In recent days a visitor to the banks of the Mae Klong River in Ban Pong of Ratchaburi province, west of Bangkok, might have noticed a little dinghy moving about in the middle of the swollen water, a small group of people watching from the shoreline. The dinghy has been occupied by forensic professionals, divers and marine archaeologists searching for clues as to the final resting place of Thailand’s by now famous disappeared human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit. Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, acting director general of the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS) has taken the lead in the search. Somchai’s wife Angkhana has watched on.
Strangely, the assembled group in Ban Pong has also found itself coming to terms with another disappearance: that of the key investigator. The search in the Mae Klong River and other nearby parts of Ratchaburi is the result of tireless efforts by local human rights defenders and the cooperation of the CIFS. But where is the agency that has been assigned to lead the continued investigation into the lawyer’s disappearance, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI)? In January the prime minister stated that the DSI would have results by the end of February, and murder charges would be laid against those found responsible for Somchai’s death. The DSI director general Pol. Gen. Sombat Amornwiwat gave the same assurance. As of today, the DSI has produced nothing. Pol. Gen. Sombat has not visited the Mae Klong site–a short drive from Bangkok– despite reports that he would do so. And although some DSI investigators have been present, their contribution has been limited.
Official claims that the case has been too difficult to crack have no credibility. For months in 2005 a court heard hundreds of hours of testimony about the case, and received literally thousands of documents. Did the DSI have staff listening to all the testimonies? Has it gone through all the available material and followed clues? Has it used the courts to bring police and other government officials for interrogation? Has it investigated all sites that may have been used to destroy the remains of the victim? There is nothing to suggest a positive answer to any of these questions.
Under the Special Case Investigation Act BE 2547 (2004) the DSI has extensive authority to investigate any case it has been assigned. Under section 22 it can oblige other government agencies to cooperate. Under section 23 its officers have full investigative powers in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code. Under section 24 further specific powers are described. These are considerable. They include the power to search a place or person without a warrant, summon any agency or person to come for investigation or give information, and seize evidence. Under section 25 the DSI can obtain a court order to open mail, tap telephones, and intercept faxes, email messages or other communications in connection with an offence being investigated. Under other sections it can issue fake documents, exempt its staff from ordinary regulations on use of firearms, and appoint special consultants and public prosecutors to cases where necessary. Together with the resources that the DSI is known to have at its disposal this array of powers makes nonsense of claims that it is having trouble uncovering witnesses or evidence. It has used these powers in other instances with good result, particularly relating to financial crimes: so why have human rights cases, and especially that of Somchai Neelaphaijit, not been given equal respect?
Frustrated by the role of the DSI and its mishandling of the case, others have taken matters into their own hands. Among them is Dr Porntip, who is well-known for taking matters into her own hands, and then getting attacked by the police and notorious influential figures. Before becoming a part of the newly-created CIFS, she was attacked for exposing brutal police torture, and successfully defended herself in a criminal defamation suit. In 2003 she was attacked by the police and senior government officials for shedding light on blatant extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers. In 2005 she was attacked by police and bureaucrats for her initiative in recovering tsunami victims, and was again sued by police for pointing out that a man who was shot five times in his vital organs could not have committed suicide, as they had asserted. Other cases remain besides. In becoming actively involved in the attempt to uncover Somchai’s resting place, it is possible that she will again be attacked. Meanwhile, Angkhana Neelaphaijit has herself been subjected to attacks of a different kind: receiving visits from a person suspected of working for a state agency, who on the second occasion advised her to be careful not to travel lest she have an “accident” or find a bomb under her car.
Angkhana and Porntip have common characteristics that make them targets. They are outspoken determined women who are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions of their society. They and their type represent a very real threat to the deeply entrenched interests and ways of behaving in Thailand that have their roots in feudal administration and ancient politics. In this respect they are everything that Sombat is not. Despite his position at the head of a new and important government agency, the police general stands not for progress, human rights and social change, but rather for the centuries-old established order, its culture of secrecy and its submerged but ever-present threat of violence.
Pol. Gen. Sombat may quietly believe that that established order and its culture of secrecy and violence will protect him from questions over the lacklustre work of his agency, on the trail of Somchai Neelaphaijit; however, he should not be too confident. He can be sure that people will continue to ask questions. Angkhana Neelaphaijit will continue to ask questions. Dr Porntip Rojanasunan will continue to ask questions. All persons struggling to recover the remains of disappeared loved ones or colleagues in Thailand will in some way continue to ask questions. The Asian Human Rights Commission, along with other human rights defenders and organisations within Thailand and abroad, will continue to ask questions. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and the Lawyers Council of Thailand must especially continue to ask more and more questions, as must members of the parliamentary committees on human rights, particularly concerned senators.
The credibility of Pol. Gen. Sombat is already seriously in doubt. As the questions continue and evidence of more deficiencies in his work in the case of Somchai Neelaphaijit emerge a big question that will be asked is whether or not he deserves to keep his job. Above that, the question that this case also poses is: what happens when the Department of Special Investigation fails? Who investigates the special investigators?