(New York) – Cambodian authorities should immediately divulge the whereabouts of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai activist who was forcibly disappeared in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the United States, and the European Parliament have called on the Cambodian government to urgently investigate Wanchalearm’s disappearance.
“The abduction of a prominent Thai activist on the streets of Phnom Penh is a new and dangerous turn that demands an immediate, credible response from the Cambodian authorities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop denying the undeniable and urgently locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”
Wanchalearm, 37, a pro-democracy activist affiliated with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the “Red Shirts,” fled to Cambodia after the May 2014 military coup in Thailand. He remained politically active in exile, frequently criticizing the Thai military and government on social media. Wanchalearm’s last video clip on Facebook, posted on June 3, criticized Thailand’s prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha.
On June 4, unidentified armed men abducted Wanchalearm in front of his Phnom Penh apartment. Multiple witnesses say he was forced into a dark Toyota Highlander with the license plate 2X2307. Wanchalearm’s sister was talking on the phone with him and said she heard him scream “I can’t breathe” repeatedly before the call was cut off.
Apartment security cameras also recorded the latter parts of the abduction. CCTV footage obtained by the Thai online news agency Prachatai shows a dark SUV speeding away from the Mekong Gardens condominium. Witnesses told journalists that assailants attacked Wanchalearm and then forced him into a Toyota Highlander while he repeatedly screamed “please help!” in Khmer.
On June 5, the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh sent a letter to the Cambodian government requesting an investigation of the case, and it has since followed up with senior officials in the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and with police.
In the ensuing month, Cambodian authorities have persisted in claiming that they have no information on Wanchalearm’s abduction or his current whereabouts. Despite the information available and evidence since provided to the authorities, Cambodian officials have offered a variety of denials and refused to investigate.
Phay Siphan, chief government spokesperson, said on June 7, that he was only aware of the alleged abduction through the media. “Please ask the Ministry of Interior about this,” he said. Questioned by journalists, the Interior Ministry spokesman, Gen. Khieu Sopheak, claimed that he was not aware of Wanchalearm’s abduction.
A national police spokesperson, Lt. Gen. Chhay Kim Khoeun, also said he knew nothing: “We don’t know about it, so what should we investigate for?” On June 10, the police spokesperson said that according to official records, Wanchalearm was not even living in Cambodia at the time of his abduction. He told Radio Free Asia, “According to our investigation, Wanchalearm left Cambodia in 2017 [and did not return],” but he offered no evidence.
Cambodian police stated, on June 12, that the apartment owner denied having a tenant named Wanchalearm and that none of the staff recognized him in a photograph. On June 25, Cambodian police said Wanchalearm’s visa had expired in 2017, his whereabouts had been unknown since then, and that the car allegedly used had fake license plates. They provided no information to support these claims. Cambodian police claimed they reviewed the security camera clips but could not verify when and where the incident happened.
In recent years, many Thais in exile have been living in Phnom Penh. Thais and Cambodians familiar with the living situation of Red Shirt exiles told Human Rights Watch that their main contact with the Cambodian government is a ruling Cambodian People’s Party district chief, Klang Huot. Huot has been described as the “handler” for the Red Shirts and being close to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The Cambodian government should just end their ridiculous denials in the face of so much evidence,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Hun Sen’s iron fisted control of the country should leave little doubt that the government could locate Wanchalearm in short order.”
In June 2018, Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wanchalearm based on allegations that he violated the Computer-Related Crime Act by operating a Facebook page, Ku Tong Dai 100 Lan Jak Thaksin Nae Nae (“I will surely get 100 million baht from Thaksin,” a reference to the former prime minister living in exile and supported by the Red Shirts), critical of the Thai government from Phnom Penh.
At that time, Lt. Gen. Surachet Hakparn, who supervised the investigation by the Technology Crime Suppression Division police, vowed to bring Wanchalearm back to Thailand. “Even though Wanchalearm isn’t in Thailand, he isn’t beyond the reach of Thai police. We will find him, arrest him, and bring him back,” Lt. Gen. Surachet said. However, the Cambodian government has allowed him and several dozen other Red Shirts to live in Cambodia.
Wanchalearm’s sister, Sitinan Satsakit, has sought the assistance of the Thai government and the Thai Parliament’s House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights.
Thai officials in Bangkok have told Human Rights Watch that they are pressing Cambodian authorities for action. However, some Thai military surrogates and their media networks have attempted to discredit Wanchalearm, saying that the Cambodian government has no obligation to investigate his case because of unfounded allegations that he lived in the country illegally and was involved in the illegal drug trade.
Since the May 2014 coup, Thai authorities have aggressively pursued the apprehension of pro-democracy activists who took refuge in neighboring countries. The Thai government has repeatedly demanded that Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia hand over those exiled Thai activists. Counting Wanchalearm, at least nine have become victims of enforced disappearance. Two were later found brutally murdered, their mutilated bodies floating in the Mekong River. None of these cases have been resolved, and no one has been prosecuted.
Cambodia and Thailand have closely collaborated over the past six years to harass, arbitrarily arrest, and forcibly return exiled dissidents, putting their life and freedom at risk in violation of international law. This has included people formally registered as persons of concern by the United Nations refugee agency. Wanchalearm had previously told Human Rights Watch that Thai officials in Cambodia had occasionally put him under surveillance.
Wanchalearm’s abduction has caused outrage in Thailand. The “Save Wanchalearm” hashtag has been trending on Twitter in Thailand for the past month. Flash mobs appeared outside the Cambodian embassy and other key locations in Bangkok, demanding that Thai authorities should press the Cambodian government to uncover what happened and return Wanchalearm to safety. Members of the Thai parliament have made similar demands, and have held hearings about Wanchalearm’s enforced disappearance every week.
International law defines enforced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials or their agents and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.
The UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances said it had been informed that “The perpetrators of Mr. Wanchalearm’s disappearance appeared to have been professionally trained, which would imply that they may be linked to State agents, and that no ransom was requested.” It called on Cambodia, as a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to investigate and respond by June 24. Cambodia did not respond.
“The Thai government and the UN should step up the pressure and publicly demand answers from Hun Sen about Wanchalearm’s whereabouts,” Adams said. “Foreign governments and donors should tell the Cambodian government that its failure to locate Wanchalearm makes them responsible for his enforced disappearance.”