Exiled Thai activist 'abducted in Cambodia'
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Exiled Thai activist 'abducted in Cambodia'

Rights group says 'armed men' grabbed dissident two days after anti-government video appeared on Facebook

People lay flowers in front of a picture of missing activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit on the skywalk at the Pathumwan intersection on Friday. (Photo from @TLHR2014 Twitter account)
People lay flowers in front of a picture of missing activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit on the skywalk at the Pathumwan intersection on Friday. (Photo from @TLHR2014 Twitter account)

Thai police say they have no information on the alleged abduction in Cambodia of an outspoken Thai anti-government activist, the latest in a series of mysterious disappearances of Southeast Asian dissidents living in exile.

Unknown gunmen abducted Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Phnom Penh on Thursday, rights advocates said on Friday.

Mr Wanchalearm, 37, was bundled into a vehicle as he walked on a street in front of his apartment in Phnom Penh, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

“The abduction of a prominent Thai political activist on the streets of Phnom Penh demands an immediate response from Cambodian authorities,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.

Thai police had contacted their Cambodian counterparts earlier about extraditing Mr Wanchalerm and other activists who had fled to the neighbouring country, said Pol Col Krissana Pattanacharoen, the deputy national police spokesman. But he said he was uncertain whether Cambodian authorities were involved in the disappearance.

A Cambodian police spokesman told Reuters that authorities had not detained or arrested the activist and there was not enough information for police to open an investigation.

“We don’t know about it, so what should we investigate?” Chhay Kim Khoeun, a spokesman for the Cambodian National Police, told AFP.

In Bangkok, students and activists gathered on the skywalk outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre on Friday afternoon to lay flowers before a picture of Mr Wanchalearm and call for justice for him and other political dissidents.

Police were seen at the scene reminding the protesters to maintain social distancing for health and safety.

Sitanan Satasaksit told the Prachatai website on Thursday that her younger brother was abducted at 4.40pm on Thursday from a condominium where he had been staying in the Cambodian capital.

She said she was talking with him on the phone when he suddenly cried out, “I can’t breathe”. His chance for survival was only 1%, BBC Thai quoted her as saying in an interview on Friday.

Mr Wanchalearm fled Thailand after the 2014 military coup. He had been summoned by military authorities before he left.

He kept up his political activity in exile and Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for him in 2018 for violating the Computer Crimes Act by operating a Facebook page critical of the military government. However, on Friday Pol Col Krissana denied that the activist was facing lese majeste charges.

On Wednesday, he posted an expletive-laden video on his Facebook page castigating Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

According to a 2015 Thai media report citing a security source, Mr Wanchalearm was among 29 exiled activists accused of violating the lese majeste law that makes it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the monarchy.

At least eight Thai activists who fled after the 2014 coup and took refuge in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have disappeared, associates and rights groups say. Some have been found dead.

The hashtag #SaveWanchalearm was trending on Thai Twitter on Friday with more than 400,000 retweets.

Human rights groups have accused governments in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, of helping each other to forcibly return several dissidents and asylum seekers in recent years.

Wanchalearm last posted on his personal Facebook account a few hours before his disappearance, writing cryptically “Compromise Mode”.

A spokesman for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry suggested the HRW report about the abduction could be “fake news”.

“We don’t where HRW got the information,” Khieu Sopheak told AFP, adding “there’s a lot of fake news out there”.

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