Law Freedom Missing Activists Thaialnd

A Thai political dissident living in exile in Phnom Penh was snatched off the street by mystery men in broad daylight 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.

A Laotian pro-democracy activist living in exile in Bangkok left his apartment for dinner Aug. 26 last year and vanished without a trace. A year on, Thai police say they have no idea where the man is or who took him.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to deduct that something is definitely up.

Southeast Asian governments are making it clear they that they won’t raise an eyebrow if political dissidents hiding out in their territories conveniently disappear at the hands of a foreign power. Local authorities simply look the other way.

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 abducted — and likely murdered — on the orders of influential figures in the Thai government, rights activists believe. Caught unaware on the street of Cambodia’s capital, he was assaulted, thrown in an SUV with tinted windows and driven away with no one raising a fuss.

Cambodian police conducted no serious investigation despite a call by the United Nations to do so. Thai authorities likewise professed to be mystified by the case, saying it is up to Cambodian police to solve the kidnapping.

A similar situation has prevailed in the case of Od Sayavong, the Laotian activist. Age 34 when he vanished, Od was disappeared by Laotian authorities, according to his roommate in Bangkok.

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

Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have sent a message to all political dissidents around the region Nowhere is safe for you. 

Thai police claim they are clueless about what happened to Od. “There has been no progress in this case for now,” a police officer told Radio Free Asia’s Lao Service.

Wanchalearm And Od hardly are the first activists made to disappear in exile in the region with the apparent acquiescence of local authorities.

Three Thai activists facing charges of insulting their monarchy, a crime punishable with 15 years in prison, disappeared in May 2019 after they were arrested in Vietnam. 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 they’ve not surfaced since. Thai officials denied the activists were in their 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 for Human Rights Watch.

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

Plenty of time has elapsed since, yet neither the Laotian nor Thai authorities have made any real effort to track down the 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 Nowhere is safe for you. 

A version of this commentary first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News nor the Bangkok Herald.