Updated at 11:09 a.m. ET on 2020-06-10
Cambodia’s national police force has launched an investigation into the alleged abduction of Thai political activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Phnom Penh, despite earlier calling his disappearance “fake news,” a senior official said Tuesday.
Amid mounting calls for an investigation, including a request via a diplomatic note from the Thai Embassy in Cambodia, National Police Commission spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun confirmed Tuesday that a probe into Wanchalearm’s disappearance was underway.
But he denied allegations by the Cambodian opposition and Wanchalearm’s supporters in Thailand that authorities in Phnom Penh had carried out the alleged abduction at Bangkok’s behest.
“I deny any allegations that Cambodia arrested Satsakit,” he said, adding that authorities would “investigate any information relevant to the case” as part of the probe.
Meanwhile in Bangkok, Thailand’s leader told reporters that he had asked Thai security officials about Wanchalearm’s reported abduction. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha indicated that his government would cooperate with foreign authorities investigating the case.
“We will see why he fled [Thailand], [and] to where,” he said after a weekly cabinet meeting. “I don’t know where he has fled to and what he did there.”
But he also made clear that Thailand would not “interfere in another country’s authority” as part of any investigation.
“They have their mechanism to find out,” Prayuth said. “We can cooperate with them if they ask us.”
“I’ve nothing to do [with this issue] and I seek fairness for Thai officials,” Prayuth added.
A day after he posted an anti-government video on Facebook, Wanchalearm, 37, was apparently abducted in broad daylight on June 4 by gunmen from in front of his apartment complex in the Cambodian capital as he talked to his sister on the phone. On Friday, she told BenarNews that he had said he couldn’t breathe as their call ended abruptly.
The activist had fled to Cambodia from Thailand after Thai authorities issued a June 2018 warrant for his arrest, accusing him of violating the Computer-Related Crime Act for operating a Facebook page deemed critical of the Thai government.
In Phnom Penh, Chhay Kim Khoeun said that according to official records, Wanchalearm wasn’t even living in Cambodia at the time of his alleged kidnapping, and the official welcomed any information that members of the public could provide authorities related to the Thai’s disappearance.
“According to our investigation, Satsakit left Cambodia in 2017 [and didn't return],” he said, without providing any details.
“We don’t have any more information in addition to that. Cambodian authorities are seeking witnesses and evidence relevant to … [reports of] Satsakit’s disappearance.”
Chhay Kim Khoeun’s announcement that a probe was underway marked a sea change from Friday, when he denied any knowledge of Wanchalearm being kidnapped, in an interview with the Associated Press. He told AP that since no abduction had taken place, no investigation would be done.
“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,” he said at the time.
The announcement of a Cambodian investigation came a day after a demonstration by around 100 of Wanchalearm’s supporters in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok. They demanded that Phnom Penh investigate his case and also accused the Thai government of having orchestrated the alleged kidnapping.
‘We don’t want the government to sit still’
In the Thai capital on Tuesday, Wanchalearm’s sister, Sitinan Satsakit, submitted a letter to the Thai Parliament’s House Committee on Justice Tuesday asking for its help in locating her brother.
“I’m seeking help from authorities to bring my brother back safely and would like the committee to urgently search [for him],” she told reporters as she presented her letter to Rangsiman Rome, the spokesman for the House Committee on Justice.
“Thank you [students and activists] for [raising] awareness about the disappearance of Wanchalearm, it’s a phenomenon. We feel that younger generations are alert about enforced disappearances.”
Rangsiman Rome, a former pre-democracy activist and Thai lawmaker whose serves as the spokesman for the parliamentary committee, told BenarNews that while the incident had taken place abroad, the Thai government was obligated to help search for Wanchalearm through the framework of international law.
“What worries us most is that the incident will fade away,” he said.
“It is not only a matter of human rights but the security of Thai citizens. We don’t want the government to sit still and let this fade away.”
Following reports that Cambodia had launched a probe into Wanchalearm’s disappearance, Human Rights Watch chided Bangkok for having “dragged its feet” in filing a request and Phnom Penh for showing “a disturbing lack of interest in the case” by claiming that it was waiting for Thai authorities to complain before it would investigate.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, questioned why it had taken so long to begin inquiries in a case “with CCTV footage and lots of witnesses” surrounding “an obvious crime committed in broad daylight on Phnom Penh’s streets.”
“Now the investigation has finally started, Cambodia’s government must pursue a serious, impartial and transparent investigation that leaves no stone unturned in finding out what happened to Wanchalearm,” Robertson said.
“They should not rest until they find him and prosecute those responsible for the abduction.”
Robertson urged governments around the world “who are concerned about enforced abductions” to pressure both Cambodia and Thailand to act quickly to find Wanchalearm.
Earlier calls for probe
Ahead of Cambodia’s launch of the probe, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement saying it was aware of reports of Wanchalearm’s abduction and urging authorities to “investigate immediately.”
“The United States consistently encourages foreign governments, including the Royal Cambodian Government and the Royal Thai Government, to ensure freedom of expression and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, consistent with international obligations and commitments,” U.S. Embassy spokeswomen Emily Zeeberg said.
Wanchalearm’s disappearance had also drawn concerns from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which on Tuesday demanded that Cambodian and Thai authorities investigate the case and ensure his safety “as a matter of urgency.”
“The fact that a Thai political activist has been brazenly abducted on the streets of the Cambodian capital is a matter of extreme concern,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP), and chairperson of APHR.
“ASEAN governments that allow these types of actions to take place on their territory are effectively turning our region into an autocrats’ heaven, where the persecution of dissent knows no borders.”
Santiago noted that in recent years, authorities in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, had all been accused of arresting and returning critics of neighboring countries.
“This growing trend of Southeast Asian governments exchanging political dissidents is sinister,” he said.
“ASEAN leaders should protect democracy not autocracy, something that starts with respecting their obligation to grant asylum and protecting those who flee persecution.”
APHR called on parliamentarians in Thailand and Cambodia to hold their governments to account by asking for regular reports on their respective efforts and progress in locating Wanchalerm.
This story was reported by Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, with additional reporting by Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported that Wanchalearm Satsaksit was apparently abducted two days after he posted an anti-government video on Facebook.