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International Day of Enforced Disappearances

Photo: Luke Duggleby/Protection International
Photo: Framed photo of Somchai Neelapaijit from the series For Those Who Died Trying by Luke Duggleby/Protection International

Today, on the International Day of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, HaRDstories would like to remember and honour those women/human rights defenders who were silenced and never seen again. We would also like to acknowledge the pain and suffering their families and loved ones endured. 

On 12th March 2004, Thai lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was abducted in Bangkok and vanished. His wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit has spent the last 18 years fighting for justice and tirelessly advocating with grace and dignity to stop enforced disappearances.

HaRDstories asked the prominent woman human rights defender and recently-appointed member of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, how enforced disappearances affect the victims and their families.

 

Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

 

How does enforced disappearance affect the family members left behind?

“Enforced disappearances affect the family heavily. Not knowing the truth, the family has to live with ambiguity. For them, enforced disappearances are not only parting their loved ones forever, but it makes them live in suffering. Ambiguity is like a curse that freezes the lives of the families of the enforced disappearances; neither can they move forward with their lives or go back to the way things were. Many women whose husbands are gone can’t register as widowed or married. Not knowing if their fathers are gone forever or not, many children don’t want to go to school anymore or might struggle with psychological problems.

Why is enforced disappearance worse than other forms of violence?

Enforced disappearances by the state are considered a severe crime. It’s a murder, but without a body remaining because the perpetrator is afraid of being punished, so the body is destroyed. To make people disappear is a strategy of evading punishment as the perpetrator believes that relatives cannot take legal action if the missing person’s body is not found. When the body cannot be found, no one is held accountable. The act of disappearance creates fear for families and society.

How have you found the strength and determination to continue fighting this issue?

In the case of “missing people” in the past, no one dared to complain because everyone was afraid. But we won’t be able to put an end to this crime if no one speaks out about the injustice. Many might praise me for being a key player in pushing the issue of enforced disappearances in Thailand into the public and making the stories behind each case of enforced disappearance visible. 

Angkhana Neelaphaijit stands in front of the Thai Supreme Court in Bangkok on December 29th and talks to the Thai media after her court case brought against four police officers was dismissed. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

“They stopped hiring me because they think the trade union is the enemy, ” said Thanaporn, “The employees listen to the union, not to the company.”

Every year the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union federation, monitors labour violations and rates countries based on their respect for working rights. In 2022 and 2023, Thailand scored the second lowest score, which translates to “no guarantee of rights”.

Since becoming unemployed, Thanaporn has become a familiar face in Thailand’s recent pro-democracy street protests in Bangkok. She travels between her hometown of Saraburi not only to take part in demonstrations, but to also visit court hearings and support other workers confronting rights violations.