Deaths and disappearances in Thailand's southern border area remain a concern for rights groups. According to the Working Group on Justice for Peace (WGJP), a Thai non-governmental organisation, at least four disappearances are known to have occurred in the south in 2007 and were confirmed this year.
The human rights organisation has reported 93 enforced disappearances nationwide between 1992 and 2008.
The Thai government first acknowledged the issue on 18 March 2004, when Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh told parliament, "Villagers [in the southern border provinces] complained to me … they said more than 100 people have been 'disappeared'".
In August 2005, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appointed a special sub-committee to collect information on disappearances. The procedure resulted in 23 official records of cases between 2002 and 2006. They are the only official records of forced disappearances in the south acknowledged by the government.
Angkhana Neelaphaijit, chairwoman of WGJP, whose husband, Somchai Neelaphaijit, a Muslim lawyer, was abducted in Bangkok on 12 March 2004, said the real number of enforced disappearances in southern Thailand could be far higher, but relatives were reluctant to report cases out of fear of retribution.
"They are afraid that the state officers might harm them if they report the cases," Wasan Panich, a member of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a semi-state organisation working outside government, told IRIN.
The NHRC recently discovered graveyards with more than 300 unidentified bodies in southern Pattani Province, which they suspect could be forced disappearance victims, and are trying to identify the bodies.
Referring to efforts to establish a missing persons centre and to pursue cases, Pornthip Rojanasunan, director of the Forensic Science Institute at the Ministry of Justice, said that "… no one really pays attention to this matter, therefore it hasn't been carried forward properly".
Pornthip added that tracking evidence in the south has been constantly obstructed by the police department and that while the scale of disappearances is still unknown, anecdotal evidence suggests it is extremely high.
The unrest in four provinces in the south near Malaysia began with attacks in January 2004 by separatists motivated by religious, racial and linguistic differences between the minority Malay Muslims and the Buddhist majority.
In response, the government mobilised counter-insurgency forces in the south and imposed martial law, which allowed for seven days of detention without charges, in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces. Thereafter, suspects could be detained for another 30 days under an emergency decree introduced in 2005.
A 2007 Human Rights Watch report, stated that Thai security forces had carried out extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and disappearances of Muslims known or suspected to be involved with separatist groups.
One of the most high-profile cases is that of Somchai. A month after his abduction, five police officers were detained in connection with his disappearance.
He had been abducted two days after making a complaint to authorities that his clients, young Thai-Malay suspects alleged to be part of a separatist movement on the southern border, had suffered torture in police detention.
On 12 January 2006, one of the police officers arrested in Somchai's case was found guilty of "forceful restraint of Somchai's freedom against his will" and "committing robbery", according to court records. The other four pleaded not guilty. None was found guilty of abduction or murder as there was no physical evidence to prove a death.
Thaksin publicly stated on 13 January 2006 that the government officials were involved in Somchai's abduction and killing.
"The Department of Special Investigation [DSI] is working on this case and murder charges are being considered … I know Somchai is dead, circumstantial evidence indicated that … and there were more than four government officials implicated by the investigation," he said.
Somchai's disappearance is now at the court of appeal and under investigation by the DSI. According to a DSI spokesman, Pol Col Narat Sawetanand, some pieces of bone suspected to be Somchai's have been found. As soon as a DNA match is confirmed, legal proceedings will resume with a new charge - murder.
Wasan said the NHRC and other human rights groups have been urging the government to ratify the UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
"I hope that the Thai royal government is going to ratify or at least sign this very important convention," said Homayoun Alizadeh, regional representative for Asia-Pacific of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Alizadeh told IRIN that ratifying this UN convention would guarantee that the Thai government is obligated to create the legal framework to adapt its national domestic law to international human rights standards and conduct proper training programmes for both governmental and non-governmental institutions to ensure this legal framework is properly implemented.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions