The search for human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, abducted in 2004, continues in Thailand

Panel discussion on Somchai Neelapaijit

Human rights groups marked the 20th anniversary of Somchai Neelapaiji's abduction by holding a panel discussion in Bangkok. Source: YouTube video on the FCCT channel. Fair use.

Thai human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was last seen being shoved into a car by armed men in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, on March 12, 2004. Twenty years later, his family and human rights groups continue to demand justice.

Days before his abduction, Somchai exposed the torture allegedly perpetrated by the police against his clients accused of raiding a military detachment in south Thailand, a region where a Malay-Muslim group has been waging an armed struggle for self-determination.

Five police officers were later charged in relation to the abduction of Somchai, but they were acquitted in 2015 for “insufficient evidence.” Somchai’s case became a symbol of state impunity and the persistent violence faced by human rights defenders. The United Nations (UN) has recorded 76 enforced disappearance cases in Thailand since 1980.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai’s wife, has led the search for the missing lawyer and the campaign for justice. Her work made her a prominent advocate of human rights protection. In 2009, she founded the Justice for Peace Foundation, which helps victims of human rights abuses. In 2015, she was named commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. In 2022, she became the first Asian woman member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Angkhana worked with human rights groups in engaging the government to draft a bill on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance which later became a law on February 23, 2023.

Human rights groups marked the 20th anniversary of Somchai’s abduction by reaffirming their commitment to pursuing justice. During her keynote address, Angkhana shared the ordeal of her family. “For the families of the disappeared, it feels like we are bound by a distressful past and blinded to see a future,” she said. She mentioned the “profound sense of obscurity” and “non-existence” experienced by families of human rights victims.

This obscurity is like a curse that grips the lives of the families of the disappeared. Moving forward seems impossible and going back is equally elusive. The veil of obscurity covering their lives prevents many victims from connecting with the society and culture they inhabit.

In an interview with independent media outlet Prachatai, Angkhana reflected on her work over the past two decades and her inspiration to continue fighting for justice.

I feel that what I want is to do something beyond the individual or doing something for one person. What I want to do is to make this systematic. Whoever will go missing, whoever has been disappeared, or any official who is thinking of disappearing people in the future, they won’t do it again. I’m proud that one day I can get to a point where I can help other people.

She urged the youth to keep on searching for the truth and to demand accountability from those in power.

I may die without knowing the truth, but I hope that the next generation will continue to question the state, that they will continue to remember those who were disappeared, that they will continue to make demands about these things.

A week after the event, Angkhana was reportedly placed under surveillance.

Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, Amnesty International’s regional researcher for Thailand, pointed out that Somchai’s case and the harassment faced by the lawyer’s family highlight the worsening state of impunity in the country.

By failing to hold those suspected of criminal responsibility to account and by neglecting his family’s right to receive full reparations and terminating the witness protection program, it is clear that victims of enforced disappearances cannot fully rely on the Thai authorities and that perpetrators may not need to pay for their crimes.

Bangkok Post published an editorial reminding authorities to do more to deliver justice for Somchai’s family and to strengthen the enforcement of the anti-torture and enforced disappearance law.

Crimes committed by government officials present insurmountable challenges. Merely having laws is insufficient. The culture of impunity thrives due to the lack of rule-of-law, institutional resistance, and a top-down authoritarian system that condones violence.

While addressing these structural obstacles and reforming the military and police takes time, the immediate priority is to ensure the effectiveness of the anti-torture and enforced disappearance law.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.