A Thai housewife becomes a human rights activist
Angkhana Neelapaichit works to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearance.
Inside a hotel ballroom, a middle-aged woman wearing a black head scarf walks up to a standing microphone. On the stage, Thailand's newly appointed prime minister, who has been fielding questions from members of the foreign correspondents' club, is still smiling, but his face has tightened. A hush falls over the audience of 500 foreign guests at their dinner tables.Skip to next paragraph
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In a quavering voice, Angkhana Neelapaichit says: "I've been waiting for justice for five years. What steps will you take to move the investigation of Somchai's disappearance forward and bring the perpetrators to justice?"
It's a question that Ms. Angkhana, a Thai Muslim, has been asking in various ways ever since her husband, Somchai Neelapaichit, was abducted March 12, 2004, allegedly by Thai police officers. She has petitioned successive Thai governments, United Nations officials in Geneva, and anyone else who would listen, determined not to surrender to the silence that often swallows victims of state violence.
That Mr. Somchai was forcibly taken by state agents isn't in dispute. Thai government officials say this is one reason why the case is so hard to solve. As a prominent human rights lawyer who defended Muslims in Thailand's conflict-ridden south, Somchai was frequently at odds with authorities. Just before his disappearance, he publicly accused police of torturing five Muslim suspects in their custody.
For Angkhana, a trained nurse who stayed home to raise five children and support her husband in his legal career, it has been five years of pain and perseverance. To press her case, she has sought the public spotlight, but at the cost of her privacy and equilibrium.
In 2005, after an international outcry, five Thai police officers finally went on trial in connection with Somchai's disappearance. After proceedings that international experts have called flawed, a police major was convicted of coercion. He has since vanished while appealing a three-year jail sentence.
During the trial, Angkhana drew strength from the presence of female supporters at the court, including several human rights activists. At the time, key witnesses and members of Somchai's family faced threats and harassment, and the courtroom was packed with police officers.
Her supporters have since evolved into the nonprofit Working Group on Justice and Peace, led by Angkhana. WGJP provides legal aid, fact-finding, and other services to victims of disappearances in the Muslim-dominated south, where over 3,500 people have died since 2004 in insurgent-related violence. A shadowy separatist group is blamed for many of the killings, though security forces are also widely accused of human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings of known militants.