‘I can’t breathe’: Uproar after yet another Thai activist in exile disappears
Wanchalerm Satsaksit is not the first activist living in exile in a neighbouring country to mysteriously disappear since the 2014 military coup, and he may not be the last. At least eight other Thai activists living overseas have met the same fate in recent years, some of them later turning up dead.
Wanchalerm, a 37-year-old Ubon Ratchathani native, was last seen being bundled into a vehicle by a group of men outside his apartment in Phnom Penh on June 4. He had stepped out for a walk, according to Human Rights Watch.
His sister Sitanan told Prachatai website that she had been on the phone chatting with her brother when she heard him scream “Argh, I can’t breathe” before the line was cut.
Wanchalerm fled to Cambodia after the 2014 coup, when he was summoned by the military. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) regime lodged a complaint when he failed to respond.
The authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wanchalerm in June 2018 for allegedly violating the Computer Crimes Act by running a Facebook page titled “Ku Tong Dai 100 Lan Jak Thaksin Nae Nae” (I will definitely get Bt100 million from Thaksin) from Phnom Penh. The page was used as a platform to attack the Thai government.
Isra News Agency also reported that Wanchalerm was among 29 exiled Thai activists accused of violating the lese majeste law, or Article 112 of the Criminal Code, though Thai authorities have denied this.
In May, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Centre reported that at least 104 Thai political dissidents have sought refuge in other countries for coup-related reasons since the May 2014 military takeover. Though the NCPO is now defunct, the political exiles are still not able to return home while the safety of especially those who live in neighbouring countries remains an issue of concern, the report read.
In the wake of the coup, at least nine Thai activists who sought refuge in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, including Wanchalerm, have disappeared for unknown reasons and some were later found dead, rights groups report.
In July 2016, Ittipon “DJ Sunho” Sukpaen, who faced charges of violating the lese majeste law in Thailand and was hiding out in the outskirts of Vientiane from where he continued to post anti-monarchy clips on YouTube, disappeared without a trace.
Wuthipong “Ko Tee” Kachathamakul, a hardcore red-shirt leader and host of an anti-monarchist radio show who faced 21 arrest warrants for a series of offences, including lese-majeste, was abducted from his Vientiane home in July 2017 and has not been seen since.
Jom Petchpradab, an independent media personality, said Ko Tee’s close associates confirmed that the red-shirt leader had been abducted on July 29, 2017, by 10 armed men dressed in black and wearing balaclavas.
In December 2018, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Thailand’s most outspoken political exile, disappeared along with his two close aides Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej Luelert from their base in a remote part of Laos. The three had been running an anti-junta radio show called “Thailand Revolution” from their Laotian hideout.
Surachai, who fought against the governments as a communist guerrilla during 70-80’s, fled to Laos eight months after being released from a prison term for lese majeste. However, he had a bounty on his head and faced arrest for his role in the red-shirt protest that shut down the 2009 Asean Summit in Pattaya.
In late December 2018, Chatcharn and Kraidej’s bodies were found on the Thai side of the Mekong River. They had been handcuffed, disembowelled and their bodies stuffed with concrete. The whereabouts of Surachai remain unknown.
In early 2019, Vietnamese authorities reportedly arrested Chucheep “Uncle Sanam Luang” Chivasut, Siam “Comrade Khaoneaw Mamuang” Theerawut, and Kritsana “Comrade Young Blood” Thapthai for entering the country illegally and using fake documents to flee prosecution by authorities in Thailand.
Vietnamese authorities reportedly handed them over to Thailand in May 2019, though both sides have denied this. Nobody has been able to contact them since their arrest.
The three men were accused of violating the lese majeste law, as well as operating an online anti-monarchy radio station and mobilising supporters of Chuheep’s Organisation for Thai Federation to hold demonstrations against the monarchy by wearing black T-shirts in the capital and other provinces.
None of these cases has been resolved, while the Thai government and military have denied any role in the disappearances.
Public waking up to injustice
Pressure from his family, local and international rights advocates, academics, student activists, politicians and several celebrities is mounting on both Thai and Cambodian governments, demanding that they investigate Wanchalerm’s abduction. On Tuesday, the Cambodian government told Agence France-Presse that it had agreed to launch an investigation into the case.
Earlier on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said that he had instructed the Foreign Ministry to look into the case, but added he had yet to discuss the matter with his Cambodian counterpart, Deputy PM and Defence Minister General Tia Ban.
The ministry has also asked its Cambodian counterpart for relevant information, according to the Foreign Minister’s spokesperson Cherdkiat Atthakor.
Wanchalerm’s abduction has caught the attention of Thai citizens and netizens, with the hashtag #SaveWanchalerm trending on Twitter with more than 400,000 retweets last Friday.
The campaign demanding that the two governments explain the activist’s disappearance has even been joined by Maria Poonlertlarp, Miss Universe Thailand 2017.
“I may or may not stand with him, I don’t know enough to say, but I am standing together with Thai people demanding that what is happening is wrong and we want answers,” she wrote on Instagram on Monday along with the hashtag #SaveWanchalerm.
Rangsiman Rome, opposition Kao Klai MP and spokesperson of the House committee on laws, justice and human rights, said he would ask the committee on Wednesday to summon the national police chief, the commander of the police Special Branch, and the director-general of Department of Consular Affairs or head of the Protection of Thai Nationals Abroad Division to provide an explanation on the matter.
“What happened to Wanchalerm is forced disappearance. It concerns Thai people’s safety, and taking care of this is the government’s responsibility,” he said.
Since Thailand’s penal code does not recognise forced disappearance as a criminal offence, Rangsiman said he will try to push for the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill to prevent such crimes in the future.
International law defines forced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.
Former human-rights commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit has called on both the Thai and Cambodian governments to join forces in uncovering the facts of what has happened to Wanchalerm and making them public.
“Though he is in self-exile in Cambodia and holds opinions that are different from the government’s, as a Thai citizen, he should not be ignored otherwise the government may be suspected as an accomplice [in his disappearance],” she posted on Facebook.
Meanwhile public pressure for information in the latest case of enforced disappearance of a Thai activist is growing. Last Friday, students and activists gathered on a skywalk in downtown Bangkok to demand answers from authorities in Thailand and Cambodia, as well as call for justice for Wanchalerm and other political dissidents who have vanished.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk