Somchai, Jonas, Sombath: Southeast Asia’s Missing Human Rights Warriors

The Diplomat: April 16, 2013

By Mong Palatino

Sombath-DiplomatThai human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit went missing on March 12, 2004. Filipino activist Jonas Burgos was last seen on April 28, 2007. Lao development economist and educator Sombath Somphone disappeared on December 15, 2012.

The search for these missing activists has become a campaign for human rights promotion, not only in their respective countries but across Southeast Asia. Their names have become synonymous with the fight against enforced disappearances, kidnapping, torture, and other human rights atrocities, often carried out with apparent impunity.

At the time of his disappearance, then 53-year-old Somchai was handling cases in southern Thailand, a region ravaged by infighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels. Somchai was pursuing a case against police officers accused of torture when he mysteriously disappeared in Bangkok.

Jonas, the son of Philippine press freedom fighter Joe Burgos, was connected with a left-leaning peasant group when he was abducted by suspected state agents in a Quezon City shopping mall. There were witnesses who testified in the court that Jonas shouted ‘Aktibista ako!’ (I’m an activist!) while he was being dragged out of the mall.

Sombath is a popular NGO leader whose work with the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos earned him the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, for community leadership. Sombath’s disappearance was captured on CCTV footage, which shows Sombath being stopped by police and then abducted by unidentified men. Sombath’s abduction is believed to be related to his advocacy for the protection of land rights for ordinary villagers.

All three cases highlight the inability of their respective governments to protect the human rights of their citizens, especially activists and civil society members who criticize politicians and public authorities. In particular, they expose the perpetration of kidnapping and abduction by state forces as unofficial policies or instruments used to silence dissidents, despite the fact that all governments in the region have embraced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai’s wife, has expressed disappointment that Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation has not made any progress at all with the case almost a decade after her husband was abducted. Meanwhile, Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a “toothless” agency for its failure to enforce regional agreements on human rights and democratic governance. Like Angkhana and Shui Meng, Edita Burgos, the mother of Jonas, was also discouraged by her government’s apparently insincere pledge to help find her missing son when a ranking military officer suspected of involvement in the abduction was promoted to a higher rank last December.

Perhaps the families and supporters of Somchai, Jonas, and Sombath are motivated by the support they continue to receive from people around the world. In March, even United States Secretary of State John Kerry asked the Laos government to release more information about Sombath’s case. Further, Edita Burgos asked the Philippine Supreme Court to reopen her son’s case after she received new documentary evidence identifying the abductors of Jonas as an intelligence unit of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army and the 56th Infantry Battalion.

The continuing search for Somchai, Jonas, and Sombath is also an ongoing campaign for greater human rights protection in Thailand, the Philippines, and Laos. The campaign has created public awareness that human rights legislation must be backed with political will and commitment in order to effectively prevent more human rights abuses.

In the case of the Philippines, this means that the signing of the landmark Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 last December must be followed up with substantial action and procedural reform. Only by taking these concrete steps can the new administration prove that human rights violations are no longer tolerated.