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Nowhere to hide: SE Asian nations conspire as dissidents disappear

Even when they escape their own countries, pro-democracy activists often pay with their lives

James Lovelock, Vientiane

James Lovelock, Vientiane

Updated: August 27, 2020 03:53 AM GMT
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Nowhere to hide: SE Asian nations conspire as dissidents disappear

Leaflets placed outside the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok appeal for information about Siam Theerawut, who was reportedly arrested in Vietnam and extradited to Bangkok on May 8, 2019, along with two other exiled Thai activists, Chucheep Chiwasut and Kritsana Thapthai. They have not been heard of since. (Photo: iLaw Freedom)

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A Laotian pro-democracy activist living in exile in Bangkok, Thailand, left his apartment for dinner on Aug. 26 last year and vanished without a trace, never to be seen again. A year on, Thai police say they have made no progress in the case.

A Thai political dissident living in exile in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was abducted by several men in broad daylight off the street in front of his apartment building on June 4, never to be seen again. Nearly three months later, Cambodian police say they have no idea where the man is or who took him and why. 

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to realize that something is definitely up.

To all intents and purposes, it seems as if governments around the region are cooperating clandestinely to make sure that foreign political dissidents living in exile on their territory can conveniently be made to disappear by agents of a foreign government as local authorities look the other way.

Od Sayavong, the Laotian political activist who was 34 when he went missing last year, was made to disappear by Lao authorities, according to his roommate in Bangkok.

Before he disappearance “[Od] had come out to protest against the [Lao] government, and most recently he had posted a video clip online criticizing the Lao government during the time of the ASEAN meetings in Thailand,” the unidentified roommate told a foreign media outlet.

Thai police profess to have no clue about what has happened to the missing Laotian man. “There has been no progress in this case for now,” a police officer told Radio Free Asia’s Lao Service.

A similar situation has prevailed in the case of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, an outspoken Thai pro-democracy activist who fled first to Laos, then to Cambodia following a 2014 military coup in Thailand which saw a sustained crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Wanchalearm was seized by several armed men who caught him unawares, assaulted him and took him to an unknown location in an SUV with tinted windows. Rights activists believe Wanchalearm was abducted — and likely murdered — on the orders of influential figures in the Thai government.

Cambodian police have conducted no serious investigation into the disappearance despite a call by the United Nations to do so. Thai authorities have likewise professed to be mystified by the case, saying it was all up to Cambodian police to investigate.

And so there you have it: some countries around Southeast Asia are aiding each other in silencing dissidents, judging by the available evidence.

Nor have Od and Wanchalearm been the only two activists in the region who have been made to disappear on foreign territory with the apparent compliance of local authorities.

Three Thai activists facing charges of insulting their country’s monarchy, a crime punishable with 15 years in prison in Thailand, disappeared in May last year after they were arrested in Vietnam. The three dissidents — Chucheep Chiwasut, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai — were reportedly detained after crossing over from Laos into Vietnam on fake passports.  

Vietnamese authorities later said they had handed the three men over to Thai authorities on May 8 last year, but nothing has been known about their whereabouts since. Thailand’s government has denied the activists were in Thai custody.

“Vietnam’s alleged secret forced return to Thailand of three prominent activists should set off alarm bells in the international community,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

At the same time, Minar Pimple, senior director for global operations at Amnesty International, called on the Thai authorities to “acknowledge whether they are in military or police custody and establish their whereabouts [and] ensure that the three men are held in an official place of detention and have immediate access to independent lawyers, doctors and family members.” 

Sadly, it is highly likely that the three men will never be seen again. This bleak assessment is more than mere conjecture.

Three prominent Thai pro-democracy activists — Surachai Danwattananusorn, 78, and two of his close aides — disappeared after they were last seen in the Lao capital Vientiane on Dec. 11, 2018. Within weeks their mutilated bodies were found on the Thai side of the Mekong River, which separates Laos and Thailand.

The hands and feet of the corpses were bound and their faces had been smashed beyond recognition. The men had also been disemboweled and stuffed with concrete in an effort to make their corpses sink.

Plenty of time has elapsed since these heinous crimes, yet neither the Lao nor the Thai authorities have made any real effort to track down the three men’s murderers.

“The Lao government seems intent on sweeping the abduction and gruesome murder of Thai activists under the rug,” observed Adams of Human Rights Watch.

By turning a blind eye to the enforced disappearance and murder of political exiles on their territory, countries like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have sent a message to all political dissidents around the region. That message is this: nowhere is safe for you.  

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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