away by unidentified young men.

Khun Somchai said that he would take only 2 weeks to collect the signatures to present to the Prime Minister on 14 March, since on that day, Khun Thaksin was going to hold a cabinet meeting in the three southernmost provinces.

I worried about what would happen if it was not possible to collect 50,000 signatures in 2 weeks.

Khun Somchai said, "If the people think this is good for them, they have to sign. But if not, it's really the end for the villagers."

About 2 days before he was disappeared, he said that someone who had come to train with him, called Mr San Chokphong-udomchai, an advisor to the Prime Minister's Deputy Secretary at that time (Mr Kuthep Saikrajang), had taken him to see a "big shot", but he wouldn't say who this big shot was or what they had talked about. I kept asking Khun Somchai who this Mr San was and why he needed to train in law when he already had a master's degree and had a good job. But Khun Somchai was still Khun Somchai. He didn't want to answer these questions and he wasn't suspicious about associating with and trusting people close to him.

(Tomorrow: "On the trail of Khun Somchai")

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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