No country for dissidents
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No country for dissidents

Od Sayavong, a 34-year-old Lao political activist, has gone missing in Bangkok since Aug 26 as he was awaiting resettlement to a third country. (Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch)
Od Sayavong, a 34-year-old Lao political activist, has gone missing in Bangkok since Aug 26 as he was awaiting resettlement to a third country. (Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch)

Despite some restrictions on freedom of expression, Thailand was once a place where government dissent was tolerated. It was seen as a safe haven for dissidents in the region, many of whom arrived seeking asylum in a third country under UN Human Rights Commission rules. Od Sayavong, a 34-year-old Lao political activist, was one of them. But that hope was extinguished when he went missing in Bangkok on Aug 26.

Od had been awaiting resettlement to a third country since the UNHRC office in Bangkok registered him as a person of concern in December 2017. His political activism was peaceful, limited to criticising the Lao government and calling for political freedom and human rights in his home country.

The suspected forced disappearance of Od is the latest evidence that regional cooperation is growing between Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China as their governments hunt down political dissidents seeking asylum or safety on foreign soil.

In the past, few would have imagined that Thailand would join this club of ruthless and repressive authoritarian regimes. But here we are, thanks to the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order and its military government. Since the 2014 coup, the country has become a dangerous place for political asylum seekers. The military regime faced allegations it sanctioned the abduction and deportation from Thailand of foreign dissidents by their governments to neighbouring countries where they would be persecuted.

On Jan 26, Vietnamese dissident and journalist Truong Duy Nhat went missing in Bangkok. The day before, he had applied for refugee status at the UNHCR office. On Jan 28, he turned up behind bars in Hanoi. His fellow activists suspected he was abducted by Vietnamese agents working in cooperation with Thai police and driven across the border to Cambodia and then on to Vietnam, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In February last year, Thailand deported Cambodian Sam Sokha despite her UNHCR refugee status, sending her back to the homeland where she had faced persecution for throwing a shoe at an image of strongman leader Hun Sen.

She is now in jail.

The Thai military regime's ruthless cooperation also saw the deportation of about 100 Uighurs to China in 2015 despite the high risk of being persecuted.

At the same time, Thai dissidents seeking sanctuary on neighbouring soil have also gone missing. These include the disappearances in Vietnam of three Thai activists accused of lese majeste following an arrest by authorities there in May this year. Human Rights Watch reported they were handed over to Thai authorities, but the Thai government denied it.

Since 2016, a number of political activists who fled to Laos have also disappeared. In January this year, two of them were found dead in the Mekong River, disembowelled and with concrete stuffed in their bellies. The former government never provided explanation or followed up on these and other murky cases.

Similarly, the new civilian government, led by the same prime minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, has stayed mum on the whereabouts of the missing Lao activist, making many suspect that it sanctioned his disappearance.

Thailand has no place among this regional club of governments that sanctions the abduction and deportation of foreign dissidents and makes mainland Southeast Asia a dangerous place for those who resist authoritarian rule.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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