The Nation: Even today, we receive threats

Friday marks seven years since human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, who assisted clients from the restive deep South in cases of alleged state abuse, went missing.

Friday marks seven years since human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, who assisted clients from the restive deep South in cases of alleged state abuse, went missing. Police officers were suspected of involvement in the forced disappearance. The Nation’s Pravit Rojanaphruk talks to Pratabjit Neelapaijit, 28, now a human rights activist dealing with the deep South and forced disappearances, about her late father’s legal case, how the incident affected her and the trouble in the region. Excerpts.

How has your father’s case been going and are you hopeful that justice will be served?

I used to have high expectations as this is the first case of forced disappearance taken up by the court. However, a lot of evidence that could be used by the court was dismissed, such as telephone records [of the alleged abductors and her father]. The Appeals Court has also deferred reading out the verdict three times now because the defendant has not shown up and is claimed to have gone missing as a result of the floods.

We are very concerned that sophisticated tactics are being employed. Pol Maj-General Ngern Thongsuk, who used to work at the Crime Suppression Division, is the only defendant with witnesses [implicating him]. Now, he has gone missing and has legally become a missing person. There’s an attempt to throw the case out of court and I heard from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) that the defendant may now be hiding in a neighbouring country. One of the key witnesses, Abdullah Abukoree, an ex-client of my father who was given protection by the police but decided to return home because he could not bear living within the four walls of the safe house, also went missing. On December 11, 2009, his wife reported a gunshot in front of their house and a motorcyclist was seen when her husband disappeared.

How has your life changed as a result of your father’s disappearance?

A lot, really a lot. We used to be an ordinary family. Even today, we receive threats. Some two to three months ago, we kept receiving mysterious calls without anyone speaking at the other end of the line. We reported it to the DSI and they told us it came from one Internet cafe. Late last year, a big cow’s bone was found in front of our house in the morning.

The case is clearly related to government officials and we still hope they will be punished, however. One of the accused police officers, Phanuphong Pinpara, is still active in his job and nearly received a police award for outstanding service after my father went missing.

Do you think the culture of impunity is deep-rooted in Thai society?

It’s definitely a problem. This is due to the weakness of the rule of law. Powerful groups such as the military and police do not operate within the democratic framework. Those who were [involved in killings and forced disappearances] from October 14, 1973 to October 6, 1976 were never brought to justice. In foreign countries, forced disappearance is a crime against humanity but Thai law doesn’t even recognise it as a crime.

The violence in the deep South doesn’t look as if it will end anytime soon. Why do you think this is the case?

The problem is with the use of force and power being monopolised by the army. The government’s Southern Border Province Administration Centre hardly has any role. I think this is the main problem. The power of the military should not be in the hands of the military alone. We also need to hold dialogue and deliberation.

What about the mainstream media’s coverage of the trouble in the deep South?

Not all reporters can be deployed on the field so the question remains whether journalists are too reliant on sources from the police and the Army. They should crosscheck their information with others.

Sometimes, local villagers say that what really took place differs from what the media reported. It’s easy to judge something as right or wrong, or whether someone deserves to die or not, but this leads to the widening of the gap between others and the villagers.