UN Committee Calls on Cambodia to Search for Missing Thai Dissident

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Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai pro-democracy activist, in a screenshot from a video posted to his Facebook page on June 3, 2020, the day before he was abducted in Phnom Penh.

UPDATED June 25, 1 p.m.—The U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances has called on Cambodia to “urgently search” for a Thai pro-democracy activist who went missing nearly three weeks ago in a suspected abduction outside his Phnom Penh condominium complex.

The committee, which monitors governments’ implementation of the international convention on enforced disappearances, registered an urgent action on behalf of Thai government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit on June 10, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) said in an email on Tuesday.

“Cambodian authorities have an obligation to search for Mr. Wanchalearm Satsaksit and to investigate his disappearance,” UNOHCHR said. 

Cambodia acceded to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2013.

Cambodian officials responded to the U.N. committee’s action request “informing that search activities are in place,” the U.N. added.

Wanchalearm, an activist affiliated with the pro-democracy United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the “Red Shirt” movement, fled to Cambodia after the May 2014 military coup in Thailand that saw Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha come to power. 

Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wanchalearm in June 2018 based on allegations that he violated the Computer-Related Crime Act by running a Facebook page that was critical of the Thai government from Phnom Penh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

On June 3, Wanchalearm posted a video clip on Facebook criticizing Prayut.

The following evening, as Wanchalearm was walking outside his building in Phnom Penh to buy food, he was abducted by a group of armed men, HRW said in a statement earlier this month, citing several witnesses and apartment security camera footage.

A person speaking to Wanchalearm on the phone at the time heard him scream and say “I can’t breathe” before the call dropped, the rights watchdog said. He was taken away in a black vehicle.

Cambodian officials told VOD this week that authorities were investigating the reported abduction, with one saying Thailand had not requested Wanchalearm’s extradition.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Wednesday that Cambodian authorities began an investigation after receiving a request from the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh to verify news reports about the alleged abduction.

Wanchalearm was granted a two-year visa in 2015 but later went off authorities’ radar, Sopheak said.

“We don’t know whether he complied with the visa or came in and out,” Sopheak said. “We don’t know until there is news and we started to investigate.”

After news reports of Wanchalearm’s apparent kidnapping outside his building, police questioned the condo manager who said the Thai national’s name was not listed among tenants, according to the ministry spokesman. VOD has not spoken to the manager to independently verify the claim.

Sopheak said authorities don’t know when Wanchalearm disappeared, but welcomed information about him.

Asked whether Thai authorities had requested that Cambodia arrest Wanchalearm, Sopheak said Thailand did not ask for an extradition.

The Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry did not reply to emailed questions.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said the police investigation was ongoing.

Police reviewed images of the license plate on the vehicle seen in CCTV footage driving away with Wanchalearm inside and found the plate numbers were unregistered, Kim Khoeun said.

“More news keeps coming out about this and that, but no one comes to cooperate with our authorities,” he added.

Chin Malin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry and Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), said authorities were investigating the veracity of media reports of Wanchalearm’s disappearance.

“[Authorities] are verifying the news that came from other sources, whether the news is true or not, and whether the man was present in Cambodia or not, and, if he was present, was he really disappeared, and if he was disappeared, why did he disappear?” Malin said.

Sitanan Satsaksit, Wanchalearm’s older sister, told VOD that she was on the phone with her brother when he was grabbed outside Chroy Changvar district’s Mekong Gardens condominium complex.

Sitanan said her brother had lived in Cambodia for years and was working with a Cambodian businessman to open a hospital. Before his disappearance, at least eight other exiled Thai dissidents had disappeared from Laos and Vietnam, but Wanchalearm was the first reported missing in Cambodia.

“I judged Cambodia as a safe country for Wanchalearm, as I thought Cambodian people are friendly and helpful to my brother throughout the time he stayed in Cambodia for many years. That’s one of the reasons Wanchalearm didn’t go to Europe,” Sitanan said. 

After he disappeared, she said she heard from his Thai friends in Cambodia that Wanchalearm had noticed strangers around his building since early this year, but he said he was not worried by their presence.   

Sitanan said that neither the Thai nor Cambodian governments had contacted her or her family about her brother’s disappearance.

She had hired a lawyer in Thailand and also reached out to an attorney in Cambodia, whom she did not name, but after initially agreeing, the lawyer in Cambodia suddenly declined to represent her without explanation.

Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, said there were dozens of Thai exiles living in Cambodia, most of whom sought refuge after the 2014 coup to avoid various charges, including for alleged lese majeste violations, sedition and armed insurrection, as well as persecution over their expression of dissenting political views.

“There is no formal protection available for Thai exiles in Cambodia,” Sunai said in an email. “Their survival is at the mercy of the ruling party, [the] CPP, based on personal connections, which could be revoked anytime.”

Echoing an earlier HRW statement, Sunai called on Cambodia to “investigate what has happened to Wanchalearm if it expects to be seen as a country that has improved from a lawless society to embrace due process and respect for the law.”

Wanchalearm’s case could be seen as an example of how dire the situation can be for Thai activists who have taken refuge abroad, the researcher added.

“It seems that nowhere is safe in Southeast Asia for Thai dissidents anymore,” he said.

Rangsiman Rome, spokesman of Thailand’s House committee on law, justice and human rights, said he believed the disappearance of Wanchalearm may have been meant to silence Thai citizens who are frustrated with the government, though he said people were “tired of being afraid.” 

Though he had not worked directly with Wanchalearm, the pro-democracy politician from the Move Forward Party raised complaints from the missing activist’s family as an urgent matter of discussion in parliament this month. Rangsiman said he was not sure if the U.N.’s request to investigate Wanchalearm’s disappearance would move the Cambodian government, but he said it ensures that foreign stakeholders are watching the two countries. 

“At least the Cambodian government knows that [the] international community [is] monitoring this case,” he said in a message. “[On] the other side, it’s also a good chance for [the] Cambodian government to prove if they are not involved with this human rights violation. They better not hide anything and do a serious investigation, or the world will [be] questioning [their] involvement.”

After Rangsiman raised the issue to the Thai House committee, rumors began circulating on social media that the opposition parliamentarian could face retaliation. 

“I have to manage my own risk and try to be [as] safe as possible, but to be silent is not the answer,” he said. “I have to continue my duty to represent the voice of the people.”

Additional reporting by Nin Sophary

Correction: The article originally incorrectly stated that Rangsiman Rome said Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s disappearance was meant to silence Thai citizens who are frustrated with the junta and monarchy. In fact, Rangsiman said Wanchalearm’s disappearance may have been intended to silence those who criticize the government.

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