THAILAND: No obligations, just public relations

An article in Friday’s Thai Day supplement to the International Herald Tribune quoted an officer of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) working on the case of abducted human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit as saying that “the case is proving very difficult” because “the DSI only took up the case late last year” (‘DSI condemned over Somchai case’, 23 March 2006, by Ismail Wolff).


How true are these remarks? The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) began work on Somchai’s disappearance shortly after 12 March 2004. Before the end of the month, it received a letter from the then-interior minister, Dr Bhokin Bhalakula. The minister stated that the case was “receiving much attention from relevant authorities”. Recognising that the outcome of the case would have a “crucial effect to the credibility of the Thai Government”, he stated that


“The Ministry of Justice has instantly appointed expert teams to conduct [an] inquiry and facts finding… Concurrently, the Prime Minister has set up a committee to trace Mr Somchai’s case with deep concern likewise.”


The letter contained no specific reference to the DSI, but “expert teams” under the justice ministry would presumably include its staff, given that the DSI is the most powerful and professionally-equipped investigative unit under the ministry: the only one of its kind outside the police force. So it can be safely assumed that within two weeks of Somchai’s abduction, the DSI was already involved in the case.


In August 2004, the AHRC received a letter from the then-justice minister, Phongthep Thepkanjana, which was unequivocal in the fact that the prime minister


“Had given a clear command to all Thai agencies concerned that every necessary measure must be taken to search for Mr Somchai Neelaphaijit’s whereabouts, and those who are responsible… will have to be brought to justice without exception. In order to ensure our response to the Prime Minister’s command, an ad hoc committee under the responsibility of the Special Investigation Department… has been set up to work on information gathering [and] forensic evidence as well as other investigation for the case. A lot of progress [has] been made after the establishment of the above-mentioned committee…”


Within six months there was an explicit commitment that the DSI was leading the investigation. This was reinforced in a letter of May 2005 from Kobkiat Kasivivat, a senior justice ministry bureaucrat, who stated that his agency–the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection–was working on the case together with the DSI, and that the inquiry was ongoing.


Finally, in October 2005 the AHRC heard directly from the director general of the DSI, Pol. Gen. Sombat Amornvivat. Somehow, despite all the preceding commitments, Pol. Gen. Sombat informed the AHRC that the case was transferred to the DSI only on 19 July 2005. He added that a group of 18 officers–himself in command–had been assigned to the case, and “governmental officials in other agencies and a Special Case consultant have been appointed to assist in investigation and inquiry”.


So there it is. Although contradicting the earlier assertions of ministers and bureaucrats that the matter was already with the DSI, its director general has headed the investigation, with a large team of staff, for at least eight months. And in January 2006 the prime minister stated that murder charges would be laid against the perpetrators by the end of February: a statement backed by Pol. Gen. Sombat. No mention was made of this latest commitment when that deadline also passed.


At least two problems arise out of this series of responses to the persistent question, “Where is Somchai?”


The first problem lies with the DSI and its director general.


Pol. Gen. Sombat started his job a few months before Somchai was abducted. He has been in authority throughout. If in fact the DSI has been unable to solve this case, despite its ample resources, powers and repeated assurances by one official or another, then it can only be attributed to sheer incompetence or wilful interference. Sheer incompetence alone should be sufficient cause for the director general to be dismissed from his post. But there is reason to believe that the failure has been deliberate. There should now be very serious questions and inquiries into how the police force has exerted pressure on Pol. Gen. Sombat and his agency not to solve the case, and instead mislead the public.


While these questions are particular to the case of Somchai Neelaphajit, they have greater relevance. The DSI and its director general are successfully investigating national security threats and financial crimes. But what about human rights cases? Has the department identified and charged the masterminds behind the killings of environmentalists Charoen Wat-aksorn and Phra Supoj Suwagano? Did it protect Ekkawat Srimanta, the victim of brutal torture at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya police station, before he withdrew his complaint from court in November 2005? Why has it not taken up other cases of grave human rights abuse where the alleged perpetrators are police officers, even when these fall well within its criteria? These include cases that suggest a pattern of torture at police stations in Ayutthaya province, and extrajudicial killings where police reports have stated that the victims shot themselves repeatedly in vital organs. Where serious cases allegedly involving police and their patrons are concerned, the DSI has a dismal record.


The second problem is bigger. It lies in public ritual.


Despite Thailand’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, its authorities have little genuine commitment to the core principle, captured in article 2, that the victims of right violations shall have an effective remedy. As seen with the DSI, only those cases attracting heavy media attention and strong public interest make progress: no media, no DSI. After that attention is directed elsewhere, cases are closed and victims forgotten. Presumably, this is what Pol. Gen. Sombat expected of the Somchai Neelaphaijit investigation. His pretence at continued initiative is the consequence of the sustained interest that the case has attracted. His feigned effort lacks credibility because after two years the case remains unsolved.


The trail of ministers and government officials that have given reassurances about the case leads towards the root of the problem. What happens in a society where any commitment can be made without a corresponding sense of obligation? Everywhere in the world politicians and bureaucrats are known for making hollow promises. But there is a difference between an election pledge to tackle crime and a guarantee from a person with a specific mandate that an incident will be properly investigated. When a criminal investigator, departmental head or government minister does not feel obliged to fulfil a responsibility that comes with the job, he, his subordinates and their institutions are degraded. Even the most basic official exchanges among functionaries, or between functionaries and the public, are undermined. As a substitute for good service and effective administration, the state is reinforced by propaganda. The rule of law is denied and authoritarian governance predominates.


In recent times, there have been growing questions about the political leadership of Thailand, not least of all, its prime minister. Nobody who is concerned about human rights will be sorry to see the current administration go. But missing throughout this time have been questions about public relations versus obligations, at all levels of government. What are the institutional gaps that allow for continued abuses of power? What are the institutional behaviours that allow for continued abuses of human rights? Who is asking these questions? Certainly the National Human Rights Commission and the Lawyers Council of Thailand should take the lead. The United Nations, European Union and other influential international bodies too could be doing much more to raise concerns over systemic abuses in Thailand than they have done in the past.


The case of Somchai Neelaphaijit is both indicative and significant. The questions can and should start here. Why has the Department of Special Investigation failed? Has Pol. Gen. Sombat obstructed the inquiry? What can be done now? How can the government of Thailand, in this case at least, go beyond public relations and meet its obligations under article 2?


Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-049-2006
Countries : Thailand,
Campaigns : Somchai Neelaphaijit
Issues : Administration of justice, Enforced disappearances and abductions, Human rights defenders,