A Thai pro-democracy activist living in exile in Phnom Penh was abducted by a group of armed men on Thursday evening while just outside his apartment, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.
Cambodian officials on Friday said they had no information about the abduction of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a political activist affiliated with the pro-democracy United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the “Red Shirt” movement, while the U.N. human rights office in Phnom Penh said it was conducting inquiries.
Wanchalearm fled to Cambodia after the May 2014 military coup in Thailand that saw Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha come to power.
The activist was captured just before 6 p.m. on Thursday as he was walking outside his apartment to buy food and talking on the phone to a colleague, who heard him scream and say “Argh, I can’t breathe,” before the call dropped, HRW said in a statement.
The rights watchdog said Wanchalearm was taken away in a black car, according to several witnesses and apartment security cameras.
“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 Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “Foreign governments and donors should press the Cambodian government to take all necessary measures to find Wanchalearm or risk being complicit in his abduction.”
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told VOD that he had no information about the abduction.
“There is no such case that happened [that we’re aware of], but if they got [information] somewhere, just ask that source of information,” Kim Khoeun said. “Authorities don’t know about this.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the ministry had also not received any information about the case and referred questions to the Interior Ministry.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he too had no information to share.
When asked whether the ministry would investigate, he said officials would need to follow the news first, claiming there was a lot of “fake news.” The ministry would not conduct an investigation without a request from Thai authorities, he added.
“If Thai [authorities] file a complaint about its citizen being abducted, we will do [an investigation],” Sopheak said. “If the Thai Embassy does not file a complaint about the disappearance of a Thai citizen here, what would [we] have to do?”
A representative of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia said it was aware of the incident, conducting inquiries and in contact with authorities.
According to HRW, Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wanchalearm in June 2018 for allegedly violating Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act by operating the Thai satirical Facebook page, “Ku Tong Dai 100 Lan Jak Thaksin Nae Nae,” which translates to “I will surely get 100 million baht from Thaksin,” referring to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
One day before his abduction, Wanchalearm posted a 50-second video to Facebook criticizing Prayut. His Facebook bio reads: “I am Exiled from Thailand because I support democracy.”
Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a journalist who has covered politics, human rights and political risk in Southeast Asia and the Middle East for more than a decade, called Wanchalearm’s abduction “extremely worrying,” noting that none of the nine other exiled Thai activists who have been abducted in Southeast Asia since 2016 have been seen alive again.
Marshall said that sources have told him that Thai embassies were ordered to investigate activists living in exile after the country’s King Vajiralongkorn was upset by protests outside the hotel where he resides in Germany.
“Wanchalearm is the most prominent exiled activist remaining in the region, and it is highly likely this is why he was targeted,” he said in a message.
Cambodia had been a “relatively safe haven” for many activists fleeing Thailand for a few years after the neighboring state’s military coup, but Marshall said that Cambodia was becoming “progressively more dangerous” for Thai exiles, and the nations were cooperating to target each others’ dissidents.
In 2018, the Thai government arrested and extradited two Cambodian nationals charged with incitement to discriminate in high-profile cases. In February of that year, labor and opposition activist Sam Sokha was arrested in Thailand after throwing a shoe at a ruling CPP billboard in a video that went viral, and in December, news fixer and translator Rath Rott Mony was arrested in Bangkok and extradited to Cambodia. Both were sentenced to two years in prison.
Additional reporting by Tran Techseng