Updated at 2:37 p.m. ET on 2019-03-21
Hiding in Thailand, Vietnamese human rights campaigner Bach Hong Quyen fears he’s in the cross-hairs of two nations: Vietnam, which he fled two years ago to escape arrest for his activism, and Thailand, where he had hoped to get sanctuary.
Quyen was instrumental in helping Radio Free Asia (RFA) blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who disappeared in Bangkok in late January, make an ill-fated bid for political asylum. Suspicions that Nhat was abducted by Vietnamese agents with Thai cooperation only deepened after RFA’s Vietnamese Service confirmed Wednesday that the blogger was in jail in Hanoi.
That confirmation, provided by Nhat’s daughter, was the first word on his fate since he went missing nearly two months ago. BenarNews is affiliated with Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded broadcaster.
Nhat’s case has further eroded Thailand’s long-standing reputation as a haven for refugees in Southeast Asia. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipaks declined to comment Thursday on the latest news on Nhat, beyond saying that the Thai police were handling the matter.
“I am at the moment very worried for my safety and my family’s safety,” Quyen, 29, a husband and father of three young children, told RFA in an exclusive interview. Although he has U.N. refugee status, which should protect him from arrest and deportation, he says he now lives in hiding, separated from his family to escape detection.
“If the Thai government arrested me, they will definitely give me to Vietnam,” he said.
His fears are rooted in what happened to Nhat, a prominent critic of the Vietnamese government whom, rights activists suspect, was detained by Thai authorities at a shopping mall on the outskirts of Bangkok and handed to Vietnamese agents. He was a weekly contributor to the Vietnamese Service of RFA.
Bui Thanh Hieu, a popular Vietnamese blogger who lives in exile in Germany, alleged in a March 10 posting on Facebook that Thai police had taken Nhat to a bar outside Bangkok, where Vietnamese personnel bundled him into a vehicle and drugged him – an account that was repeated by two rights activists who are familiar with Nhat’s case. RFA could not immediately verify the details of that account.
Thailand’s government says they are still investigating the case, which has drawn strong expressions of concerns from U.S. congressmen.
The response from the Trump administration, however, has been muted. The administration has generally steered clear of tough criticism of the human rights record of Asian allies like Thailand and Vietnam, which last month hosted a U.S.-North Korea summit.
Thais want to ‘erase all evidence’
For his part, Quyen says he feels like a marked man because of his inside knowledge of Nhat’s disappearance.
He said he helped him find accommodation in Bangkok and submit his application for asylum with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the Thai capital on Jan. 25 – the day before Nhat vanished – and has some insight into what compelled the prominent writer and well-connected government critic to flee Vietnam in the first place.
Nhat’s daughter, Canada-based Thuc Doan Truong, said that prison authorities had informed her mother and Nhat’s wife, Cao Thi Xuan Phuong, that Vietnam had Nhat on Jan. 28 – two days after his disappearance in Bangkok. He is now being held at Hanoi’s T16 detention center.
Phuong has not yet been allowed to visit him.
“It’s clear that my father did not voluntarily go back to Vietnam,” Truong said.
Reacting to the news that Nhat was now in Vietnamese custody back home, global rights watchdog Amnesty International on Thursday called on the Hanoi and Bangkok governments to be transparent about his disappearance from Thailand.
Amnesty said Nhat disappeared shortly after he put in his asylum claim and “following growing harassment by Vietnamese police.”
“Reports that Nhat is now in a Hanoi prison are extremely worrying, and we are calling on the Vietnamese authorities to confirm whether he is in their custody and disclose his whereabouts at once,” Joanne Mariner, Amnesty’s senior crisis adviser said in a statement.
“The Vietnamese and Thai authorities need to come clean about why and how Nhat returned to Viet Nam so soon after he applied for asylum in Bangkok. There is a strong possibility that he was transferred to Vietnamese custody despite the real risk of serious human rights violations,” she added.
Later on Thursday, a leading international press freedom advocacy group called for Hanoi to free Nhat at once.
“Vietnamese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release blogger Truong Duy Nhat and allow him to travel freely outside of Vietnam,” Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
“Authorities in Vietnam and Thailand should investigate the circumstances around Nhat’s apparent abduction in Thailand and hold those responsible to account under the fullest extent allowable under local laws.”
Quyen: ‘I can’t live with my family’
In Thailand, Quyen articulated his own fears related to this high-profile case in chilling terms – alleging that Thai police and Vietnam want to “erase all evidence” in Nhat’s case to cover up what happened.
He cites concerns expressed by human rights activists that the governments of Vietnam and Thailand – which holds its first elections this weekend since a 2014 military coup – may exchange dissidents each are reportedly seeking in the other country.
“At the moment, I can’t live with my family because I know the Thai government is following my wife to trace me,” Quyen said in the interview, which took place before word on Nhat’s fate emerged. RFA agreed not to disclose the time and location of the interview because of Quyen’s concerns for his safety.
“We have not lived together for about 10 days. My wife yesterday told me that some policemen parked their car near the building where my family stays. Yesterday evening, someone knocked on the door and went in to check if I was in but they could not find me so they left. They told my wife that they were building security but they did not wear uniform, they wore plain clothes,” said Quyen.
He is seeking urgent resettlement in Canada, which has emerged as the leading destination for asylum seekers as the United States has drastically reduced the numbers of refugees it accepts.
Quyen’s March 2 appeal for asylum to the Canadian government, a copy of which was obtained by RFA, pleads: “I am currently in an extremely dangerous situation.”
RFA called the number listed on the website of Vietnam’s embassy in Bangkok to seek comment on Quyen’s allegations that Vietnam wanted him deported. The number did not appear to be functioning.
Thailand’s immigration authorities denied any knowledge of any efforts to deport Quyen. He had originally fled to Thailand in May 2017 because of an arrest warrant issued by Vietnamese police the previous month for “disturbing public order” after he organized a march to mark the anniversary of a 2016 waste spill that polluted the coast of central Vietnam. The environmental disaster sparked major protests.
“We don’t have this Bach Hong Quyen in our system. He was not received here,” Pol. Col. Tatpong Sanawarangkoon, the supervisor of the deporting section of the Immigration Bureau, told BenarNews. He said he could not comment on Quyen’s claim that Vietnam had sought Thai police help to go after him.
Traditional hub for refugees
Although Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has been traditionally been viewed as a hub for refugees fleeing war and oppression in neighboring countries.
Instances of refoulement – or the forcible deportation of refugees or asylum seekers with a legitimate fear of persecution – have in fact been relatively rare from Thailand since it sent more than 100 Uyghur Muslims back to China in 2015, sparking an international outcry.
But refugees still face a precarious situation. Nearly 10 percent of the more than 5,000 U.N.-registered “persons of concern” in Thailand are currently languishing in immigration detention.
Rights group Reporters Without Borders last week said that following a raid on Quyen’s home on March 1, it feared Thai authorities could allow Vietnamese agents to abduct him.
“We urge the Thai government to respect the status of Bach Hong Quyen and his family as refugees and to stop intimidating Quyen in any way,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Aside from the obligation to respect the fundamental rights of an individual whose only crime was to have informed his compatriots, Thailand’s credibility on the international stage is at stake,” he said.
Quyen has been living in Thailand with his wife, Bui Huong Giang, and their daughters Bach Yen Nhi, 6, and Bach Gia Han, 3, and 6-month old son Bach Joseph, who was born in Thailand.
He says he has no regret for assisting Nhat, who told Quyen he had fled Vietnam because he feared he would soon be arrested.
Nhat had also confided that he was privy to insider information that could have proved damaging to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong – information that he had intended to publish once he found asylum in another country.
Quyen explained that he was no stranger to harassment for his activism in Vietnam.
“When I was in danger, many people had helped me,” said Quyen. “When Truong Duy Nhat told me that he was in danger, it’s normal as a Vietnamese and an activist to help a friend who used to be jailed for what he wrote in his blog and now is in danger.”
“I don’t regret what I have done,” Quyen added. “I’m in danger but at least I’m still free.”