“Mr. Sok Heng,” says a cheerful voice in a shaky video filmed in late February 2020. The videographer’s face and body stay out of frame, except for a hand that extends a plastic cup of beer toward two friends sitting on lounge chairs beside the neon-blue pool of a Phnom Penh apartment complex.
He shifts the camera’s gaze from his beer to the pool, and then to Sok Heng, who wears a sleeveless red T-shirt and flashes a backward peace sign with his hand, obscuring his face. But even behind his hand, Sok Heng’s black-rimmed glasses and coy smile are unmistakable.
Four months after the poolside gathering, those glasses would appear on posters that filled Bangkok streets in neighboring Thailand, held up by protesters demanding an investigation into the whereabouts of Sok Heng, whose real name is Wanchalearm Satsaksit.
The 15-second video ends with the three men sharing a toast.
On June 4, 2020 — a year ago on Friday — Wanchalearm disappeared. The 37-year-old Thai pro-democracy activist had been living in self-exile, mainly in Cambodia, since 2014. His friends, his family, the United Nations and human rights groups allege that he was abducted by a group of armed men that afternoon while buying food on the street outside Mekong Gardens, the same Phnom Penh apartment complex where he had been spending time with his friends a few months earlier.
Wanchalearm’s sister Sitanun Satsaksit says she was on the phone with him during the alleged abduction and that she heard him say “I can’t breathe” before the line went dead.
A CCTV video released by Prachatai on June 5, 2020 shows a dark blue Toyota Highlander SUV tearing away from Mekong Gardens, purportedly with Wanchalearm inside, as two people, believed to be security guards working at the building, try and fail to intervene.
“I’ve always thought, why do you have to go missing?” Sitanun says in an interview in April. “Once he disappeared, my life changed.”
“It’s a torture every time I speak [about him],” she adds.
We don’t have evidence [or] any witnesses to clarify that this case happened in Cambodia.
In the year since Wanchalearm’s disappearance, neither the Thai nor Cambodian government has made an arrest or released any information about his whereabouts. Thai authorities have yet to reveal whether the Office of the Attorney General has the responsibility to investigate this alleged overseas offence, while Cambodian authorities claim they have no evidence of a crime being committed on their soil.
The lack of an investigation is typical of the practice of enforced disappearance, which Thailand does not recognise as a crime, says Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sunai Phasuk. “Rogue officials…use it as a kind of convenient tool, because there’s no body, there’s no crime — you can’t prove whether that person is dead or alive. So no investigation whatsoever,” he says.
“We don’t have evidence [or] any witnesses to clarify that this case happened in Cambodia,” says Cambodian National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun.
Cambodian officials have also declined to acknowledge publicly available evidence that Wanchalearm lived in Phnom Penh prior to his disappearance.
However, multiple pieces of evidence obtained by VOD, Prachatai and New Naratif — the poolside video, a Cambodian bank account and a copy of a Cambodian passport with a Khmer alias — as well as testimony from his friends and family, suggest that after fleeing Thailand in 2014, Wanchalearm’s life followed a well-worn path among Thai political exiles in Phnom Penh, and even in the relative safety of the Cambodian capital, he grew increasingly aware that he could face serious reprisals by Thai authorities for his pro-democracy activism, which he continued until his disappearance.
“Political motivations appear to be playing a central role in this persistent failure to act,” says Katherine Gerson, Amnesty International’s Thailand campaigner. “There is a deeply alarming pattern of Thai dissidents and political activists being forcibly disappeared from neighboring countries with total impunity.”
Over the Wall and Into Exile
Prakaidao Pruksakasemsuk considers herself Wanchalearm’s life partner, even though they broke up a year before he disappeared. They became a couple while campaigning together for the Pheu Thai Party in the 2013 Bangkok governor election. They were steeped in politics: she was the daughter of a prominent supporter of the exiled billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist Red Shirt movement, while he was an advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights and an administrator of a satirical, pro-Thaksin Facebook page.
Wanchalearm has strong leadership skills, is eager to think, dares to act, and also is outspoken, cheerful and energetic, Prakaidao says. “He is the type of person who can get along with people of any age and status.”
After the Pheu Thai candidate’s unsuccessful campaign, the couple moved in with Prakaidao’s family and continued their activism. In May 2014, army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha launched a coup that overthrew the teetering government of Pheu Thai Party leader Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. Prayut replaced Yingluck’s cabinet with the newly formed National Council for Peace and Order, a military junta that would rule the country by decree for the next five years.
All semblance of democratic order in Thailand was unravelling. Wanchalearm, who also went by the name Tar, kept a packed bag ready in case he needed to flee at a moment’s notice, Prakaidao says. Three days after the coup, military authorities traced the IP address of his pro-Thaksin Facebook page to the Pruksakasemsuk family home. Soldiers raided the property, detaining Prakaidao and her parents overnight at an army camp. Wanchalearm narrowly escaped by jumping over a wall. He caught a flight to Malaysia that same day.
“[The military] didn’t know it was him [behind the Facebook page]. They were still thinking, which one in the Pruksakasemsuk family did it? They asked me where Tar is. I said I didn’t know. … When they realised Tar had fled, they were like: ‘Ah, now I get it’,” Prakaidao says.
On 1 June 2014, the NCPO summoned 28 activists to report to a military facility in Bangkok, including Wanchalearm. A week later, the junta issued a warrant for his arrest under the Computer Crime Act for political statements he allegedly posted to his Facebook page.
Wanchalearm ignored the order and stayed abroad. Thus, his political exile began.
A Narrow Escape
After a short stay in Malaysia, Wanchalearm settled in Phnom Penh, where, according to Prakaidao, a sympathetic Cambodian official put him up for free in Mekong Gardens. Several other Thai dissidents lived there in self-imposed exile at the time. Wanchalearm’s apartment was spacious, and meals were provided in the beginning. But despite the cushy accommodations, safety was hardly guaranteed.
“The refugees there were cautious,” says Prakaidao, who visited her then-boyfriend in Phnom Penh regularly over the years and even lived in his two-bedroom Mekong Gardens flat with him while studying at a Cambodian university from 2018 to 2019.
“Throughout his life in exile, he had to be cautious from time to time. Sometimes, there was news of Thai soldiers entering Cambodia, and [there was a local official] telling everyone to stay within the condo, do not go out. … We felt it was not that safe,” she says.
Mekong Gardens was a haven for pro-Thaksin Thai dissidents like Wanchalearm “because Thaksin and [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen are friends,” according to Taylor*, a Thai national familiar with the exile community in the residential complex. In fact, Taylor says, Thai dissidents living in Cambodia “under Hun Sen’s protection” could not criticise Thaksin, who served as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government in 2009 and 2010.
Taylor claims to have been surveilled by both Thai and Cambodian authorities while living in Phnom Penh and was therefore “always careful.”
“We have to act like someone will follow [us],” Taylor says.
During one visit to Phnom Penh in 2015 or 2016, Wanchalearm took Prakaidao directly from the airport to a bar in the centre of the city, where he knew the bartender. After the couple left the bar, the bartender called Wanchalearm on the phone and told him a group of men, some with regulation buzz cuts typical of Thai police officers, had tried to follow him and Prakaidao in a tuk-tuk but had to turn back because one of the men had left his phone at the bar. The men had a photo of Prakaidao and the luggage she had brought into Cambodia that day, she says. They showed the photo to the bar staff and asked: “Do you know this person? Where do they live?”
Wanchalearm and Prakaidao appear to have made a narrow escape, especially considering the fact that eight other dissidents who fled Thailand in the wake of the 2014 coup vanished from neighboring countries — two of their bodies washed up on the banks of the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos with bellies stuffed with concrete — before Wanchalearm’s 2020 disappearance.
Responding to the Thai and Cambodian governments’ assertions that there is no evidence of his abduction, Prakaidao says: “The reaction from both sides is very disappointing. How can you do this to your own citizen? Do you not feel anything — that you did this and still act like you don’t know anything?”
After she completed her master’s degree in Phnom Penh in 2019, Prakaidao went back to Thailand. Her relationship with Wanchalearm ended, but they still talked a few times every month. In their final conversation, he asked her whether they could be together if he found a way to come back to Thailand. When she saw street protesters holding up photos of her ex-boyfriend, they reminded her of funeral portraits, and she had to look away. She still feels his absence.
“She seemed devastated,” says Micky*, an expatriate who befriended Wanchalearm and Prakaidao in Phnom Penh. “I knew him, I knew her, and they were still in love.”
‘An Easy Target’
Wanchlearm knew he was being followed, but he tried not to let it affect his relationships or his activism. Micky, who met Wanchalearm shortly after moving to Phnom Penh in 2015, says they became close over the years, hanging out at the Mekong Gardens pool at least 10 times. But even after all those years, Micky never learned exactly why Wanchalearm could not go back to Thailand. Whenever the topic arose, Wanchalearm would change the subject with a joke.
“I believe he never wanted to make me involved in the situation,” Micky says.
With other friends, however, Wanchalearm was open about his tense relationship with the Thai ruling class. “He mostly complains about the [royal] family. … He doesn’t like the king,” says Jesse*, who befriended Wanchalerm in Phnom Penh two or three years ago.
Even if I did not live in Thailand’s immediate neighboring countries, I could become a target.
On 25 June 2018, the Technological Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police issued a second warrant for Wanchalearm’s arrest under the Computer Crime Act. Two years later, police visited his family’s home in Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani Province to ask where he was; they left after a relative of Wanchalearm’s said they could not search the property without a warrant.
Around this time, Wanchalearm began to exhibit heightened anxiety about his safety in Cambodia. He told Jesse on one or two occasions that he had received threats from Thailand.
“He used to mention [that] someone is looking for him, and he asked me not to tell anyone about where he lives,” Jesse says. At the time, Jesse understood Wanchalearm’s warnings as a joke.
A week before Wanchalearm disappeared, Micky moved into Wanchalearm’s neighborhood on a peninsula that splits the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva District. Micky was looking forward to spending more time with Wanchalearm at the Mekong Gardens complex because over the previous year, Wanchalerm seemed to have lost interest in going out.
“He texted me maybe two days before he was abducted. I was supposed to meet him,” Micky says.
On June 3, 2020, the day before he disappeared, Wanchalearm posted a video on Facebook accusing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of mismanaging Thailand and having “failed administrative skills.”
That day, Jesse says they met and hugged.
“I have no words. We’re all shocked,” Jesse says, recalling being informed of Wanchalearm’s disappearance two days later.
“I can’t forget this idea that maybe he could have been with me, and maybe nothing would have happened because I’m a foreigner, and they wouldn’t have [taken him],” Micky says. “I’m a bit pissed off because if he told me everything, maybe I could have helped him go [farther abroad].”
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, 50, an academic who also fled Thailand in 2014, believes the Thai authorities are behind Wanchalearm’s disappearance, and he doubts whether escaping to a different country might have saved him. An outspoken critic of the Thai monarchy, Pavin says he has been stalked multiple times by strange men in Kyoto, one of whom broke into his apartment and attacked him with a chemical spray. Two men have been arrested but have not revealed their motives or who hired them.
“My case in Japan demonstrated that even if I did not live in Thailand’s immediate neighboring countries, I could become a target,” Pavin says.
Nonetheless, Pavin still wonders why Wanchalearm would have been selected for enforced disappearance.
“As far as I knew Tar, he was not radical at all,” Pavin says, using Wanchalearm’s nickname. “He only targeted the NCPO [junta] and not directly the monarchy. His activism was not only directed at politics or monarchy, but rather other social issues, such as LGBT and sex education. We don’t know why he became a target.”
Pavin points out that Wanchalearm’s alleged abduction took place a few days after activists projected anti-military and anti-monarchy slogans onto the Bavarian hotel where Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn was staying. Pavin posits a link between the two events.
“Tar was in Cambodia — an easy target for them,” he says.
Micky recalls reading about the other Thai dissidents whose bodies were found filled with concrete, and he wonders whether a similar fate could have befallen Wanchalearm.
“It’s crazy — he was the nicest guy ever. He couldn’t harm people,” Micky says. “His best weapon was his mind.”
Missing Wanchalearm has been hard, Micky adds. “I can’t imagine how it is for his older sister. … When someone’s missing and you never find the body…the process when someone dies — you cannot complete the process if you don’t have the body.”
A Sister’s Search
During an interview in early April, Sitanun presents a selection of her missing brother’s belongings, salvaged by Wanchalearm’s former roommate from Mekong Gardens. On the table before her, she places a pair of glasses, shorts and a red Hawaiian shirt that has since become a symbol of resistance among Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters.
“I’m happy that my brother is loved by so many people, but when I see these things, I get sad,” she says. “They shouldn’t have the heart to do this to him, because he is no harm to anyone.”
For months, Sitanun has spearheaded the search for her brother, even canceling her life insurance policy in exchange for a refund to cover the cost of the search.
During a two-month visit to Phnom Penh beginning in December 2020 to present evidence of Wanchalearm’s life in exile to Cambodian authorities, Sitanun says she spent around 500,000 baht ($16,000), not including $5,000 in lawyers’ fees.
In an August 2020 letter to the U.N.’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the Thai government claims that the Rights and Liberties Protection Department under the Ministry of Justice “liaised with the Office of Justice Fund to consider finding a legal representative and providing financial support for Mr. Satsaksit’s family to cover their expenses in pursuing the case.”
Sitanun says she approached the Rights and Liberties Protection Department for support but was refused.
In the year since her brother’s disappearance, Sitanun has visited the families of other victims of enforced disappearance, including in southern Thailand’s three Malay-Muslim majority provinces, where the Thai military has reportedly perpetrated arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances with relative frequency in counterinsurgency operations. Sitanun feels a shared sense of victimhood with these families, though she acknowledges that she has enjoyed more opportunities to speak out than her minority counterparts.
“If you’re the victim, no matter how many years [go by], you won’t be able to forget,” she says. “I’ve been to the three Deep South provinces. For some people, it’s been 18 years [that their relative is missing]. They have never forgotten.”
Days before giving the interview in April, Sitanun says she saw one of her former colleagues’ Facebook pages and momentarily wondered what it would be like to be back at work.
“Everyone [else] is comfortable. Their salaries are all in the hundreds of thousands,” she says. “But the next moment, I thought to myself that I’ve made my choice. I won’t regret it anymore.”
“I don’t have a future anymore, but if I don’t fight, if I don’t do this, let me ask you — who is going to do it? Because no one can tell our story as well as us, and no one can tell our story every day,” Sitanun says. “Reporters can only talk about it for no more than three days, so I have to talk about it myself.”
Outside the Protection of the Law
During her visit to Phnom Penh last December and January, Sitanun and her lawyers gave the Phnom Penh Municipal Court a copy of a Cambodian passport, which contained a photo of Wanchalearm and the Khmer name Sok Heng. She also informed the court about an ABA Bank account under the same name. The account number remains searchable on the bank’s mobile app.
But despite this and other evidence that Wanchalearm had put down roots in his adoptive home, it remains unclear whether Cambodian authorities have put it to any use.
In August 2020, the Cambodian government said authorities “launched an immediate investigation” after receiving anonymous reports of Wanchlaearm’s abduction in early June. The preliminary investigation, the government said, found that Wanchlaearm’s Cambodian visa expired on December 31, 2017, that he was not found to be living in Mekong Gardens and that the Toyota Highlander captured in security footage was not registered with the Transportation Ministry.
The government also said authorities interviewed three witnesses, who “confirmed that there were no reports of abduction in the said area.”
Once you get in the way, the worst thing can happen to you and your family—that is, you are taken away for good, and no one knows if you still exist on this earth or not.
In May, Cambodian National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun says police received an order from the court in January to launch a formal investigation, and that the investigation is underway.
But Sitanun’s Cambodian attorney Sam Chamroeun wonders whether the court has indeed issued a formal investigation order, and whether police have questioned any witnesses or suspects.
“I have not got any information. I have submitted a letter to [the court] to request a copy of the order of investigation [to see] whether progress has been made,” Chamroeun says.
A court spokesperson says the investigating judge is following legal procedures but cannot provide additional information due to the case’s confidentiality.
Chin Malin, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Justice Ministry and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, referred questions about the alleged investigation to the Interior Ministry. Interior Ministry spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
Nearly a year after Wanchalearm’s disappearance, Kim Khoeun says local authorities are still trying to verify whether the activist disappeared in Phnom Penh.
“We have not found yet whether he really disappeared in Cambodia or really was kidnapped in Cambodia or not,” the police spokesperson says. “Expert officials are investigating, but the process has not seen any useful tips.”
On June 2, Sitanun petitioned Thai authorities for an update on the case. Korrawat Panprapakorn, director-general of the Department of Special Investigation, says the department has formed an internal working group to determine whether “the case took place in Cambodia.” If that is confirmed, the Office of the Attorney General will launch an investigation into the case, Korrawat says.
He declined to comment on the Cambodian passport and bank account under Wanchalearm’s Khmer alias Sok Heng, saying that “some issues cannot be talked about in public.”
Charnchai Chalanonniwat, deputy director-general of the Department of Criminal Litigation, under Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General, says the Cambodian court must determine “if the incident really took place there or not” before Thai authorities can investigate.
Mekong Gardens property management have similarly distanced themselves from Wanchalearm’s case, despite multiple sources placing his residence there.
Asked about a Thai man being abducted from outside Mekong Gardens nearly a year ago, Ma Setha, the condominium’s general manager, says security footage captured a man being “arrested” and taken into a car outside the building on June 4, 2020. He says local authorities had requested the footage and that it has since been “automatically deleted.”
Setha insists that the person in question was “not a guest” of the building.
“It is a case that happened outside the Mekong Gardens premises, so the details are not so [clear],” Setha says.
Asked whether Mekong Gardens houses any Thai residents, Setha says they have some Chinese renters. When asked again about Thai residents, he says: “I am not authorised to answer.”
“I think the assumption is that victims of enforced disappearance are dead,” says Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk. “[The perpetrators] want to maintain this ultimate fear that once you get in the way, the worst thing can happen to you and your family — that is, you are taken away for good, and no one knows if you still exist on this earth or not, then your family will suffer for the rest of their lives and beyond because they don’t know what happened to you.”
“The additional effect is the fact that [since many] cases happen outside of Thailand, it means that nowhere is safe for you to run and hide. No matter where you go, you can still be hunted down,” Sunai says.
But absent a body or other evidence that the victim is dead, an alleged enforced disappearance cannot be investigated as a murder. “That is why the tactic of enforced disappearance becomes very popular,” Sunai says.
The U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which monitors governments’ implementation of the international convention on enforced disappearances, called on Cambodia in June 2020 to “urgently search” for Wanchalearm.
The convention defines an enforced disappearance as an “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty” by state agents or those acting with government authorisation or acceptance, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the disappearance, or “by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.” The act of an enforced disappearance places the victim “outside the protection of the law.”
The convention requires state parties to examine alleged enforced disappearances “promptly and impartially and, where necessary, undertake without delay a thorough and impartial investigation.”
Cambodia acceded to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2013, while Thailand signed the convention in 2012.
Nonetheless, rights advocates say national laws on enforced disappearances either go unenforced, or do not exist.
“The most glaring obstruction is the fact that attempts to have a law that meets international standards regarding enforced disappearance have been blocked,” says Sunai of HRW. “That is the most glaring, the most coordinated, the most systematic obstruction of justice at the big-picture, structural level — to make sure that Thailand will never have a good law on this crime.”
‘Change Is Happening’
Reports of Wanchalearm’s disappearance set off an immediate wave of activism, aimed not only at the activist’s unknown captors but at a political culture in Thailand that has normalised enforced disappearance.
The day after his alleged abduction, on June 5, 2020, the Student Union of Thailand staged a protest in the middle of Bangkok’s business district, donning white ribbons to symbolise their call for justice for Wanchalearm and other victims of alleged enforced disappearance. Two days later, the Democracy Restoration Group and the Popular Student Network for Democracy held another protest against enforced disappearance in the same area.
The following week, pro-democracy activists went to the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok to submit a petition demanding an investigation into Wanchalearm’s whereabouts.
On June 7, 2020, yellow posters appeared around Bangkok overnight. They depicted missing Thai dissidents and said they had been “abducted by the state.” Members of the Spring Movement, which created the posters, say the stunt was a response to the lack of coverage Wanchalearm’s disappearance initially received in mainstream Thai media. They created the hashtag #Thaicantbreathe to generate ongoing conversation about political repression and state violence.
“We feel that change is happening in Thai society,” the Spring Movement activists say, speaking collectively due to safety concerns. They add that the movement for justice for Wanchalearm was a prelude to the anti-authoritarian and anti-monarchy protests that rocked Thailand’s political scene starting in July 2020. The missing person posters, as well as Wanchalearm’s likeness, have been fixtures of these demonstrations.
“Our movement this time at least shows us that we won’t let this become something that is normal in this society anymore,” the activists say.
Prakaidao, Wanchalearm’s former partner, says this political movement against enforced disappearance has relieved her of the deep depression that had gripped her last year. She felt burnt out and had put her professional aspirations on hold. But as the movement grew, her passion for politics returned, this time with a focus on Thailand’s lack of legislation against enforced disappearance and torture.
“I feel that working in politics might be a way of healing,” Prakaidao says.
Today, she works for the Bangkok-based Cross Cultural Foundation, which monitors human rights abuses in Thailand. In a video released by the foundation in May, Prakaidao says: “I can’t go back in time, but I want you to know that I’m sorry that I wasn’t with you the day you were taken.”
In the same video, Sitanun wears a black T-shirt with the text “We are all Wanchalearm.” She looks into the camera and says: “We will keep seeking the truth for as long as we live. Until we meet again.”
*Note: Pseudonyms have been given to individuals who expressed fears of reprisals.
Reporting by Jacob Goldberg, Danielle Keeton-Olsen, Anna Lawattanatrakul, Matt Surrusco and Yiamyut Sutthichaya
The authors reported this story with a Cambodian journalist who requested their name not be included due to fears of reprisal.