Thailand's disappearing activists problem still in focus 1 month after abduction in Cambodia

#ThaiCantBreathe: Disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Phnom Penh triggered calls for answers in kingdom, international community

Activists put up posters near Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. 

Activists put up posters near Cambodian embassy in Bangkok.  (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Pressure is mounting on the Cambodian and Thai governments to investigate the abduction of Thai dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit, the latest critic of Thailand's regime to be disappeared since the military seized power in 2014, and his parting words have become a rallying cry for outraged Thai netizens.

On the afternoon of June 4, Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted in broad daylight while on the phone outside his Phnom Penh apartment. The security guard of the complex said he saw a group of armed men drag the 37-year-old into a black SUV, which was captured driving away by CCTV footage, according to reports.

His sister Sitanan, who had been on the other end of the line, said she heard what sounded like a "crash" followed by several Cambodian voices and her brother's words — "Argh, I can't breathe" — before the call was cut off.

The 2014 coup d'etat led by Thailand's general-turned-prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, saw a crackdown on activists, members of the opposition, and others who had run afoul of the new military government, the National Council for Peace and Order. After being summoned by the regime, Wanchalearm joined over 100 other dissidents in fleeing the country fearing arbitrary detention.

Taking up residence in the Cambodian capital, he regularly published online criticisms of the junta on a Facebook page titled “Ku Tong Dai 100 Lan Jak Thaksin Nae Nae," or "I will definitely get 100 million baht from Thaksin." Thaksin Shinawatra was the Thai prime minister from 2001 until 2006 when he was toppled in another military coup; his sister Yingluck served in the same office between 2011 and her own ouster in 2014.

In one of Wanchalearn's final Facebook posts before his disappearance, he published a video in which he mocked Prime Minister Prayuth.

The Thai authorities had previously expressed their determination to take him into custody for his criticisms, citing the Computer Crimes Act that covers actions deemed capable of "damaging national security or causing public panic." Sitanan Satsaksit told BBC Thai that police had in May shown up at their mother's home in the eastern Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani to inquire about his whereabouts.

When announcing the warrant for his arrest in 2018, Immigration police chief Gen. Surachet Hakpal cryptically boasted that although Wanchalearm was outside Thai jurisdiction, it was "certainly not beyond the ability of the police to pursue him and make the arrest," according to Thai daily the Thai Rath.

The Thai Press Development Institute (ISRA) claimed Wanchalearm and 29 other self-exiled Thais stand accused of lèse majesté, or defaming the monarchy, a charge outlined in Section 112 of the criminal code that has frequently been used to target political opponents in the kingdom, but the government denies this. No charges of lèse majesté have been brought forward in three years — however, there are signs it is giving way to subtler means of suppressing speech, such as broadly interpreting the Computer Crimes Act.

(AP photo)

Wanchalearm's disappearance is the latest in a string of kidnappings of Thai dissidents in bordering countries since Prayuth seized power. At least eight others have disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and all are presumed dead.

Like Wanchalearm, several others had been publishing anti-junta or anti-monarchy content in neighboring countries. A YouTuber and radio show host disappeared in the Laotian capital of Vientiane in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Meanwhile, a 75-year old activist Surachai Danwattananursorn vanished in rural Laos along with two aides, whose bodies were later found on the Thai side of the Mekong River — their abdomens stuffed with concrete blocks.

The latest disappearance sparked a strong backlash, both on the streets and online. A number of small protests have taken place in Bangkok: four students were arrested for tying ribbons around the city's Democracy Monument, Deutsche Welle reported, and several dozen demonstrators came together outside the Cambodian embassy to chant "Save Wanchalearm."

The refrain #SaveWanchalearm quickly spread on Twitter, which Thais are increasingly using to air their political grievances, and it was retweeted nearly half a million times within 24 hours, Deutsche Welle reported. Also trending is the hashtag #ThaiCantBreathe, which simultaneously references the last words heard from the activist as well as those fatefully uttered by George Floyd, whose death by police in May sparked protests and rioting across the U.S.

(Spring Movement photo)

After Wanchalearm's disappearance, Spring Movement, an organization founded by students at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University to advance human rights and democracy, began hanging up "missing" posters featuring Wanchalearm and over a dozen other alleged victims of enforced disappearance over the years.

Beneath each missing person's name is written "Cause of Disappearance: Abducted by the state." The organizers told Taiwan News that "A lot of people sent a message to ask whether they can buy the posters or get a free one, so we give it away by [posting] the files on our Facebook page and Twitter."

On the international front, the UN has appealed to Cambodia for "urgent action" and gave it until June 24 to report on the progress of the search for Wanchalearm under the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which Cambodia and Thailand are signatories. Several members of the European Parliament have called on both Southeast Asian nations to get to the bottom of it, expressing grave concerns over "reports of the exchange of political dissidents by authorities in the ASEAN region."

The Thai authorities have denied any knowledge of the incident, with the foreign minister telling Parliament the matter was up to Cambodia to investigate. Cambodia's police leadership and Interior Ministry have likewise claimed ignorance, with the latter revealing only that Wanchalearm's resident visa expired at the end of 2017, Khmer Times reported.

However, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams doubts Wanchalearm could have been snatched from under the Cambodian government's nose: "Prime Minister Hun Sen's iron-fisted control of the country should leave little doubt that the government could locate Wanchalearm in short order." According to Adams, last month's brazen, public kidnapping marks a "dangerous" new phase of the trend of disappearing activists.

Meanwhile, the Thai Cabinet has approved draft legislation that, if approved by Parliament, would allow Thais with family members who were victims of forced disappearance or torture to sue on their behalf — Thais such as Sitanan Satsaksit.

Wanchalearm's family is doing what it can to seek answers, though his sister admitted to BBC Thai that she is not optimistic about her brother's fate.

On June 24, the family filed a complaint pressing the Thai government to investigate his disappearance and provide them with any information it has on his status, according to Pratchatai. They have been trying to file a similar complaint with the Cambodian police but have reportedly had difficulty finding a lawyer to represent them.

Taiwan News was unable to reach the Thai foreign ministry for comment.

Now-removed graffiti art of Wanchalearm (Twitter, @headachestencil photo)