A Thai political activist was snatched from the streets of Cambodia’s capital in broad daylight, human rights groups alleged on Friday, as they urged authorities to investigate the case amid a spate of abductions of Thai exiles in Southeast Asian countries.
In Bangkok, a spokesman for Thai national police said the agency was not involved in the disappearance in Phnom Penh of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, while Cambodian police on Friday dismissed the report of his abduction as “fake news.”
The activist who had fled to Cambodia from Thailand, where he was wanted by authorities, apparently was abducted by gunmen on Thursday afternoon as he talked to his sister on a phone, she told BenarNews, adding he said that he couldn’t breathe as their call ended abruptly.
“The Cambodian authorities must urgently investigate Wanchalearm’s alleged abduction in order to establish his whereabouts. The Thai authorities must also confirm whether Wanchalearm was arrested at their request,” Amnesty International said in a statement issued Friday.
“This would not be the first time that Thai citizens have vanished after expressing their political opinions. Wanchalearm is outspoken on social media – his sudden disappearance in a violent incident is deeply alarming,” the London-based watchdog group said.
Krisana Pattanacharoen, deputy spokesman for Thailand’s national police bureau, said the Thai government was unaware of who was behind the activist’s alleged kidnapping.
“As far as I know, he was wanted for breeching Computer Crimes Act since 2018: [We] don’t know who abducted him,” Krisana told BenarNews by phone.
“In regard to fugitives abroad, the national police bureau cooperates with respective countries to find them. We treat each fugitive equally. It depends on how other countries handle them,” Krisana said.
A friend of Wanchalearm who lives in Phnom Penh learned that surveillance footage showed him being abducted from in front of his condominium and being driven away in a black SUV, according to Prachatai, a Thai news portal. Prachatai said a security guard tried to help Wanchalearm, but his kidnappers were armed.
A Cambodian police spokesman denied any knowledge of Wanchalearm being kidnapped and said that since no abduction had taken place, no investigation would be done, according to the Associated Press.
“Since this morning I have received about 50 calls asking me about this news but replying to them all the same ... I said this is fake news, untrue news,” Gen. Chhay Kim Khouen said.
“We don’t know about it, so what should we investigate,” he told Agence France-Presse separately.
Although Cambodian police said there was no abduction, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said authorities in his country were investigating information they had received.
“I believe that authorities are investigating on the case. Human rights organizations should not hurry and jump to conclusions over this incident without information and no foundation,” he told the Khmer Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister agency of BenarNews.
Since a 2014 military coup that toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, at least 104 people have fled Thailand over fears of prosecution, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local NGO.
At least 98 people were charged with violating the strict royal defamation law known as Lese-Majeste, and 119 others were charged with sedition, according to iLaw, an online legal advocate group. Authorities also have filed charges under the Computer Crimes Act.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wanchalearm was charged under the act for allegedly operating a Facebook page in Cambodia critical of the Thai government.
“The abduction of a prominent Thai political activist on the streets of Phnom Penh demands an immediate response from Cambodian authorities,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement Friday. “The Cambodian government should urgently act to locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”
HRW accused Cambodia and Thailand of collaborating to “harass, arbitrarily arrest and forcibly return exiled dissidents in violation of international law.” It said Wanchalearm previously told HRW officials that he occasionally had been put under surveillance by Thai officials in Cambodia.
'Line cut off'
The activist’s sister, Sitanan Satsaksit, said she regularly talked to him. Their last call occurred around 5 p.m. Thursday.
“While I was talking with my younger brother, Ta (his nickname) screamed: ‘Argh! Can’t breathe,’ and then we had the line cut off,” she told BenarNews.
Sitanan said she was concerned that Wanchalearm had become less careful during his time in Phnom Penh, and that may have led to his abduction.
“I talked to him every day on general life matters and business. I told him to stop talking politics and just focus on business. It seemed he followed my advice, but he became less cautious,” she said.
Wanchalearm has been identified by HRW as a prominent pro-democracy activist affiliated with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts.” He founded the Facebook page “Ku Tong Dai 100 Lan Jak Thaksin Nae” (I must get 100 million baht from Thaksin for sure).
The Facebook page’s posting on June 3 used derogatory language to criticize Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who led the 2014 coup that overthrew Yingluck’s government.
“Thaksin” refers to Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former Thai prime minister who leads the Red Shirts and who like his sister, Yingluck, was driven from office by a military coup.
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that anti-monarchists aligned with Thaksin and his family had fled Thailand over the years, with some ending up in Laos and Vietnam as well, adding that with this latest disappearance, at least nine had gone missing or been found dead.
HRW identified three people who went missing in Laos and were found dead in the Mekong River – Itthipol Sukpaen, who was last seen in June 2016, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, who was last seen in July 2017, and Surachai Danwattananusorn who was last seen in 2018.
In early 2018, the dismembered bodies of Surachai’s associates – Chatcharn Buppawan, 56, and Kraidej Luelert, 46 – were found in the river which separates Thailand and Laos, according to Thai police.
HRW said Thai police had 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.”
Surachai’s fate is not known, his wife said.