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No hiding place for Thai dissidents

The abduction of another political activist in a neighboring country follows a disturbing pattern

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: June 07, 2020 04:09 AM GMT

Updated: June 07, 2020 04:18 AM GMT

No hiding place for Thai dissidents

Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai political activist living in exile in Phnom Penh, was abducted on June 4 and hasn't been seen since. (Photo: Facebook)

A Thai political activist accused of violating the Computer Crime Act in his homeland has been abducted and is assumed to have been killed in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh where he escaped into exile to avoid being imprisoned in Thailand.

And so it goes.

Although the perpetrators remain unknown, it is a safe bet the activist’s abduction is linked to Thailand’s authoritarian regime. In the past few years several Thai pro-democracy activists have disappeared in neighboring countries and no meaningful investigation has ever been undertaken to find them.

Some of them have been found to have been murdered, but no investigation has been launched to find their killers. Why that is the case is obvious: they have been murdered on the orders of those in power.

Early last year the badly mutilated bodies of three Thai political activists, including a prominent left-wing firebrand, were found in the Mekong River. The three men had gone missing from their hideout in neighboring Laos where they fled after the 2014 coup.

A few months later, another three political exiles disappeared, this time in Vietnam. Chucheep Chiwasut, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai were arrested in Vietnam, whose government said it handed them over to Thai authorities. They have not been seen or heard from since.

The Thai government denied at the time that the three exiles were in its custody while a spokesman for Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said curtly: “We have no information on this issue.”

This time around, after Laos and Vietnam, it has been Cambodia’s turn to see a further addition to the growing list of Thai pro-democracy activists who have been disappeared over the past few years.

Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, was seized by unknown assailants on the evening of June 4 near the Phnom Penh condominium where he lived, according to Thai rights activists.

According to witnesses, the activist was at an open-air eatery when he was approached by three men dressed in black. One of them punched Wanchalearm in the neck before he was dragged to a Toyota Highlander as he was screaming for help. During the incident he was on the phone with his sister, Sitanan Satasaksit, who heard him say “Argh, I can’t breathe” before the call got disconnected.

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Wanchalearm did not return subsequent calls. Video footage recorded by a CCTV camera at the scene of the abduction showed him being manhandled and taken away in a black car with tinted windows. A local security guard said the Thai man’s assailants were armed with guns.

The day before, Wanchalearm, an outspoken critic of Thailand’s military, posted a strongly worded video clip online in which he criticized Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who spearheaded the 2014 coup to unseat a democratically elected government and remains in charge as prime minister.

In Thailand Wanchalearm has also been accused of insulting the monarchy by calling for its reform, an offense which is against the law and punishable with a long prison sentence. In various social media posts still available online, Wanchalearm has described himself as a political refugee who fled Thailand after the coup.

He remained outspoken in his self-imposed exile in Cambodia, although the country is hardly a safe haven for political refugees. Cambodia’s strongman Hun Sen no more respects even basic human rights than do his counterparts in Vietnam or Laos.

“The abduction of a prominent Thai political activist on the streets of Phnom Penh demands an immediate response from the Cambodian authorities,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The Cambodian government should urgently act to locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”

Thai police have washed their hands of the crime, with police spokesman Kissana Phattanacharoen telling a Thai newspaper that “Cambodia is not Thailand. You must ask the relevant country [about the case].”

Good luck with that. Cambodian police have said they had no knowledge of the activist’s abduction, although it was witnessed by several locals and was captured on a security camera.  “We don’t know about it, so what should we investigate?” Chhay Kim Khoeun, the spokesman of Cambodian National Police, told a foreign news agency dismissively.

Over the past decades upwards of 80 Thai government critics and rights activists have been disappeared, many of them in neighboring countries, according to rights groups. In fact, observers say, enforced disappearance is a tool often used by the powerful in Thailand to silence critics.

“[Thai] authorities continue to engage in practices that facilitate enforced disappearances,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “In recent years, dissidents who fled persecution in Thailand have been at risk of enforce disappearance in neighboring countries.”

Human rights activists have been calling on the Thai government to enact legislation to outlaw enforced disappearances, which aren’t considered a crime by law in Thailand, strange as that may sound.

In 2012, the previous Thai government, which would soon be ousted in a coup, signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Since then, however, there has been little progress made to ratify the international law and pass domestic legislation in accordance with it.

“By its inaction, Thailand has allowed a shocking blind spot to prevail in its legislation. The result is that Thai citizens may be tortured, or subject to enforced disappearance, while authorities are not fully equipped to pursue those responsible,” said Piyanut Kotsan, director of Amnesty International Thailand.

“The Thai authorities must bring [the relatives of victims] hope for justice, stop their delaying tactics and fulfil their promise to make enforced disappearance a crime under national law.”

Sadly, that sounds like wishful thinking. There seems to be no indication that Thai authorities are keen to bring justice to those who have been disappeared and to their grieving relatives. 

Here is hoping that Wanchalearm is alive and well. Going by the weight of precedence, however, he may never reappear.

“‪There is no confirmation so far that Wanchalearm Satsaksit has been killed,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a Scottish journalist and political analyst who has been a prominent critic of the Thai establishment, said in a Facebook post on June 5.

“It’s very likely, because that is how the Thai regime’s assassins operate,” he added. “They probably killed him and buried him in a remote place in Cambodia.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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