Keep missing activists in public memory

Keep missing activists in public memory

An activist holds up a picture of missing pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit during a 'White Bows for Justice' campaign. The self-exiled activist was kidnapped in Phnom Penh on June 4. Chanat Katanyu
An activist holds up a picture of missing pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit during a 'White Bows for Justice' campaign. The self-exiled activist was kidnapped in Phnom Penh on June 4. Chanat Katanyu

Nearly two weeks into what is believed to be the forced disappearance of self-exiled activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the investigation into the case seems to be going nowhere.

With no aggressive action taken by the government, I'm afraid that he will end up like other victims of human rights abuses -- their whereabouts remain unknown, and some are presumed dead. Meanwhile, no perpetrators have been arrested. Sooner, rather than later, their stories will fade away and disappear from media and public attention.

Mr Wanchalearm, a pro-democracy activist, sought refuge in Cambodia in 2014 after he defied a summons order issued by the coup makers, the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order under Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. The military court then issued a warrant for his arrest.

According to media reports, Mr Wanchalearm was abducted from a street in front of his condominium in Phnom Penh's Chroy Changvar district on June 4. Witnesses saw three armed men forcing him into a black vehicle in broad daylight before driving away.

His sister, Sitanan Satsaksit, said she was on the phone with Mr Wanchalearm when he was nabbed. She heard him shouting "Argh, I can't breathe!" before the line was cut off. The motivation for the alleged abduction is still unknown.

Both the Thai and Cambodian governments were initially silent after reports of his abduction came out. It wasn't until public pressure mounted on the Prayut government that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally approached the Cambodian government to request information on the case last week.

Observers criticised such a move as lukewarm (or half-hearted? Whatever.)

The ministry gave an impression that since the incident happened outside Thai sovereign territory, the Thai government can't do much but wait until Cambodia finishes its investigation.

Such a stance means we are relying on Cambodia -- a country with a bruised human rights record -- to investigate Mr Wanchalearm's disappearance. International media outlets reported that Cambodia's National Police spokesman, Chhay Kim Khoeun, said on Friday police have looked into the matter but found no information on the missing activist to date. The spokesman said, "I would like to confirm that Cambodian authorities and police did not arrest that individual."

If the Thai government sincerely wants to solve the case, it should opt for a more pro-active move. It could send its own investigators to Cambodia and offer to join the probe.

But that would seem impossible, as the state only pays lip service to human rights issues. Look at the forced disappearances on our own soil -- from the 2004 disappearance of prominent human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, to the abduction/murder of Karen land rights activist, Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen. Evidence strongly suggest the state had a hand in these high-profile disappearances.

In addition to forced disappearances, there are also cases of intimidation and assaults. Pro-democracy activist Sirawit Seritiwat was assaulted time and time again, but the police never figured out who his attackers were.

Last year, he was beaten by four men with baseball bats -- the attack resulted in injuries so serious he had to be hospitalised. Red-shirt activists exiled in Laos, Surachai Danwattananusorn and Wutthipong Kochthammakhun, also went missing. We didn't hear much about them, but speculation was rampant when two unidentified bodies were retrieved from the Mekong River. The police didn't pay much attention to the bodies, seemingly disinterested in finding their identities and who killed them.

It's strange that the police -- who can solve the most complex of crimes -- fail to solve cases relating to pro-democracy activists.

Thai authorities and the police seem to be sticking to the same old tactic of buying time and letting the case slowly slip from public attention. Such approach has served it well, as it's known the media doesn't treat human rights issue as a priority.

Netizens are questioning the lack of follow-up reports on Mr Wanchalearm's disappearance in mainstream media. Only a few news outlets dug deep into the case, and I must give credit to Prachatai news webpage and the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group for their role in keeping the case alive.

Not only is the police distancing itself from the abduction, they are also trying to suppress any calls for justice for the kidnapped man by fellow activists. This has led to arrests and charges under the emergency decree -- which was issued to enable the Prayut administration to better fight against Covid-19, as insisted by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.

Six people, including activist Somyos Pruksakasemsuk, received warrants for breaking the emergency decree after they gathered in front of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok on Monday to petition the Cambodian ambassador about the disappearance.

Four members of the Student Union of Thailand, led by student activist Parit Chiwarak, were detained for violating the city's cleanliness ordinance as they tried to tie white bows across Bangkok in support of Mr Wanchalearm. Initially, police wanted to use the emergency decree, but later changed their minds, possibly out of fear of the repercussion.

Why does speaking up for justice have such a high cost? Pressing charges against activists by citing cleanliness is ridiculous. What a distorted priority! It shows how police have no concerns about the abduction of Thai citizens.

In fact, the activists have a solid point. While it is true Mr Wanchalearm fled a military court warrant, his escape does not take away his Thai citizenship.

He has the rights to protection as a Thai, wherever he is. Unfortunately, state authorities fail to realise this.

On top of that, if Mr Wanchalearm was indeed, made to disappear because he had a different view, it can happen to anyone, including you and me.

This is the reason we should not allow the issue to be forgotten.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.


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