THAILAND: Somchai, Tak Bai, secrets & lies

November 1, 2006

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

THAILAND: Somchai, Tak Bai, secrets & lies

The head of the military junta overseeing the interim government in Thailand, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, on October 31 reportedly said that he has information that the mastermind of the 12 March 2004 disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit was a close aide of the former prime minister, Pol. Lt. Col. Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra.

This revelation comes as little surprise to persons who have followed the case. It was alleged from the start that there was evidence linking someone in the prime minister’s office to the abduction. It was also widely agreed that the five police who stood trial in connection with his disappearance–one of whom was convicted–were acting on orders from higher up. However, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has consistently said that it lacks evidence to lay further charges. It has also failed to recover the lawyer’s remains, despite a hot trail connecting the five accused to police in Ratchaburi province, west of Bangkok.

The army has many sources of intelligence, and some among its senior officers have probably long known who was responsible for ordering Somchai’s disappearance. It habitually tracks the activities of other state agencies, and is itself involved in similar practices. However, only now has it become expedient for the general to go public. As the probes set up into the alleged corruption of the former prime minister and his subordinates have so far produced nothing, perhaps the alleged masterminds of the abduction will prove easier targets, and save the interim government some face.

Be that as it may, the onus is still firmly on the DSI to answer the question, “Where is Somchai?” The former prime minister himself on a number of occasions said that he believed that police officers were complicit. In January, after the Criminal Court affirmed this and convicted one of the accused, he said that the DSI would have sufficient evidence to lay further charges within a month. This never happened.

The DSI has failed miserably in this and all other human rights cases. Many, including the Asian Human Rights Commission, have attributed this to the placing of a senior police officer at the head of the department, which is under the justice ministry. Many more believe that Pol. Gen. Sombat Amornvivat has personally thwarted the investigation of Somchai’s disappearance. But despite calls for his resignation–including from Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelaphaijit–Sombat has stayed put.

Apart from the resurge in questions about who ordered Somchai’s abduction, many more questions must also be asked about the failures of the DSI. Sombat must not be allowed to quietly walk back into the police force, as has been speculated in recent days, and go on to a happy retirement next year free from responsibility or blame. The questions that must be asked of him include the following: What attempts have been made to follow the chain of command from the five accused officers upwards? Which senior officers have been questioned directly over the lawyer’s disappearance? Why were the former prime minister and members of his cabinet not themselves summoned for questioning after admitting that they had heard things about the case? Was there any attempt by investigators to learn what they had heard? If so, what further steps did they take?

Beyond the questions for the DSI chief, there are many more lasting institutional questions for Thailand. These pertain to the keeping of secrets and telling of lies that is at the heart of government there. They are questions that relate as much to the army as to the police and other parts of the state apparatus.

For instance, as the coup leader has indicated that he has information on the persons who planned the abduction and killing of Somchai, will he also now reveal the names of all the army officers responsible for the deaths of 78 persons in their custody on 25 October 2004? This information must be very well known to him. Will he also kindly give it to investigators, so that they can initiate prosecutions of those army officials? Will he do the same for the six others killed outside the Tak Bai police station that day, or the 106 killed by military and police officials on April 28 of the same year?

Will the general also kindly give information about the use of blacklists by the army and other state officers in the south? In April he publicly allowed that such lists exist and said that they were being used to settle grudges. Will he now admit that these blacklists have in fact been used as death lists? Will he assist investigators to probe killings, abductions and other grave abuses by state officials, including army officers, in the region? Will he allow the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, and other international experts, to visit and make their own assessments?

As the Asian Human Rights Commission has affirmed from the start, the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit is about much more than the presumed death of a single courageous human rights defender. It is about the deep defects that run throughout state institutions in Thailand that permit disappearances to occur.

The onus remains on the Department of Special Investigation to answer the question, “Where is Somchai?” It must now produce results. Its director must also be subjected to rigorous questioning about its failure to do so to date, in this and other human rights cases, despite having adequate resources and time.

But the onus is also on General Sonthi Boonyatraglin to lift the blanket of impunity from all of those state officers in Thailand responsible for gross abuses of human rights, starting with his own men. To begin with, this requires the lifting of martial law provisions across the country, and emergency regulations in the south. It means identifying alleged perpetrators to investigators, and allowing for their prosecution. And it means the ending of amnesties for patent illegalities, from abuse of prisoners to takeovers of government by force in Thailand.


Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-269-2006
Countries : Thailand,
Campaigns : Somchai Neelaphaijit
Issues : Enforced disappearances and abductions, Human rights defenders, State of emergency & martial law,