UPDATED 7 p.m.—When Covid-19 froze international travel, Sitanan Satsaksit put her plans to visit her brother in Phnom Penh on hold, but the restrictions only pushed the siblings to phone each other more to talk about their work or vent about the pandemic.
Speaking on Line almost every day, Wanchalearm Satsaksit would tell his older sister about his life in Phnom Penh, especially of a business he set up while living in exile in Cambodia, a restaurant selling Thai papaya salad. It was struggling amid an economic slump.
The last time they spoke, the two were casually chatting about some errands they were running — she was paying a bill at a minimart, he was buying some meatballs near his apartment — when she heard a sound like a car accident on the other line. She says she later realized it was the sounds of her brother’s abduction in Phnom Penh.
Now the siblings’ frequent phone calls are being used as evidence that Sitanan’s brother was actually in Phnom Penh at the time of his disappearance, a fact the government has questioned.
More than six months since that last call, Sitanan has arrived in Cambodia and on Tuesday testified before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in an effort to keep the investigation alive.
Wanchalearm, an activist affiliated with the “Red Shirt” movement, was allegedly abducted by a group of armed men on the evening of June 4, according to friends of the activist interviewed by Human Rights Watch after the incident.
Through her lawyer Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Sitanan told a crowd of reporters outside the court just before noon that she had presented evidence that her brother was residing in Phnom Penh, though she did not go into details.
Sitanan and the lawyers submitted 177 documents in both Thai and Khmer to the investigating judge, as well as photos, video clips, telephone evidence, bank account details and passport information, according to a statement the lawyers released Tuesday afternoon.
Sitanan said, through Pornpen, that investigating judge Sin Sovannarath had listened to the evidence and asked for further information.
“From [the] questions he asked, it seems like the judge has already had some details enough that Wanchalearm was here and the abduction had happened, but he requested more details of those two main points, so [Sitanan] is really happy that the judge or court has established some fact according to what she believed in,” said Pornpen, a lawyer with the anti-enforced disappearance NGO Cross Cultural Foundation.
Sam Chamroern, the Cambodian lawyer working with Sitanan, said the team would provide additional information, though he was not sure if the sister would be summoned again.
“[Sovannarath] only said that if we want this work to be fast, it is up to us, the plaintiffs, to supply the evidence,” Chamroern told reporters.
But since the charges were clear — illegal detention and illegal use of a weapon — Sovannarath should be further pursuing the investigation, he said.
When her family was grappling with how to respond to Wanchalearm’s disappearance, Sitanan became the spokesperson, as she was his closest sister, she told VOD in Thai through a translator in her hotel room in late November, a makeshift headquarters for her and the three lawyers assisting her through the investigation.
She was 9 years old when Wanchalearm was born, so she became the caregiver for him in their home province of Ubon Ratchathani in northern Thailand.
“He was outspoken from when he was a boy,” Sitanan said, and recalled he was always eager to help people, especially the elderly in their village. “He never stopped talking.”
After she moved to Bangkok for work, Sitanan’s young brother started his political science degree in Ramkhamhaeng University in the capital, so they shared a rented room and then upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment while he completed his studies — which took many years, she recalled.
Wanchalearm, who also goes by the nickname Tar, was involved in civil society, particularly HIV education and prevention. But in the 2013 Bangkok gubernatorial election, he started working as an organizer for Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a candidate for the Pheu Thai party of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Sitanan said she wasn’t as interested in politics at the time, but her brother would successfully engage her in open conversations — up until the Royal Thai Armed Forces launched a coup in 2014 and put key leaders and organizers associated with Yingluck’s party, including Wanchalearm, at risk.
A few days after the coup, Wanchalearm learned that police showed up at his then-girlfriend’s home to look for the activist. He called his mother in Ubon Ratchathani from inside the country one last time, Sitanan remembered, and then she and the family did not hear from him for more than a year. Eventually, he told his family that he was living in Phnom Penh.
Throughout his time in exile, he began posting more videos, memes and comments criticizing the Thai government, sometimes serious critiques of corruption and unjust practices, while others were spiked with humor. As he got more involved in business, he began posting more about the restaurant and other endeavors, as well as selfies and just general humor posts. One day before his abduction, Wanchalearm posted a 50-second video to Facebook criticizing Prayut.
His social media posts are biting and comedic, sometimes bawdy — Sitanan said he had a sense of humor common in Thailand’s Isan region, where people tell raucous and dirty jokes when they gather to eat and drink. But she said she also admired the way he explained political concepts for all to understand, and with a healthy dose of humor.
When Thai authorities visited his family’s Ubon Ratchathani home in mid-May, he hit back with jests about Prayut’s government. Sitanan said the move was partially critique, but also a form of self-protection.
“He liked to tell friends about threats and intimidation, and he also sometimes posted on Facebook,” she said. “He thought it was a prevention measure, a way that he could be safe from those circumstances.”
Before authorities visited their mother’s home, Sitanan said her brother warned her and other friends in late 2019 about another potential threat: A colleague in Phnom Penh said they saw a group of men who looked Thai standing near a shop by his apartment. Wanchalearm asked to see the CCTV, and he urged his sister to save a copy in case something happened, Sitanan recalled.
Sitanan said the two would speak on Line about taboo subjects, and she would warn him not to go too far with his comments. He was trying to do business in Phnom Penh, and political comments could become an obstacle, she had told him. But his disappearance came as a shock, because she never thought Wanchalearm had crossed any lines with his commentary.
Leading up to her closed-door testimony, Sitanan and the three human rights lawyers met with Cambodian lawyers as well as the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in order to prepare for the case. They held a small Buddhist ceremony for Wanchalearm heavily attended by reporters on Friday.
The team also met with a high-ranking police officer on Monday after sending a request to meet Cambodia’s police chief, according to a statement from the lawyers. Police repeated that they did not have sufficient information to continue the search and asked Sitanan for more evidence, the statement said.
Human rights organization Amnesty International lambasted the investigation in Cambodia in a statement on Tuesday.
“So far, the glaring inadequacies of this probe make a mockery of Cambodia’s obligations to conduct a thorough, impartial, and independent investigation,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director.
In front of the courthouse on Tuesday, Sitanan said it was up to the judge to continue the investigation now that they’ve presented their evidence. But speaking to VOD in late November, she said she was convinced that Wanchalearm was abducted, and it was likely related to his commentary, regardless of what the Thai or Cambodian governments decide in their investigations.
“The abduction has happened in my knowledge, so it might be that the authorities of both governments are trying to obstruct information that it happened,” she said through Pornpen. “We think this is a strategic case [in enforced disappearance investigations]. We wish to be the example of how we want it to be.”
Additional reporting by Va Sopheanut
Updated to include information from lawyers that was sent Tuesday afternoon.