A Thai Dissident Was 'Kidnapped' in Cambodia. Protesters and the UN Want Answers.

At least eight Thai activists have similarly vanished abroad since Thailand's military coup in 2014, some of whom later turned up brutally murdered.
June 16, 2020, 10:06am
thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit thailand cambodia
Protesters hold banners and portraits of allegedly kidnapped Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside the Embassy of Cambodia in Bangkok on June 8, 2020. Mladen ANTONOV / AFP

On June 3, self-exiled Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit posted a scathing video on Facebook lambasting Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

The next day, CCTV video footage revealed he was bundled into a black vehicle by unknown assailants near his apartment in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and has not been heard from since.

In the days since Wanchalearm’s disappearance, a growing chorus of voices has called on both the Thai and Cambodian governments to locate him, with protesters gathering Monday at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok to demand the neighboring country work to find the missing activist.

At the rally, fellow activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk said Wanchalearm’s kidnapping was evidence of rot in the government of Prime Minister Prayut, who has been accused of presiding over a crackdown on dissent since first taking power in a military coup in 2014.

"The more he uses the law to harass us and restrict our rights, the more this shows that the Prayut administration is made of crooks and bandits that kill their citizens, especially refugees,” Somyot was quoted as saying to the Thai outlet Khaosod.

Other demonstrations have kicked off around Bangkok in recent days seeking justice for other missing Thai activists, and protesting against enforced disappearances.

The UN's human rights body, meanwhile, has also waded in to issue an "urgent" request to Cambodia "to take all necessary measures to search, locate and protect Wanchalearm."

The letter, dated June 10, gives Cambodian authorities two weeks to respond.

According to the Bangkok Post, Wanchalearm’s sister, Sitanan Satasaksit, was speaking with him on the phone when the abduction took place, telling the media that she heard her brother say, "I can’t breathe," before the call abruptly ended.

A security guard who had tried to help the activist at the scene said that the kidnappers were armed.

Wanchalearm’s disappearance drew condemnation from both local and international human rights groups, including the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

“The Cambodian government is obligated to find out what happened to Wanchalearm, who was taken away at gunpoint in Phnom Penh, and ensure he is safe,” said HRW’s Asia director, Brad Adams.

In a statement, HRW accused Thailand and Cambodia of having “collaborated” to harass and forcibly return dissidents to Thailand in the past, and disclosed that Wanchalearm had previously told them he had been surveilled by Thai officials in Cambodia.

The Cambodian authorities, who initially suggested that the kidnapping could have been “fake news,” finally launched an investigation into the matter on June 9.

The same day, Prime Minister Prayut said Thailand would "cooperate" however it could, and would not "interfere" with the Cambodian authorities’ investigation.

Wanchalearm is a well-known activist associated with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a local political group linked to Thailand’s Red Shirt political movement. He left Thailand for Cambodia in 2014 to escape arrest by a Thai military court after defying a summons from the now-dissolved military junta.

According to Thai authorities, Wanchalearm is currently wanted for allegedly violating the Computer Crimes Act and Article 116 of the Thai penal code, for publishing criticisms of the Thai government on his Facebook page.

His disappearance has reignited conversations about waning political freedoms in Thai civil society, with the hashtag #SaveWanchalerm trending on Twitter on the day of his alleged abduction.

Wanchalearm’s high-profile disappearance is just the latest in a string of such cases, with at least eight Thai activists living abroad vanishing since Prayut’s government took power in 2014, some of whom were later found brutally murdered.