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More questions than answers over missing Thai activists

Fears grow that exiled dissidents were made to disappear by powerful people as police investigations stall

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: June 04, 2021 03:57 AM GMT

Updated: June 04, 2021 03:58 AM GMT

More questions than answers over missing Thai activists

Sitanan Satsaksit (kneeling center), sister of missing Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, prays during a Buddhist ceremony on Dec. 4, 2020, at the site of his disappearance in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. (Photo: AFP)

On a sunny June day in Bangkok, three Thai women arrived at a government agency looking for answers about the fate of their missing loved ones. Hours later, they left none the wiser.   

The women were relatives of two Thai political dissidents who disappeared without a trace in Cambodia and Vietnam, yet even after much time spent waiting anxiously for some progress into the cases, the women are no closer to knowing what happened to their relatives than at the time of their disappearance.

The sister of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a political activist in exile in Cambodia who was abducted by unknown assailants in Phnom Penh last year, was joined on June 2 by the mother and sister of Siam Theerawut, an activist who disappeared in 2019 after fleeing to Vietnam.

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They visited the Thai police’s Department of Special Investigation in Bangkok to ask investigators for new details on the old cases. They were reportedly told that the investigations were “in progress” but were left without any new answers.

“They [the DSI] just asked us for information. There hasn’t been much investigation at all. They just asked for basic information from us about when the disappearances took place,” Siam’s sister Saranya Theerawut, 34, lamented.

“There has been no search at all. We have hope that one day we will meet, that we will meet Siam once again, even though there is not that much hope.”

There have been allegations that the three activists could be held at an undisclosed location in Thailand

Siam, who was 34 at the time of his disappearance in Vietnam in 2019, was charged with sedition and royal defamation in 2014, the same year Thailand’s current prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, led a military coup as the Royal Thai Army’s then chief to unseat an elected government and seize power.

Following the coup, Siam fled first to Laos, then to Vietnam with two other Thai dissidents. His family lost contact with him in January 2019 while he was in Vietnam.

It is believed that he and the two other dissidents were arrested and deported back to Thailand in May 2019 at the request of Thai authorities. Both the Thai authorities and their Vietnamese counterparts, however, have denied knowing anything of the whereabouts of Siam and the other two dissidents.

There have been allegations that the three activists could be held at an undisclosed location in Thailand. It has also been alleged that they were murdered.

Be that as it may, Thai authorities have made little progress in their investigation into the disappearance of Siam and his fellow activists. Nor have they made more progress into the disappearance of Wanchalearm, according to his sister.

Wanchalearm, who was 37 at the time of his abduction last year, was a prominent pro-democracy activist who fled to Cambodia after the coup of 2014. On June 4 last year, he was standing on a street in Phnom Penh and speaking on the phone with his sister Sitanan Satsaksit in Thailand when unknown assailants grabbed him in full view of witnesses and manhandled him into a waiting vehicle before driving away.

“I heard a loud bang [on the phone]. At first I thought he had a car accident as he shouted ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’” Sitanan recalled soon after her brother’s disappearance.

The line was then cut and Wanchalearm has not been seen or heard from since. A year on, it remains unknown what happened to him, although it is assumed he was likely murdered.

The government should stop denying the undeniable and urgently locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety

Prominent rights groups have called on the governments of Cambodia and Thailand to investigate the disappearance of the missing dissident, but to no avail, it seems.

“The abduction of a prominent Thai activist on the streets of Phnom Penh is a new and dangerous turn that demands an immediate, credible response from the Cambodian authorities,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, stressed in a statement in July last year.

“The government should stop denying the undeniable and urgently locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”

There has been plenty of evidence to go on as security cameras at the site of the abduction outside an apartment building recorded some of what happened, based on CCTV footage obtained by a Thai online news agency that shows a dark SUV speeding away.

Eyewitnesses also recalled seeing some men attack Wanchalearm before forcing him into a Toyota Highlander as he screamed “Please help!” in Khmer.

Despite such evidence, however, no progress has reportedly been made in the case, which has prompted many Thais to suspect a cover-up about so-called enforced disappearances whereby agents of the state dispose of government critics secretly through extrajudicial means.

Powerful interests could always operate with impunity in Thailand, and this has especially been the case since the coup

“These [activists] did not just disappear into thin air; they were made to disappear on purpose by powerful people,” a Thai democracy activist in Bangkok told UCA News on condition of anonymity.

“Powerful interests could always operate with impunity in Thailand, and this has especially been the case since the coup.”

As the investigations into the disappearances of Siam, Wanchalearm and other missing Thai dissidents drag on, their relatives are being subjected to mental anguish that amounts to torture, the United Nations has warned.

“We highlight that the anguish and sorrow of the family may reach the threshold of torture,” the UN noted in a letter last year in which it urged Cambodian authorities to investigate Wanchalearm’s abduction.

“The right to truth is therefore an absolute right which cannot be restricted and there is an absolute obligation to take all the necessary steps to find the person.”

Sadly, however, the three relatives of Siam and Wanchalearm continue to be denied the right to know what happened to their missing loved ones. And so they carry on waiting and hoping for answers.

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