Conflicts & War

Outrage in Thailand after self-exiled dissident disappears in Cambodia

By Carlos Sardiña Galache

Bangkok, June 19 (efe-epa).- The disappearance of a Thai dissident living in self-exile in Cambodia after his reported violent abduction in broad daylight in Phnom Penh has sparked outrage in Thailand along with a wave of criticism against the government for its apparent indifference to the case.

Wanchalearm Satsakit, 37, who fled to Cambodia after the 2014 coup, was last seen on June 4 in CCTV footage that shows a group of unknown armed men shoving him into a black vehicle in the center of the Cambodian capital while he was talking on the phone to his sister.

The last words that Wanchalearm’s sister heard him say before his disappearance were the same ones that became a global protest symbol after being uttered by African-American man George Floyd as a police officer fatally knelt on his neck in the city of Minneapolis: “I can’t breathe.”

The incident in Cambodia was first brought to light by nonprofit Human Rights Watch, and soon Thai social networks were filled with condemnation and the hashtag #SaveWanchalearm began trending on Twitter. Small demonstrations were also held in front of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok and other parts of the capital.

Meanwhile both Thai and Cambodian authorities were quiet on the issue until the backlash became too strong.

“It is clear that growing domestic and international pressures have pushed the governments of Cambodia and Thailand to respond to the enforced disappearance of Wanchalearm, who was abducted at gunpoint in broad daylight,” HRW researcher in Thailand Sunai Phasuk told EFE. “From denying knowledge of the incident, even calling HRW report of fake news, (an) investigation has been undertaken by the Cambodian authorities.”

“Meanwhile, the Thai government reported to the parliament (Wednesday) that the embassy in Phnom Penh has been monitoring the progress closely… (and) Thailand’s attorney-general office also stated that a parallel investigation in collaboration with the Thai police will be launched on this side of the border,” added Phasuk, who has closely followed the case since the beginning.

The researcher highlighted the huge contrast with other disappearances under similar circumstances since the 2014 military coup, when dozens of political leaders opposed to the military sought refuge abroad, especially in neighboring countries such as Laos and Cambodia.

Since the coup, at least eight activists have disappeared under circumstances that have led to rights groups terming them forced disappearances, and the mutilated dead bodies of two of them were found later in a section of the Mekong river between Thailand and Laos.

The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who headed the 2014 coup and won last year’s election, has denied any connection to the disappearances of dissidents abroad.

Wanchalearm, like many other Thai dissidents in exile, had been critical of the government and the monarchy, and his case has reignited the debate on Thailand’s lese-majeste law – one of the harshest in the world – with many netizens calling for its abolition in recent days.

According to Article 112 of the Thai penal code, acts of lese-majeste, including those thought to be insults, defamation or threats against the king, queen, crown prince or regent, are punishable by 3 to 15 years’ imprisonment, and anyone can file a complaint against another, making the law a possible political weapon.

However the use of this law has dropped since King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016, after the death of his father – the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej – at the insistence of the king himself, according to Prayut.

“You can see today that we have not been using 112 at all. You know why? It was because the king was kind enough to instruct that it should not be used,” the prime minister said in a press conference on Monday, although citizens critical of the monarchy can be punished under other laws.

“In practice, while the lese-majeste prosecution is put on hiatus, Thai authorities have simply switched to another set of criminal charges – including sedition, so called ‘computer crimes’ targeting online commentary, and criminal organization – to prosecute critics of the monarchy,” Phasuk told EFE.

On the same day that Prayut revealed that authorities were not using the lese-majeste law, he also alleged that violations of the law had increased in the last three years and claimed that there existed a movement to undermine the monarchy.

“A spine-chilling effect was further felt when Deputy Prime Minister, General Prawit Wongsuwon, said officials are investigating and ‘once we get the list of names, we will prosecute them,’” said Phasuk. EFE-EPA

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