Angkhana Neelapaijit – From housewife to Championing Human Rights and Justice

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Angkhana Neelapaijit

Angkhana Neelapaijit_edit


Angkhana Neelapaijit is the recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards for 2019. This award is considered by many as Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.


Magsaysay Foundation lauded her for “championing justice, case after painful case” through her work at Justice for Peace Foundation founded by Angkhana in 2006. Justice for Peace Foundation plays a key role in documenting the human rights situation in Southern Thailand. The organization raise public awareness and put pressure on the Thai government to act on human rights cases. They also provide legal assistance to victims and train women on human rights and the peace process.


Angkhana’s path to becoming the recipient of this award is not one of choice but of necessity from a tragedy suffered in her life. Her remarkable journey started when her husband, Somchai Neelapaijit, a Muslim lawyer and human rights activist disappeared in 2004. Many believed he was taken by the police as Somchai had publicly accused the military of torturing detainees in Southern Thailand. During this time, Southern Thailand was rocked by religious and ethnic conflicts by separatist insurgence.


When her husband disappeared, Angkhana, herself a Muslim Thai of humble origins, was a housewife looking after their five young children and a small business. Thrust into a dangerous and public controversy, she valiantly worked to bring the police officers involved in Somchai’s disappearance to trial, but they were ultimately acquitted.


Despite receiving death threats, Angkhana continued to seek justice for her husband and other human rights victims. She applied herself to learning the laws, filing legal appeals, and navigating the Thai legal system. She bonded with other victims and worked with civil society groups in and outside Thailand.


In 2006, with the help of non-governmental organisations and her own family, Angkhana founded Justice for Peace Foundation (JPF). In a vital initiative, the JPF and other groups pushed for laws that would criminalise torture and enforced disappearances (current Thai law recognises murder only if the body could be found).


Their steadfast lobbying succeeded in getting the Thai government to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 2007, and the Convention to Protect All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012. These were major victories, although the implementing rules have yet to be issued.


In 2015, Angkhana was named to Thailand’s human rights commission, the only member with grassroots human rights experience. Despite the skepticism of government critics, Angkhana took her appointment seriously, firmly committed to taking the peaceful, legal approach to fighting human rights abuses and to doing what she could in “pushing the limits.”


Quietly non-confrontational, she did not waver in speaking her mind against injustice. As commissioner, she successfully interceded with the authorities for detainees to have access to lawyers and their families, and for victims to get financial compensation. She firmly took action on cases of arbitrary arrest and detention and the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly.


She widened her advocacy to address problems like forced child marriages, trafficking of women, and the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. Though her time as commissioner ended on July 31, 2019, there is no doubt Angkhana will remain involved in human rights advocacy, because it is for her deeply personal.


In selecting Angkhana to receive the Magsaysay award, the board of trustees recognised her unwavering courage in seeking justice for her husband and many other victims of violence and conflict in southern Thailand, her systematic, unflagging work to reform a flawed and unfair legal system, and the shining proof that the humblest ordinary person can achieve national impact in deterring human rights abuses.   

Story taken from Myanmar Times, published on the 26th of August 2019.

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