Justice going astray in South
The committee overseeing payouts and rehabilitation for victims of southern violence has decided to award the family of missing human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit 7.5 million baht in compensation.
The panel, headed by Justice Minister Pracha Promnok, also agreed to provide compensation of 7.5 million baht for each of the families of victims of the Tak Bai and Saba Yoi incidents and to allot four million baht each for those who died in the Krue Se tragedy.
While belated, the decision _ awaiting approval by the cabinet _ is welcome. The financial arrangement, although it will never compensate for the loss of life of their loved ones, will help many families who have languished in hardship for years after losing their breadwinners. For the poor, the 7.5 million baht payout is the windfall of a lifetime.
But not all the families of the victims are satisfied with the payouts. This is not because they consider the amount to be too small, but because the process of determining and awarding the compensation package has not addressed the crucial issue of justice for the victims _ meaning perpetrators responsible for their deaths and disappearances must be brought to trial.
In the case of Mr Somchai _ who has been missing without trace since he was last seen on March 12, 2004 _ all five former police officers of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) who were charged with involvement in the victim's illegal detention and disappearance were acquitted by the Appeal Court on the grounds of insufficient evidence. One of the defendants, Pol Maj Ngern Thongsuk, has also gone missing after he was released on bail and has not been seen since.
Like several unresolved high-profile crime cases, the problem with Mr Somchai's enforced disappearance is that there appears to be a cover-up attempt to prevent crucial information, which could be damaging to certain individuals or institutions, from being exposed.
It is justifiably suspected by critics and human rights activists that someone much higher up than the five ex-CSD officers must have been involved in the human rights lawyer's disappearance. But as in many high-profile cases, several key witnesses were too fearful for their own safety to come forward to testify, leaving the court with circumstantial evidence and low-level witnesses, eventually resulting in the acquittals.
Attempts by Mr Somchai's widow, Angkhana, and his children to join the court trial as co-plaintiffs in order to discover the truth about the lawyer's mysterious disappearance and find those responsible were unfortunately aborted by the court on a technicality _ the court ruled they could not act on Mr Somchai's behalf because he was not yet declared a missing person.
Similarly, the Appeal Court has thwarted an attempt by 34 relatives of victims of the Tak Bai tragedy to bring about a thorough enquiry into the deaths from suffocation of 78 victims who were on their way to a military camp from a protest site in Narathiwat province. The court ruled last Friday that the Criminal Court's decision to dismiss their demand for an inquiry was justified.
The compensation package agreed by Pol Gen Pracha's panel means only half of the job has been done. The other half, which is yet to be undertaken, is for the government to tell the truth about the tragic incidents and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths and enforced disappearances of innocent victims.
Reconciliation with the families of the victims and with many Malay Muslims in the far South will be difficult, if not impossible, unless justice is done or seen to be done.
14 June 2012