• The Star Staff

Thai dissidents are disappearing, and families are fighting for answers

By Hannah Beech

Three Thai dissidents went missing in Laos for months. Then, last year, two of their bodies turned up on the banks of the Mekong River, their limbs bound and bellies filled with concrete.

Another three Thai activists who fled to Vietnam have not been seen for more than a year, ever since they were delivered into the hands of Thai authorities by the Vietnamese government, according to their political allies.

This month, Wanchalerm Satsaksit, a Thai pro-democracy campaigner in Cambodia, was bundled into a black sedan by armed men, according to witnesses. His last words, caught by his sister, with whom he was on a call: “Can’t breathe.”

All these Thais living in exile since a military coup in Thailand in 2014 have two things in common: They had criticized Thailand’s most influential institutions, the monarchy and the military. Then they disappeared.

At least nine prominent critics of the Thai government have vanished over the past two years, according to human rights groups. It is a pattern of disappearances that the Thai public is having a hard time ignoring, despite legislation that criminalizes some dissent and a state of emergency that has been extended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The people are more aware that there are abnormalities in this country,” said Nuttaa Mahattana, a democracy activist in Bangkok. “This should be the point where people start questioning the authorities about what’s going on: Why have the nice people been abducted?”

As face-mask-wearing crowds gathered across Thailand on Wednesday to commemorate the anniversary of the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy, some people held up pictures of Wanchalerm.

Earlier this month, a Thai former beauty queen expressed solidarity with those who wanted to know his fate.

“I am standing together with the Thai people in saying that what is happening is wrong and we want answers,” Maria Poonlertlarp, a former Miss Universe Thailand, wrote on Instagram.

Even as it has cultivated a reputation as a tropical wonderland for tourists, Thailand has been roiled by a long history of military coups, upended elections and violently crushed street protests. The spate of forcible disappearances, which evoke the tactics of military rulers in places like Argentina and Chile, are a more recent phenomenon, rights groups say.

“Since the May 2014 coup, Thai authorities have aggressively pursued the apprehension of pro-democracy activists who took refuge in neighboring countries,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

But without clarity in most of the cases — neither the activists’ whereabouts nor the plotters of the disappearances are certain — their relatives are suspended in a terrible limbo.

“We don’t know if he is dead or still alive,” said Sitanan Satsaksit, Wanchalerm’s sister. “We know nothing at all.”

Wanchalerm, 37, grew up in the rural northeast of Thailand, where opposition to the country’s entrenched elites is strongest. He was the head of his high school student council and after college worked for grassroots civil society groups.

For much of the 21st century, most Thais have voted for populist parties, only for those governments to be unseated either by coups or judicial means. The 2014 putsch scattered some of the most forceful critics of the political establishment, many of whom sought refuge in other Southeast Asian nations.

Wanchalerm fled Thailand six years ago after he was ordered to attend a so-called attitude adjustment camp, indoctrination sessions at army bases for those who publicly opposed the coup. Thousands of Thais were forced into these camps, some for weeks at a time.

For the first couple years, he rarely contacted his relatives, worried about their safety and his own, his sister said. But even from self-imposed exile, he continued to post critiques of the military-linked government on social media.

The day before his disappearance June 4, Wanchalerm wrote a post on Facebook criticizing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, who was the architect of the last coup.

Sitanan was on the phone with her brother as he left his apartment in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, to buy supplies at a nearby minimart. Suddenly, she heard the urgent voices of Cambodian men and sharp sounds that she described as “pang, pang, pang.”

“I heard it all,” Sitanan said.

An employee of the minimart, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was afraid of retribution by authorities, said that she had seen Wanchalerm almost every day. For a few days before his kidnapping, a black car had idled outside the store, she said.

Wanchalerm was surrounded and then bundled into the vehicle, the minimart employee said. Bystanders wanted to help him, but the men were armed.

“We have grave fears for his safety and are concerned that his reported abduction in Phnom Penh on 4 June 2020 may now comprise an enforced disappearance,” said Jeremy Laurence, a media officer for the United Nations human rights agency in Geneva.

Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s minister of foreign affairs, told Parliament that it was up to the Cambodians to investigate the case.

Chhay Kimkhoeun, a spokesman for the Cambodian National Police, said that the Cambodian government had not ordered Wanchalerm’s arrest. An initial police inquiry found that the Thai exile did not live in the building where his friends and colleagues said he did, Chhay Kimkhoeun said. The owner of the building stated that he did not know Wanchalerm. And the license plate of the black car was a fake one, Chhay Kimkhoeun said.

He also noted that Wanchalerm’s visa had expired three years ago. “If he lives in Cambodia,” he said, “it means it is illegal.”

Governed by Asia’s longest-serving autocrat, Cambodia has crushed its own opposition movement, outlawing political parties and imprisoning activists.

Back in Thailand, news of Wanchalerm’s abduction radiated from pro-democracy groups to the broader public. In a country where various laws, including a Computer Crimes Act and lèse-majesté legislation, make speaking out a potentially criminal offense, some prominent individuals kept quiet.

Praya Lundberg, a Thai actress and model who is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency, posted on Instagram that “the situation is highly sensitive and complicated.”

“I promote peace and nonpolitical agendas,” she wrote, adding that the case was “not my fight.”

The U.N. refugee agency in Geneva said that it did not comment on individual cases.

Kanya Theerawut, mother of Siam Theerawut, one of the activists who disappeared in Vietnam last year, has written letter after letter to the Thai police, the Thai government and the Vietnamese authorities, all to no avail.

“Everybody gives a similar answer, that there’s no evidence,” she said. “I still don’t know where to look, but I’ll keep looking.”