Pratubjit Neelapaijit: enforced disappearance still a void, human rights at the discretion of the state

We're talking to Pratubjit Neelapaijit, as the daughter affected by the disappearance of her father Somchai Neelapaijit and the 14 lost years with no return in terms of law, reflecting on the contradictory state of human rights where the state chooses to support some cases, and chooses to arrest only some people. She points out that developing a democratic society is the way out and that all sides have a role in reconciliation.
 
International Women's Day has come around again in March. Rather than point the spotlight on women rights, what we should do is reflect the situation of human rights in other areas and the responses from various sectors in Thailand.
 
Human rights work in Thailand still has problems concerning the government's response to international standards. Presently Thailand is a state party to the 7 human rights conventions which the United Nations considers as the main conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But there are still major question marks regarding the implementation of the conventions into actual practice by the government, because the response to human rights standards at the policy level has become discriminatory. Some issues receive full support for the people to campaign: some issues lead to arrests and prosecutions; and some issues are neglected as they slowly disappear.
 
 
Pratubjit Neelapaijit
 
Prachatai talks with Pratubjit Neelapaijit, currently National Human Rights Officer at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, South-East Asia Regional Office (OHCHR SEARO); but today she will be talking as a woman, as a daughter, and as someone affected by the enforced disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit, her father. She will talk about her parents as those who work in human rights, her conviction that human rights can coexist together with Islam and her other beliefs if there is a democratic society, reflections on the women’s rights movement and movements on other issues by women in Thailand, and the state of enforced disappearance in Thailand that society has increasingly recognized but where the state sector still hasn’t responded. Even right now, on the 14th anniversary of the disappearance of Lawyer Somchai on 12 March, the only thing the family has received in return is a void. 
 

General overview of women's rights movements in the past year

 
Thailand was recently reviewed for its implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Last year we were able to see the enthusiasm of civil society that worked in coordination with the local, national, and international levels. Women’s rights work in Thailand is rather open to opportunities, without that many obstacles, since Thailand has a positive attitude towards women’s rights. All governments will give it importance since they have some degree of interest in rights for groups that require special needs, or vulnerable groups, as some call them, such as the disabled, children, women, etc. A topic that is not very controversial will become common ground where the state, civil society and international organisations work together. Last year we saw images of women human rights defenders taking in a role in the drive for structural change, especially in local areas; there were many cases of prosecution, with men in the minority.
 

Do you think it is a contradiction for the government to give importance to women who are pushing forward some issues, but choose to prosecute on other issues? 

 
I think it is a problem of Thailand in terms of overall attitude. Up to now when we speak of helping, it would mostly be in the form of social welfare. Even if we say that what we are doing is a human rights issue, deep inside we see it as a way of doing good – not using the perspective or approach of human rights for the whole process, creating a contradiction.
 
In the big picture, the women’s movement is linked to social movements. There are relatively large differences in ideas related to democracy, another factor that causes an image of contradiction, conflict or compromise on some matters. But I think the inconsistency shows an image of Thai society where we might have to escape from the concept of social welfare assistance, and support ideological processes and create public policies that are really in the form of human rights. We will have to think on the basis of international standards that we have signed up to; basic concepts concerning human rights include accountability, participation and non-discrimination.
 
Sometimes we talk of calls for each side to be united and reconcile but forget to take into account the context of the conflict that has been in place for a long time, and neglect to talk about big matters such as being a democracy, and developing democracy. This is because we also hope for conciliation and let everyone do their own duty, but in the end find that the differences in opinion and feeling about democratic society at deeper levels are still there, so rushing to become united is a difficult thing.
 
Considering reconciliation and political conflict separately from developing democracy is a problem since reconciliation needs participation from all sectors; it is one of the principles of democracy. The people’s perspective of social conflict that believes peace means calm with no conflict at all is a misunderstanding. I think many people try to avoid talking seriously about democracy since they are scared of creating conflict.
 

How does being someone affected by an enforced disappearance influence your work and personal life?

 
There is a big effect. Before, I was with my father who was an old generation rights defender. Since he never became very famous and was in an unsafe situation, he would be worried about me and didn’t try to encourage me to work in human rights straight away. He didn’t intend for me to become an activist since he didn’t want me to face the dangers he did, and would tell me to try my best at studying because I am a daughter of a middle-class family who was able to study in a well-known university. I suppose that if this hadn’t happened to my father and pushed me to come out and learn lots of new things, especially about international mechanisms, I’d probably be another normal middle-class child. I may never have had the opportunity to study in the field of human rights. Even if I personally like to help people, I don’t know if I would have escaped from helping in the form of charity or not.
 

From the day Somchai disappeared, how far do you think the human rights situation in Thailand has come, both with regard to enforced disappearance and general awareness of human rights?

 
I think it has got better. At least, enforced disappearances have decreased greatly according to statistics. Presently, Thai society has information regarding enforced disappearances. Before, from my research, Thai society only knew the word “disappearance”, which is just simply disappearing. But right now you can see that people use the words “enforced disappearance” more often. Society also has stronger preventive mechanisms against enforced disappearances. Yet at the same time we are still waiting for a serious response that is the responsibility of the government, especially for enacting laws so that, at least, enforced disappearance in Thailand becomes a crime because at the moment there is nothing. After the verdict in my father’s case came out in 2015, the case ended and we had nothing left. Dad disappeared without anyone making him disappear, without any reason for him to disappear, and without knowing where he is right now. We didn’t get any truth at all from the judicial process that started in 2005, for the reason that no corpse was found; his fate was not proved. It resulted in our family losing our rights as joint plaintiffs in place of Lawyer Somchai, since the verdict stated that since there was no corpse, it cannot be affirmed that Lawyer Somchai is not able to file charges himself, and there is no law stating that enforced disappearance is a criminal offense. So enforced disappearances still happen and have the chance of happening again. Personally, as a member of the family of the victim, I came to think that Thai society is aware of this but at the same time we haven’t seen the role of those who have the duty to reveal the truth, which is the state, in administering justice, setting criteria for enforced disappearance and ending enforced disappearance in Thailand.
 
Something I’ve seen even more is discourse on human rights. Now when people are arbitrarily arrested without warrants, people in society will use the words, “maybe it’s enforced disappearance.” What the NCPO government does is respond to such news or accusations by changing their methods of detention. For example, they detain someone and then tell the family of the detainee or international organisations where they are and what kind of fate faces them. However they still use arbitrary detention and arrest even though in fact one article in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance that Thailand signed in 2011 says that protection against enforced disappearances must be carried out at the point of origin, that is, end arbitrary detention. Interestingly, while society creates a discourse, the state has a tendency to change, but not stopping what they are doing, but changing their techniques to reduce these accusations. This is an important issue where civil society must develop their working techniques to keep up with those of agents of the state.
 
Campaigning for recognition that lawyers must have access to detainees is still a problem, especially in the southern border provinces where lawyers have no opportunities of access. At the national level, after the coup d’état, we will find that the right to consult a lawyer is granted on a case-by-case basis. 
 
On the 14th Anniversary of Somchai's disappearance, his family places a bouquet of flowers and photo of at the spot where a witness saw him being forced into a car on Ramkhamhaeng road in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of Angkana Neelapaijit
 

In what forms can human rights campaigns be carried out in the culturally diverse southern border provinces where security agencies have highly active roles? Is it really possible or not?

 
I think it’s possible, and I see that it has become better. What I’ve seen and am trying to do is, what should I do so that civil society there and around the country work professionally. This is because the 3 southern border provinces have their specific characteristics. What should I do so that human rights work stands on the principle that human rights belong to all people? People on the working side must also stand on that principle, and not use human rights with the intention or for the purpose of the political benefit of only one side. An interesting example is last week when a civil society group which consists of both Buddhists and Muslims from inside and outside the area, at both the national and international level, together made a statement for the state to stop prosecuting mass media and human rights activists, etc. Moreover, debate, the work of other civil society groups and covering news on human rights has allowed people in the 3 southern border provinces to be aware that working professionally is an important matter.
 
Professionalism is that we have to consider the principles of the various conventions that Thailand has signed with the United Nations. Another important principle is non-discrimination. Using information and facts to create credibility, using data collection tools that are clear, having standards in data collection and checking the accuracy without using personal feelings, then slowly expand the topic that one is working on to an issue that covers a much more diverse population including more groups.
 
The important thing is we must not support the use of violence, in no matter which form. This is the key thing we tell rights defenders every time: no matter if we agree with the revolution or changing the country’s main structure or not, we must be clear that we reject the use of violence in all forms, because if we lack this principle, we’ll lose the legitimacy to work in this field.
 

How does being a Muslim woman affect your work in human rights?

 
I personally think it’s beneficial since what we’re trying to campaign on is that human rights are a universal standard. To work in this field professionally would then require one to overcome prejudices which we view as a challenge since everyone has prejudices without knowing it; a deep conscience from their culture. This would be a challenge and opportunity for us to solve that issue. If we display our identity from our clothing or behaviour, it would be a good chance to talk with others and feel that we have overcome our own personal prejudices and are ready to work for everyone equally. But in the past, I have not had obstacles concerning distrust.
 

Are there any regulations or understandings in the Islamic way of life that cannot go together with human rights? For example, alternative genders or rules for dress.

 
To be honest, I still can’t see which part can’t go along together. For example, for LGBTI, the principles are really important; we must use the principle of non-discrimination. This is actually included in the teachings of Islam, but I’m not too sure just how much knowledge and confidence each person has to work in human rights.
 
For clothing, we are in a country that doesn’t have a law prohibiting or enforcing the wearing of hijabs. I don’t think the choice of wearing or not wearing hijabs goes against human rights since according to Islamic principles covering hair is by order of God, not by order of men or figures of authority in society. Wearing hijabs should really be the decision of the woman. I myself have decided to wear one because I want to display my identity concerning my religious belief and my own difference. This decision was a result of negotiating my identity and the collective identity as a Thai in the school and university system for many years. 
 

How ready do you think Thai society is to integrate human rights thinking with other social beliefs?

 
Thailand already has a diverse society. Being ready or not is up to the new generation since social power is essential to showing if you are ready or not. The problem today is the belief that our way is the most correct way; everyone has to walk along our path. This is where our country is different from other countries; we think that we can’t make human rights and our ideas and beliefs coexist together. Human rights groups themselves are the same in that we often use human rights as a ruler to measure everyone according to our way, which is best. The issue here is to develop democracy in Thai society; there is no other choice.
 

What have you received from working on human rights with your mother? Do you see problems in the same way?

 
We have worked together since the time I worked at an NGO; the Justice for Peace Foundation, and what I received from my mother was equality during work, especially when I came to work at OHCHR and mother went to work at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Mother has always taught me that the value of a person depends on their achievements. Therefore, both my mother and I are serious about our work and think that, for women, our value comes from our work and respecting and valuing each other’s opinions even if we have a personal relationship or a difference in age. More recently we try to refer to my father’s case as infrequently as possible, and try to not mention Lawyer Somchai in the work we have to do and both develop our potential as much as we can so that we can change into who we are as best we can, not just as the daughter and wife of Lawyer Somchai forever.