BANGKOK — With his final words, “I can’t breathe!” fugitive activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was manhandled into an unmarked vehicle and driven away, according to his friend. It’s been 24 hours since the disappearance and no one knows where he is.
Now activists worry for Wanchalearm, who fled Thailand to Cambodia after the military seized power in 2014, and demand explanation from the Thai authorities over his whereabouts. The police deny involvement in what activists described as an abduction.
“Cambodia is not Thailand. You must ask the relevant country,” Police spokesman Kissana Phattanacharoen said by phone.
Wanchalerm is wanted in Thailand on criminal charges for running a Facebook account critical of Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha’s military government, and for ignoring a summons issued by the junta after the 2014 coup. He also routinely called for reforms of the Thai monarchy – a taboo subject in Thailand.
Wanchalearm’s last post on his Facebook was on Thursday, just four hours before his disappearance in Phnom Penh. Prachatai reported that he was taken inside a black vehicle by a group of armed men that evening and sped away while he was buying food in front of his apartment.
The alleged abduction was reportedly captured on a security camera and witnessed by one of his friends who briefly phoned Wanchalearm and heard him struggling for breath.
U.S. based-group Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Friday urging the Cambodian authorities to urgently investigate the incident.
“The abduction of a prominent Thai political activist on the streets of Phnom Penh demands an immediate response from the Cambodian authorities,” the group said. “The Cambodian government should urgently act to locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”
The rights group also noted that eight Thais “have become victims of enforced disappearance” since the military seized power in 2014. The junta has since cracked down on those accused of insulting the monarchy.
The abductees include 77-year-old political dissident and monarchy critic Surachai Danwattanusorn, who was last seen in Laos in December 2018 and now presumed dead.
Surrender, Or Else
Pro-republic activist Suda Rangkupan, who is currently living in exile in Europe, urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, to work harder in helping Thai dissidents escape the military’s grip in Thailand and its neighboring countries.
“It’s the UNHCR that must understand that the situations in Thailand are violent and worrying,” Suda said by phone Friday. “Many do not have passports. They are not in a position to contact the UNHCR.”
“This is a long struggle. Each is aware of his or her own risks. I don’t need to advise anything as they know what they should do. Everyone can decide on what to do,” Suda added. She previously spent some years living in one of Thailand’s neighboring countries before moving to Europe.
The police spokesman advised the political activists living in exile to turn themselves in and contest their cases in court.
“It’s up to their discretion whether they want to surrender,” Col. Kissana said. “It’s better to surrender and fight the case, however.”