Thai activist's abduction in Cambodia triggers protests, fierce debate

A protester holds up a picture of abducted Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Bangkok on June 12, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - A suspected kidnapping of a Thai activist in exile in Cambodia earlier this month has triggered a series of protests and unprecedented debate in Thailand.

As soon as it became known that Mr Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, was seized on the street of Phnom Penh in front of his apartment and bundled up into a vehicle on June 4, Twitter users in Thailand have demanded answers with the hashtag #SaveWanchalearm which was retweeted a million times within 24 hours.

In the latest in a series of small protests since June 5, up to 30 people gathered in front of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok on Monday (June 15), chanting "Save Wanchalearm," while accusing the Thai authorities of being involved in his disappearance.

The group demanded his body be sent back to Thailand for a funeral if he is dead.

Cambodian police said last week it has launched an investigation into the activist's disappearance but did not reveal details.

Another group of protesters later put up pieces of paper featuring names and photos of Wanchalearm and other Thais believed to have been victims of enforced disappearances in other countries in South-east Asia in recent years with the caption "missing".

Dozens of Thai anti-military and anti-monarchy dissidents have fled the country after the 2014 coup. Two of them were found dead in Mekong river in Thailand in January 2019 after living in exile in Laos. Their bodies were found stuffed with concrete blocks.

Mr Wanchalearm, who has been charged with computer crimes for allegedly administering an anti-government Facebook page, was not the first Thai activist in exile in other South-east Asian countries believed abducted.

But it was the first time a disappearance of a Thai activist abroad has been widely discussed in mainstream Thai society, and not only contained among activists or rights groups.

Over the past year, more Thais have turned to Twitter to openly discuss political issues and sensitive ones like the monarchy even in light of harsh lese majeste and computer crime penalties, thanks to the anonymity the site provides.

"The fact that there were witnesses to this very brazen daylight abduction, and CCTV of the getaway vehicle also means people could see what happened, making them more likely to react than in the other cases where the abduction happened mysteriously," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

A few Thai celebrities who demanded answers and questioned if Thais need to live in fear on social media have received both praise from supporters of the #SaveWanchalearm movement, and backlash from hardline royalists and sceptics of the incident.

Criticism has been made against those voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States but keeping mum when it came to Mr Wanchalearm and injustice in Thailand.

In particular, Ms Praya Lundberg, a Thai actress who has been appointed a goodwill ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, faced heavy criticism for failing to speak up. She wrote on Instagram Mr Wanchalearm's case was not her fight and that the matter is "highly sensitive and complicated."

In a phone interview with The Straits Times, Ms Sitanun Satsaksit, Mr Wanchalearm's elder sister recounted her last phone call with her brother right at the moment he was taken.

"I was on a call with him when it happened. There is evidence we chatted. I can confirm it was enforced disappearance," said the 47-year-old Thailand-based businesswoman. "I feel disheartened. I don't know who we are fighting. I don't know if he's still alive," she added tearfully.

Ms Sitanun heard a loud bang that she initially thought was a car crash. Then she heard voices in Cambodian and her own brother saying "Argh, I can't breathe" for 30 minutes before the line was cut.

She said she talked to her brother a few times on the phone every day. The businesswoman had asked her contacts in Cambodia about her brother's case but warned them to stop their investigation if they feel they are in danger. "Let my brother be the last one," she said.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said last week he did not know who Mr Wanchalearm was and why he fled. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Mr Wanchalearm was neither a security threat nor a political refugee recognised by the UN and Bangkok can only wait for Phnom Penh to finish its investigation.

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