Almost three months into the alleged abduction of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai activist who was last seen in Cambodia, his family members and those of other missing Thais on Thursday urged the government to pass a bill that criminalizes enforced political disappearances.
Their pleas came as Thai youths have led anti-government protests including against the harassment and disappearance of dissidents such as Wanchalearm. Since mid-July, pro-democracy protesters have also been demanding that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief and junta leader, dissolve parliament and hold free and fair polls, unlike the last election, which they and dissidents say was fixed.
“Thailand should have awareness in this matter and push forward to pass the Prevention and Suppression of the Torture and Enforced Disappearances Bill in order to bring justice to the perpetrators,” said Sitanan Satsaksit, Wanchalearm’s sister. “The law will make us rest assured.”
Sitanan and relatives of other missing men and women spoke during a forum at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) to observe the upcoming International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances on Aug. 30.
They said only a law that punishes those involved in planning and carrying out enforced disappearances would bring justice to the families of 87 people who’ve gone missing since 1980.
In June, the cabinet approved the draft law. It is being reviewed by the Office of the Council of State, after which it will be forwarded to parliament.
Sitanan’s brother, Wanchalearm, apparently was abducted in broad daylight on June 4 by gunmen from in front of his apartment complex in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, a day after he had posted a video on Facebook against the Thai government. Wanchalearm fled Thailand following the 2014 coup led by Prayuth, who was then Army chief.
“The Thai government never tells our family how far the investigation has gone, neither do Cambodian authorities,” Sitanan said at the forum sponsored by Amnesty International and local human rights groups. “We don’t know what these two governments have done.”
In fact, since 2014, as many as nine anti-government activists have vanished. Two of them – Chatcharn Buppawan (alias Comrade Phu Chana) and Kraidej Luelert (alias Comrade Kasalong) – were found dead in the Mekong River in December 2018.
In early 2019, Human Rights Watch said Thai police reported that “the bodies’ hands and feet were bound and their faces smashed beyond recognition. They also both had been disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.”
BenarNews was not able to reach justice officials or anyone at the House committee on Laws for comment on Thursday.
Among those who went missing was a Vietnamese blogger for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, who was allegedly taken from Bangkok by police in January 2019 and wound up in jail back in Vietnam.
On Aug. 14, a court in Hanoi upheld a 10-year sentence that it handed him earlier this year. Nhat, who had earlier been jailed in Vietnam from 2013 to 2015 for his writings criticizing Vietnam’s government, was convicted in March of “abusing his position and authority” in a decade-old land fraud case. He was charged by police investigators in July 2019 with “abusing his position” during his 1998 to 2011 tenure as bureau chief of the Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) newspaper in Danang City.
Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in 2012 but has yet to ratify it.
Instead, in 2012, the Justice Ministry proposed the Prevention and Suppression of the Torture and Enforced Disappearances Bill to the government.
A government spokeswoman said the bill would criminalize torture and enforced disappearances and empower relatives to file legal complaints. It would authorize the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) under the Ministry of Justice to investigate cases where police are suspects, and vice versa. And it would punish with hefty prison terms those found guilty of planning or enforcing political disappearances.
While some believe passage of the bill is a good first step, there are others who are unhappy with its provisions. A legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) who attended the forum said the draft bill is flawed.
“There are some articles inconsistent to the international laws i.e. the definition of torture and disappearances,” said Sanhawan Srisod, ICJ’s legal adviser. “It also allows trial in military which contradicts the international laws, it must use civilian court.”
Another flaw, said Sanhawan, is that the bill doesn’t talk about trying past kidnappings and disappearances.
“The guilt of enforced disappearance remains as long as that individual is missing, but the bill does not have that clause,” she said. “The U.N. has directly recommended that the Thai government not have a statute of limitation when it comes to torture and enforced disappearances.”
As Kanya Teerawuth, the mother of Siam Teerawuth, who went missing while in exile in Vietnam on May 8, 2019, said at Thursday’s forum, the pain of not knowing the fate of a missing loved one never goes away.
“I feel hurt every minute when I wake up, I miss my son,” she said. “I asked senior government officials … they said they don’t know. What about if he were your son?”