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Thailand’s Failed Pledges to End ‘Disappearances’

No Laws on Enforced Disappearance Mean No Justice for Victims

Today, August 30, is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a prominent ethnic Karen activist, was last seen in government custody at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in April 2014. © 2014 Human Rights Watch / Private

Despite the Thai government’s countless promises, enforced disappearance – the heinous practice by which government officials take someone into custody but deny doing so – is still not a crime in Thailand. Those who were disappeared, as well as their families, have yet to see justice.

Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, including prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in March 2004 and ethnic Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in April 2014. The actual number could be higher, as some families of victims and witnesses remain silent, fearing reprisals if they speak.

For decades, successive Thai governments have failed to conduct credible investigations into enforced disappearance allegations. Somchai’s case is the only one ever brought to court. But because Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance as a crime, prosecutors instead filed charges of robbery and coercion against five police officers allegedly involved in Somchai’s abduction. The trial, hampered by cover-ups and shoddy investigations, ended in December 2015 when the Supreme Court acquitted all five suspects. The entire process was a mockery of justice.

During the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May 2016, the Thai government pledged to take steps to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012, and enact the necessary domestic legislation.

But despite those pledges, the Thai government continues to engage in practices that create conditions conducive to enforced disappearance – such as the use of secret detention by anti-narcotics units and secret military detention of political dissenters, suspects in national security cases, and suspected insurgents in the southern border provinces.

Hope is fading further after the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha sent a draft law criminalizing enforced disappearances and torture back to the drawing board, without a clear timeframe for revision. And ratification of the convention still has yet to be finalized.

Meanwhile, the much-talked-about Committee to Receive Complaints and Investigate Allegations of Torture and Enforced Disappearance is just an administrative body with little authority or political will to seriously act in cases. It falls far short of what can be considered as an adequate substitute for a legislation.

There is no excuse for the Thai government’s failure to follow through on its pledges. The families of Thailand’s “disappeared” need to know that their government is doing all it can to end this abhorrent practice and bring those responsible to justice. 

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