Two weeks have gone by, but the fate of activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit who was abducted near his apartment in Phnom Penh on June 4 remains cloaked in mystery.
Cambodian police said in early June they would investigate the disappearance of the self-exiled Thai activist, and the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry has asked its embassy in Phnom Penh to gather information. Relatives of Mr Wanchalearm, a staunch critic of the Thai government, have demanded it step in and investigate.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes activity is stepping up in parliament among political parties and civic groups as they lobby for passage of a bill which would outlaw enforced disappearances and provide remedies to affected families, including the ability to take legal action against the state.
Advocates say the need for a bill cracking down on such activity has intensified following Mr Wanchalearm’s disappearance. But if the stakes are increasing for passage of such a measure in the House, human rights defenders are starting to wonder whether the government will ultimately get behind the measure.
Human rights defender Angkhana Neelapaijit is backing a civil society version of a bill addressing forced disappearances, though a rival version by the Justice Ministry is also being vetted, having been through many revisions since it was first presented to legislators in 2016.
Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) in 2012, but has yet to ratify the agreement or enforce it in domestic law. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances has reported 82 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand since 1980.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Ms Angkhana, wife of disappeared lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, said she has battled to get the law for more than 10 years. The lack of a law, she said, can be an obstacle in seeking justice.
”The court didn’t allow my family to represent my husband [in court] because there is no evidence he was hurt or killed even though everybody, including [former prime minister] Thaksin Shinawatra, believes he died. However, the court follows the letter of the law. Nobody can do anything on his behalf except Somchai,” said Ms Angkhana, the recipient of a Ramon Magsaysay Award.
The abduction of Mr Somchai took place on March 12, 2004, after his car was hit by another vehicle on Sukhumvit Road. Some people believe he fell victim to an involuntary disappearance because he had helped victims abused by state officers. However, in 2015, the Supreme Court acquitted five police of abduction and theft in relation to his disappearance case due to weak evidence.
Ms Angkhana said the bill on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearances, which she backs, will put an end to enforced disappearances, but those vetting the measure are still worried that it will unfairly target state officers that the bill’s protective mechanisms may be watered down.
“For 16 years, I have been calling for justice, but authorities have never told me how they will mete it out. Instead, they have said: ‘Let it be’, ‘You will not find him’, or ‘Tell me how I can help.’ In fact, the state has the power to search for those forcibly disappeared. It is just a matter of will,” she said.
Ms Angkhana said the many enforced disappearances which have come to light show how state officers can abuse their power to threaten citizens. “The absence of a law breeds a culture of impunity. We have evidence they abducted Somchai, but we can’t bring them to justice. I insist everyone should be treated equally and protected under the law regardless of their views,” she said.
Uphill push for bill
Ms Angkhana is serving as an adviser to the civil society version of the bill on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearances. She said the bill can be pushed via three channels: the government, MPs, and a petition signed by any 10,000 citizens who back its passage.
“In January, civil society groups asked the House committee on law, justice, and human rights, led by Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, the now-defunct Future Forward Party (FFP) MP and chair of the committee, to support their bill.
It is now reviewing the draft and will submit it to the parliament president. However, the bill incurs operating expenses and requires the premier to sign his name. “We fear that if he declines, it will be dropped. We hope this version of the bill will run parallel to the government’s version,” she said.
It is expected the cabinet will review the ministry’s version of the bill tomorrow. Meanwhile, 20 Prachachat Party MPs have recently handed a petition backing the bill to the parliament president.
Ms Angkhana said civil society’s version complies with the ICPPED and international standards, such as the principle of non-invocability and non-refoulement.
“First, the state can’t invoke emergency situations to justify an enforced disappearance, for example, by detaining a victim without informing his or her relatives. Second, the state can’t repatriate exiles to countries where they could be at risk of involuntary disappearance. As an example, Thailand extradited Uighurs to China, but we didn’t know where they would be,” she said.
Ms Angkhana said this version also holds accountable state officers who commit, order, or acquiesce, in the act, and it treats disappearances as an ongoing offence until a victim is found.
“However, the government’s version of the bill does not apply to historical cases, including that of Somchai and [labour union leader] Tanong Po-Arn,” she said. The human rights advocate said while she may not be successful in this lifetime, she hopes succeeding generations will create the legal mechanisms to ensure protection for all.
The now-defunct National Legislative Assembly (NLA) was scheduled to vet the Ministry of Justice’s version of the bill on March 7 last year but it simply “disappeared” from the agenda.
Speaking recently at a forum held by Amnesty International Thailand and its partners, Nongpond Rungpetchwong, adviser on human rights for the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, said the ministry forwarded the bill to the Secretariat of the Cabinet in April.
“It will clearly identify charges of torture and enforced disappearance and let an investigation continue until the truth is found. Nowadays, authorities put it on hold whenever they reach a dead end. Moreover, the bill will allow families of the forcibly disappeared to take action on their behalf,” she said.