From Munir to Somchai Neelaphaijit

May 21st, 2006, in History, by

Guest writer Sarawut Pratoomraj discusses the similarities in the cases of the murders of two human rights activists, Munir Said Thalib in Indonesia and Somchai Neelaphaijit in Thailand.

From Munir to Somchai Neelaphaijit of Thailand:
8 important similarities in the results of 2 Human Rights Defender cases.

It seems that 2004 was a tragic year for human rights defenders in both Indonesia and Thailand. In Thailand, a Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit disappeared on March 12 . An eye witness says that he was forced into a van by a group of unidentified men in the Huamark area in downtown Bangkok. His whereabouts is still unknown. His disapperance shocked Thai society in the same way that Indonesian society was shocked by the death of human rights actitivist Munir Said Thalib, who was poisoned aboard a Garuda flight to Holland.

We can say that Somchai Neelaphaijit is the Munir of Thailand. His role in the protection and promotion of human rights in Thailand is similar to Munir’s role in Indonesia. The Somchai case was investigated and the prosecutor laid criminal charges against 5 police officers. On 12 January 2006, one police officer was found guilty and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment by the Thai Criminal Court and the 4 other accused police officers were acquitted.


In Indonesia the Central Jakarta District Court ruled on December 28 2005 that Pollycarpus, a Garuda pilot, was guilty of lacing food served to Munir with a lethal dose of arsenic during a Garuda flight to Amsterdam in September 2004. Pollycarpus was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. Further investigation is continuing on the high-profile murder so as to find the masterminds. The cases of these 2 human rights defenders, Munir and Somchai, are similar in their personal and professional backgrounds, the investigation process surrounding their cases, and the evidence presented to the court. Thai and Indonesian society should learn from these results in order to protect human rights in each country in the future.

1. Similar in Legal and Activist Background for Human Rights Protection

Somchai, also known by his Muslim name of Abu Bakar, was born in 1951 in the Nongjork District on the eastern edge of Bangkok. He graduated from Ramkhamhaeng University in 1976 with an LL.B. degree and began practicing law. In an interview to a Thai journal1 he expressed that:

“I always realized that I would like to be a good Muslim lawyer, but in all of my life I have never seen any lawyer who I can call “guru”, especially a Muslim lawyer. So I was thinking to myself I will practice my life in the Islamic way, strictly, and in whatever I work I do in any kind of profession, the Islamic way will lead me to success. My work as a lawyer will be partly for myself and my family to survive, the other part will be for Muslim society.”

“When I practice in the way of Al’lah, I receive his mercy so that no one has ever been before. You should try, you won’t believe it. But the important thing is to gain this you must patient.”

Somchai was a lawyer for more than 20 years, but most of his clients failed to receive justice by law or legal procedure. He was the founder and original chairperson of the Muslim Lawyer Club. His task in the club was to attain free legal aid and advocacy for the poor, especially poor Muslims. He was the Vice Chair of the Human Rights Committee of The Law Society of Thailand when he disappeared.

Munir was born on December 8 1965 to a prominent Muslim family and became an activist while studying law at university. After graduating he began to work with the YLBH eventually becoming the head of field operations. He was well-known to the public for his role in monitoring the impact of the Indonesian Military on human rights violations on the people in Aceh and Papua during the Soeharto regime. He was the founder of many NGOs working to monitor and help victims of human rights violations such as KontraS (established in 1998) and Imparsial (established in 2002). Like Somchai, Munir’s personal life was guided by Muslim practices, avoiding alcohol or cigarettes.

2. Somchai’s disappearance and Munir’s death occurred in the same year.

Somchai disappeared on March 12, 2004. In the early morning of September 7 2004, Munir was assasinated with four doses of arsenic on a flight from Indonesia to the Netherlands. Somchai disappeared in the third month of 2004 and Munir died in September, the 3rd month before the end of 2004.

3. Both Died/Disappeared as a result of their political background

The situation in the southern-most districts of Thailand began to intensify following a robbery involving gunfire in a military camp in Narathiwat Province in early January 2004. The Thai Government announced martial law in 4 provinces. Human Rights First disseminated Alert Issued on October 28 2004 said that: “The disappearance was foreshadowed by two grim trends in the Thai human rights environment”. The first of these was the 2003 announcement by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of a new “War on Drugs.” This announcement was followed by the extrajudicial killing of several thousand suspected drug traffickers. Human rights organizations warned that the police would quickly become accustomed to the practice.

At the same time, in the four Southern states of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, a resurgence of the long-simmering unrest among Thailand’s Muslim minority was met with a harsh military response, including the imposition of martial law. After a lull in separatist activity since the late 1980s, a new wave of violence began with a January 4, 2004 attack on an army depot. On April 28, local Muslim youths mounted a coordinated, if poorly armed, wave of attacks. Security forces, which by many accounts had advance knowledge of the attacks, responded with deadly force, killing more than 100 and suffering five fatalities themselves. On October 25, at a mass protest against the detention of six local men outside a police station in Narathiwat province, soldiers firing into the crowd killed six and wounded at least 20, while more than 1,000 people were arrested under martial law provisions.

The next day, authorities reported that 78 detainees died of suffocation while packed into trucks on the five hour drive to Pattani. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly commented, “This is typical. It’s about bodies made weak from fasting. Nobody hurt them.” This incident brought the total to more than 400 people killed during or after clashes in southern Thailand since the beginning of the year. The Thai authorities have characterized the worsening conflict in southern Thailand as a product of either criminal gangs or terrorism, and have justified their actions as legitimate counterterrorism measures. Human rights activists, like Mr. Somchai, who have sought to defend apparent victims of governmental repression, have been criticized as terrorist sympathizers. Mr. Somchai’s disappearance illustrates all too graphically that denigration of human rights defenders makes their work more dangerous. 2

Before he disappeared, Somchai became lawyer to several groups of men who were arrested for involvement in the 2004 clashes in the southern region, including 5 Muslim clients who whose charges involved “threats to national security, conspiracy to commit rebellion, to recruit people and gather arms to commit rebellion, to function as secret society and to act as criminal gang”. Somchai claimed that the confessions of his 5 clients were induced by torture. Somchai raised this case to the court, the Minister of Interior, the Royal Thai Police Commissioner, Parliament house, the Senate office and the Minister of Justice and called for public awareness through the media. This made him a target susceptible to disappearence.

Munir played an important role in the investigation and monitoring of human rights violations committed by the military since the Soeharto regime, becoming more active with the fall of Soeharto in 1998. Part of his monitoring was about the abuse of the power of the military in Aceh and Papua. His high profile as an activist critical of the government and military made him a target of assassination.

4. State officers were involved in both cases

In the Munir case, the fact-finding team established by the Presidential Decision No.111/2004 was given special attention to investigating the State Intelligence Agency (Badan Inteligen Negara- BIN). They were able to demonstrate contact between Pollycarpus, the pilot who was convicted of murder, and Munir, but were never able to prove that he was a BIN agent or that he was acting on order from BIN. The report of the fact-finding team noticed that Pollycarpus travelled to the conflict area in Aceh for a week just as martial law was declared in March 2003. Human Rights First reported that:

“Several Journalists also remembered seeing him in North Aceh at the time. Pollycarous has also stated that he was in East Timor at the time of the referendum and the mass expulsion that followed, and he is also known to have spent time in Papua. His lawyers confirmed his presence in these conflict areas, but contend that in each case he was doing humanitarian work as a missionary pilot.” 3

In the Somchai case, a special committee which was also established by the order of the Prime Minister, incriminated a group of police officers who were subsequently arrested and charged with the robbery Somchai’s property. After the verdict was delivered in the Criminal Court, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra confirmed to the press that Somchai was killed by government officials. “We are now coming to the conclusion that he is already dead and will file a case of murder,” he told reporters.” 4

5. Recorded telephone calls were used as primary evidence in both cases

In the Somchai case, the prosecutor submitted to the court a record of telephone calls made by the 5 policemen charged which showed that on March 12, 2004 this group of police officers called each other and other police officers 75 times from 9 am. until 8.30 pm near to the area from which Somchai disappeared. This demonstrated that the police officers in question were following Somchai all day. Even the judge didn’t question that these documents were legitimate and the prosecutor didn’t bring an expert to justify. However this was the first case in the Thai courts of using telephone recordings as evidence.

In the Munir case, the primary evidence of the fact-finding team to demonstrate a link between Pollycarpus and the national intelligence agency BIN was a series of phone calls, at least 35 accounts, made between both Pollycarpous’ home and cell phone and an office phone and cell phone linked to a man named H. Muchdi Purwopranjono, (known widely in Indonesia as Muchdi). Muchdi was a former soldier who moved to work with BIN in 2001. Muchdi worked as a head of the Special Forces (Kopassus) in 1998, a time of human rights abuses that Munir documented and exposed. Furthermore, Suciwati, Munir’s wife, testified in court that Pollycarpus used to call to Munir’s cell phone, “It was on September 2nd last year that he (Pollycarpus) called my husband’s cell phone. I picked up the phone and he introduced himself as a Garuda employee. He asked about my husband’s flight schedule and I told him that my husband would travel to the Netherlands on September 6,” Suciwati told the trial of Pollycarpus at the Central Jakarta District Court.

“He said that he would be traveling on the same flight as my husband. I told my husband about the phone calls and he just gave a simple comment that Pollycarpus was a weird person and acted too friendly,” she added. 5

6. In both cases there was insufficient evidence for the charge of murder

In the Munir case, the prosecutors charged Pollycarpus with violating Article 340 of the Criminal Code on premeditated murder, and also of forging documents to provide him with a special “aviation security” assignment to travel on the same flight with Munir on the first leg from Jakarta to Singapore, during which he allegedly persuaded Munir to move from business class to executive class. No eye witness or other evidence was available to prove the charge of murder.

In the Somchai case, the 5 defendents were accused of committing robbery and compelling the other person to participate.

7. Their families both faced threats.

Suciwati, Munir’s wife, told the media that “beginning in the late 1990s when my husband began to fight for people’s rights, my family has received seven threats, including bomb terror threats addressed to our house (in Semarang, Central Java) and to my husband’s office (in Jakarta). But law enforcers never brought a single case to court.”6 The latest threat was on November 20 2004, when Suciwati received a package containing a severed chicken head, legs, intestines and excrement. On the styrofoam inside a message was written in Indonesian which translates as:

“Beware!!!!! Do not drag the TNI into Munir’s Death.
Do You Want to End Up Like This?!” 7

Angkhana, a mother of 5 and Somchai’s wife, said in a panel discussion of Muslim Women who were affected by the 3 uprisings in southern Thailand that “it’s sure that when we face with state authorities, one thing that we can’t avoid is being threatened. My relatives asked me am I sure I want to confront a state officer, but I think we are not trouble makers, we are only ordinary people who love and seek justice”.8 During my fight for justice, I learnt to live with fear. For instance one night a man came to my house and asked me if I have a weapon to protect myself. Then he showed me a lot of guns in his jacket … I didn’t know if is this a kind of threat or good will.” Angkhana and family were first under protection by a unit of the Ministry of Justice. The last threat occurred on January 12 2006 after she finished attending a court session in the Somchai case, she returned to the car park at the Criminal Court to find one headlight of her car broken.

8. The Judicial systems of both governments are being questioned by the International Community

The disappearance of Somchai and the murder of Munir are attracting interest and observation by the international community. Since the Somchai case, the Thai and Indonesian Governments have been pressured to answer about the quality of the administration of justice and uncover the master minds behind each case. Human Rights First, based in the USA, outlined both cases on their web site and many international NGOs have monitored the cases such as Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and the Asian Human Rights Commission. From March to April 2005, Angkhana and Suciwati attended the UN Human Rights Commission annual conference in Geneva, Switzerland and submitted a letter to special Rapporture that involved their case.


  1. Translation from Thai, in Angkhana Neelaphaijit : Outside the Law there are still laws of nature (3), December 28, 2005.
  2. Alert Issues : October 28,2004 : Demand an Independent Inquiry into Disappearance of Prominent Thai Lawyer, page 2.
  3. Human Rights First; After One Year: A White Paper on the Investigation and Prosecution in the Munir Murder Case, September 7, 2005 page 4.
  4. Subhatra Bhumiprabhas,The Nation, January 14, 2006.
  5. Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post. Sep.7, 2005.
  6. The Jakarta Post, September 7, 2005.
  7. Berita KontraS, No.06/XI-XII/ 2004, page 10.
  8. Translation from Thai, in ,em>Angkhana Neelaphaijit : over the law there are still law of nature, Isra News Centre,Press and Journalist Association of Thailand.

Sarawut Pratoomraj is a lawyer and human rights activist from Thailand: Senior API Fellow 2005-2006 visiting Jakarta to conduct research entitled “The Effective Role of Komnas Ham in Human Rights Education”.

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