A year on from Thai activist’s kidnap in Cambodia, family in anguish but authorities silent

Protesters hold banners and masks with the face of Thai dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit during a protest outside the Embassy of Cambodia in Bangkok on December 3, 2020, six months after his alleged kidnapping in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

This month marks a year since Thai government critic Wanchalearm “Tar” Satsaksit disappeared following his apparent abduction in Cambodia on June 4, 2020.

His family, friends, and fellow activists have failed to locate him despite repeated attempts, both in Thailand and in Cambodia. Many now believe he is no longer alive.

Wanchalearm, 37, was kidnapped by a group of armed men outside his apartment building in Phnom Penh. The incident was witnessed by passers-by and recorded on CCTV cameras, but Cambodian authorities refused to treat it as a case of abduction.

The activist had been living in self-exile in the neighboring country since 2014, having fled Thailand after being summoned by the junta following the military coup in May that year.

He is among nine critics of the Thai government and military thought to have fallen victim to enforced disappearance over the past few years. His case has become a focus of anti-establishment protests seeking to oust the Thai government and change the junta-sponsored Constitution.

‘No progress’

Thai authorities have made no progress in the investigation of Wanchalearm’s disappearance since his family submitted their information to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) a year ago, his sister Sitanan said on May 7. “We will discuss what to do next on June 4,” she added.

However, she has little hope of ever seeing Wanchalearm alive again, and is now trying to make sense of why someone would want to kill her younger brother.

Sitanan even traveled to Cambodia on November 10 in search of the truth about her brother’s disappearance. However, she is dismayed by how Cambodian authorities have dealt with the case.

“The Cambodian police did not conduct a proper investigation,” she said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in early February. “I felt that officials in Cambodia did not care about the evidence we presented. They said if we could not provide stronger evidence, they would not investigate the case at all.”

Sitanan says Thai authorities have shown an equal lack of enthusiasm, declining to give her any information or to conduct a formal inquiry into her brother’s disappearance.

Sitanan, sister of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh on December 8, 2020, six months after his alleged kidnapping. (Photo by Chor SOKUNTHEA / AFP)

‘Forced disappearance’

Like its Cambodian counterpart, the Thai government has provided no official explanation for Wanchalearm’s disappearance. However, Sitanan suspects Thai authorities were involved in what she describes as her brother’s “forced disappearance” in Cambodia.

In January, she petitioned the Attorney-General’s Office and the Rights and Liberties Protection Department’s National Committee on Torture and Enforced Disappearances. The case was later referred to the DSI, which asked for the evidence she had presented to a Phnom Penh court and information she gained from Cambodian authorities.

The evidence was duly compiled by Wanchalearm’s family and their lawyers, said Sitanan.

Following Wanchalearm’s disappearance, the Cambodian government came under pressure from international organizations to take urgent action to locate his whereabouts.

Among those applying pressure were the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Human Rights Office, European Parliament, and Human Rights Watch.

However, their calls have failed to spur any serious investigation on the part of Cambodia.

A colorful character

Born in the Northeast province of Ubon Ratchathani, Wanchalearm graduated from Ramkhamhaeng University’s Faculty of Political Science. He was a member of the Pheu Thai Party’s youth arm and a public relations staffer in the Yingluck Shinawatra government.

Described as a popular and colorful character, Wanchalearm began his activism over a decade ago, primarily focusing on gender and LGBT rights. His interest later shifted to broader calls for democracy in Thailand, particularly after the 2014 coup, according to Human Rights Watch Asia senior researcher Sunai Phasuk, who is a friend.

Following the 2014 coup, Wanchalearm was charged with failing to obey a junta summons. After fleeing to Cambodia, he continued to publish Facebook posts critical of junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai military, and the monarchy.

Thai authorities responded by issuing warrants for Wanchalearm’s arrest in 2015 for lèse majesté, in 2017 for violating the Computer Crime Act, and in 2018 for defaming PM Prayut.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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