Activist saga casts dark stain

Activist saga casts dark stain

The mysterious disappearance of an activist in exile has put another black mark against Thailand's human rights record.

Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a 37-year-old activist wanted in Thailand for allegedly violating the controversial Computer Crime Act, was dragged into a black vehicle by a group of armed men on a Phnom Penh street on Thursday afternoon.

It was reported the activist was on the phone with a friend. Human rights advocates cited witnesses and CCTV camera footage taken at the spot of his abduction.

Both Thai and Cambodian authorities said they "had no information" about his disappearance. Cambodian police have refused to look into the case.

"We don't know about it, so what should we investigate?" Chhay Kim Khoeun, a spokesman for the Cambodian National Police said. The Cambodian Interior Ministry dismissed the abduction reports as "fake news".

On Friday, Thailand's deputy police spokesman Pol Col Kissana Phathanacharoen said the agency has treated Wanchalearm's case like other cases in which suspects flee overseas.

He also said police had initiated a process to seek Wanchalearm's extradition upon learning that he fled the country. His fate remains unknown.

Like a few political activists, Wanchalearm fled from Thailand after a 2014 military coup and sought shelter in Cambodia. According to Reuters, he had been summoned by military authorities before he left.

He kept up his political activities in exile and Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for him in 2018 for violating the Computer Crime Act by operating a Facebook page critical of the military government. Yet, there is no official confirmation as to whether he had any role in the page in question.

Previously, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen warned dissidents on Cambodian soil to get out. The Cambodian government under Hun Sen has zero tolerance for its critics.

What is clear, however, is the heavy-handedness by the Thai state against its critics and that Wanchalearm is the latest activist to fall victim to a forced disappearance.

With the close cooperation of Thailand, neighbours such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are not safe "shelters" for dissidents from Thailand. At least eight Thai activists who fled after the 2014 coup and took refuge in these neighbouring countries have mysteriously disappeared, with some found dead. At least two activists were brutally killed.

Yet, Thai authorities have made no attempt to clear the air, leaving the cases a mystery.

Last month, Kanya Theerawut, whose son Siam went missing, complained about a lack of progress in the case. Siam, together with two activists Chucheep Chiwasut and Kritsana Thapthai, were reportedly arrested in Vietnam in May last year and were deported to Thailand.

Yet, the Thai government has never acknowledged their disappearance or deportation. The three activists were charged with the draconian lese majeste law.

The sad mother said she had filed petitions with several agencies about her son's forced disappearance, only to be met with silence.

For quite some time, Thailand has boasted to the international community of its return to democracy after more than five years under the military regime, with free elections last year that resulted in the formation of the coalition government under a democratic process.

It claims parliament is back in action, yet there continues to be brutal suppression against its critics.

Those incidents speak volumes of how the country's democracy is phoney. Democracy is nothing without free speech.

Yesterday, human rights advocate Angkhana Neelapaichit joined the public in criticising the Thai state regarding Wanchalearm's disappearance. She rightfully called for the government to clarify the matter.

While the disappearance of Wanchalearm and other activists must be sorted out by various agencies, parliamentarians must initiate a move to revise or nullify a swathe of unjust laws -- issued in the time of the military regime -- that make freedom of speech a crime. They must set this task as a priority.

On top of that is the contentious Computer Crime Act which, with its harsh penalties, is a tool for authorities to muzzle critics.

Legislators are obliged also to look into the long-overdue enforced disappearance bill, correct its flaws and put it into place. The country has made a pledge to the international community that it will invoke the crucial law.

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government must give full cooperation to the parliamentarians' move and make a "return to democracy" meaningful. The ultimate goal is that oppression against "enemies of the state" must come to an end.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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