A Thai housewife becomes a human rights activist

Angkhana Neelapaichit works to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearance.

Andy Nelson/ The Christian Science Monitor
Angkhana Neelapaichit: Her group investigates disappearances and helps families of those gone missing.

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.

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.

Thailand's 65 million people are overwhelmingly Buddhist. Muslims, an estimated 5 percent of Thailand's total population, are a minority in Bangkok, but are in the majority in the three southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia, where rebellions against Bangkok's rule have flared for several decades. The current insurgents have never announced their goals, but are believed to seek some form of autonomy.

Angkhana says the WGJP isn't trying to replicate her husband's work as much as reach out to family members who have suffered. "We talked to each other," she says. "Could we do something for these people? We didn't know before about disappearances, the healing process. We talk to each other about healing our wounds, how to manage."

In February, troops raided the WGJP office in the southern city of Pattani. A military spokesman claimed that they were looking for insurgents. Angkhana says that doesn't explain why troops copied documents from computers in the office, which compiles sensitive data on disappearances. The next month, a forensics team from the Ministry of Justice recovered bones from a river where Somchai's body may have been dumped. Angkhana has asked the FBI for help in identifying them.

Today's situation is a long way from the couple's happy courtship in the late 1970s, when Somchai was a new lawyer and Angkhana was a student nurse. They married in Bangkok in 1979.

As Somchai pursued his legal career, Angkhana eventually quit her nursing job and raised their children. She followed his work closely, though, and was aware of the risks he faced.

"Sometimes he called me at home to look for some law book or article," she says. "I did a lot of typing, like the testimony of a witness."

In early 2004, as violence flared in the south, Somchai took up the case of five men accused of robbing a military armory. He said police had used electric shocks and beat the men. Then, on March 12, he was stopped in Bangkok, tossed into a vehicle, and the family's nightmare began.

Life went on, though. A month later, Somchai's eldest child passed the bar exam. She is now a judge. Her second child, also a daughter, joined her mother's campaign and recently testified before a UN committee in Geneva that tracks forced disappearances.

Angkhana says the family sometimes receives anonymous phone calls telling them to desist with Somchai's case, but she plays down the threats. Nothing can sway her, she says, from speaking out and pushing for justice to be done."It's my duty to tell the story again and again, repeatedly, to everyone who comes in and out, all day," she says.

At the foreign correspondents' dinner in January, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva gave a succinct reply. "There's a good chance of progress," he said.

Angkhana left – and started again the next day. She writes letters, asks questions, and talks to officials and reporters – sometimes in English, which she studied at a convent school in Bangkok.

She used to refuse to carry a cellphone. Now it's her constant companion, she jokes.

“At the beginning, I lacked confidence. I think now I’m stronger than before,” she says.

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