Human Rights Defender in Thailand: Somchai Homlaor

Somchai Homlaor has been a key figure in the defence of human rights in Thailand for 25 years, since his trial by fire during the birth of the nation’s modern human rights movement. In October 1973, while obtaining a law degree from prestigious Thammasat University, a young Somchai Homlaor was a leader in mass student-led protests – violently suppressed by the military government – demanding democracy and human rights.

Three years later, he had founded a human rights group and he was again a protest leader during the October 1976 protests that similarly ended in bloodshed, including his own. He was detained for 10 months on spurious charges, after which he had to seek refuge in the northern Thai jungle, under Communist Party of Thailand control, for three years.

Since then Somchai Homlaor has founded, led, or been a prominent member of nearly every major human rights organization and movement in Thailand.

In 1986, Somchai Homlaor’s work with Amnesty International forced him to flee once again, this time out of the country. When Amnesty International published evidence that a Cambodian refugee had been tortured by the Thai military, Somchai Homlaor, who had uncovered most of the information, was forced to flee to Hong Kong.

At various times during the 1990s, Khun Somchai was the Secretary-General of both the Campaign for Popular Democracy and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development. The Campaign for Popular Democracy spearheaded the popular uprising that toppled the military-backed government in “Black May” 1992. This action was once more accompanied by much civilian bloodshed.

On account of his leadership the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development was Southeast Asia’s pre-eminent human rights organization.

He was also the President of Thailand’s Union for Civil Liberty, the Chair of the Lawyers Council of Thailand’s Human Rights Committee, and a Board member of the 14 October (1973) Foundation, which works to keep the memory and spirit of those – and his – formative demonstrations alive.

Today, Somchai Homlaor applies his experience and legal expertise to a wide range of human rights groups and causes in Thailand. Within the National Human Rights Commission, an independent body that awarded him its 2007 Thai Human Rights Defender Award, Somchai Homlaor is Vice-Chair of the Subcommittees on Enforced Disappearance, Law, Policy, and the Justice System, and on Torture.

Under Thailand’s 2008 Constitution, he serves as a Committee member of the National Legal Reform Committee and is an Executive Board member of the Political Development Council.

Somchai Homlaor is a Committee member of Focus on the Global South, focusing on fair trade, a senior legal consultant for the Asia-Pacific regional office of the International Commission of Jurists, focusing on the rule of law, and an Executive Committee member of both the Thai Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism and the Asian Institute for Human Rights.

He is the founder and Secretary-General of the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), focusing on migrant workers and the Chair of the Campaign Committee for Human Rights, which concentrates on human rights advocacy.

Perhaps most importantly, Somchai Homlaor is the President of the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), an NGO that organizes human rights education activities and training and seeks to build bridges between different elements of society. In particular, the CrCF focuses on the civil armed conflict between Muslim militants and largely Buddhist security forces and civilians in southern Thailand.

“At a time when most regional and international human rights and intergovernmental organizations are focusing on Myanmar in Southeast Asia,” said Donna Guest, Deputy Director, Asia Pacific Program, Amnesty International, “Somchai Homlaor and the CrCF are bringing much-needed attention – and trying to effect real change – to a conflict that has killed over 3,500 people since January 2004.”