Card swapping: The Mekong countries’ problem with activist kidnapping

When Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was bundled into a car in Phnom Penh on June 4, he became merely the latest in a string of forced disappearances in the region. With several authoritarian governments coexisting in close proximity, the peculiarly Mekong country issue of activist kidnapping shows no sign of abating

June 11, 2020
Card swapping: The Mekong countries’ problem with activist kidnapping
A protester holds a portrait of allegedly kidnapped Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside the Embassy of Cambodia in Bangkok on June 8. Photo: Mladen Atonov/AFP

“Kidnapping is a shocking crime – Wanchalearm’s case is not the first case, but I hope that it is that last.” 

These were the words of Sitanan, sister of Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, in a phone interview on June 10. The frustration and anguish in her voice transcended the language barrier, evident even before Globe reporter Wanpen Pajai had begun translating. 

While Sitanan may hope that Wanchalearm is the last forced disappearance associated with Thailand, the reality is that politically motivated abductions remain commonplace across the Mekong subregion’s borders, and they are unlikely to end with her brother. 

Sitanan was the last person to speak with the 37 year old. She was on the phone with him and heard his poignant, potentially final, words “I can’t breathe” as he was bundled into a car by armed men near his riverside home in the Phnom Penh suburb of Chroy Changvar on June 4. 

The parallels between the pleas for air from African-American George Floyd, the man whose death has sparked protests across the US demanding justice and racial equality, and Thai dissident Wanchalearm are inescapable. So much so that an adjacent hashtag, #Thaicantbreathe, has emerged to protest this pernicious trend impacting Southeast Asia’s activists. 

Witnesses at the scene and CCTV confirmed the abduction of Wanchalearm, a vocal pro-democracy critic of ex-general and current Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha who had posted an anti-government video on Facebook two days prior. The activist’s whereabouts and safety remain unknown, but with each passing day, hopes of finding him alive diminish.  

“Whether Thailand or Cambodia, I want to call for only one thing – for more investigation on this case,” was Sitanan’s response when asked what she wanted the two governments to hear. “Globally, it has become big news and people want to know. I just want to ask them to collaborate in searching and investigating.” 

Wanchalearm Satsaksit as a boy. Photo: Supplied

Whether Khun Wanchalerm is still alive, I cannot answer. But my family and I have hope

Sitanan, sister of Wanchalearm Satsaksit

But even this most fundamental of tasks is almost certainly too much to ask. 

A Cambodian Ministry of Interior spokesman initially suggested that Human Rights Watch’s initial report on Wanchalearm’s disappearance could be “fake news”, only later agreeing to investigate following, perhaps unexpected, international outcry on the case. 

This reticence of the Cambodian police to investigate immediately following the abduction should come as little surprise to anyone paying attention to similar cases in recent years. It is indicative of the indifferent at best, complicit at worst, attitude of many Mekong region governments to dissidents – people – being snatched off their streets. 

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, this week described the region as “an autocrats’ heaven” where “persecution of dissent knows no borders”. 

Indeed, the Ubon Ratchathani native is estimated to be at least the ninth Thai activist living overseas disappeared since 2016, two years after Thailand’s 2014 military coup which saw Prayut seize power and many redshirts (supporters of the Shinawatras) seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries

CCTV footage of the two cars believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of Wanchalearm.

Many have fallen victim to the same “men in black” that snatched Wanchalearm, disappeared without a trace or confirmed dead:

Ittipon Sukpaen – disappeared in Laos in 2016, has not been heard from since. Wuthipong Kachathamakul – snatched in 2017 by Thai-speaking armed men outside his home in Vientiane, Laos in front of his wife. Chucheep Chiwasut, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai – handed over to Thai authorities in 2019 by Vietnamese police when trying to cross the border from Laos; they haven’t been seen since and Thai authorities deny they are in custody. Surachai Danwattananusorn – disappeared in 2019, body never found. Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej Luelert – Surachai’s close aides, bodies found in 2019 floating on the Mekong river in Vientiane, disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.

But this is not just a Thai issue – this is a peculiarly Mekong-country issue, driven in large part by the potent mix of strongman, military and authoritarian governments coexisting in close proximity with one another.  

In January 2019, well-known Vietnamese journalist and blogger, Truong Duy Nhat, was seized and dragged out of Future Park shopping centre in a suburb of Bangkok. His disappearance was met with the usual silence, with neither Vietnamese or Thai authorities investigating. He had just applied for asylum at the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees in Bangkok. 

Then, in August last year, Od Sayavong – a member of the Free Lao group network of Laotian migrant workers and activists who hold occasional protests living in exile in Bangkok – vanished from his home in the Thai capital, with his whereabouts still unknown. 

Wanchalearm’s sister Sitanan holding a child, with Wanchalearm in monks robes (back right). Photo: Supplied

Cambodia, too, has gotten in on the act. In December 2019 two men attacked Chamroeun Suon, an official with the former opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, with a stun-gun as he left a shop in Bangkok. He was among 18 politicians branded “traitors” just one year earlier by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. 

“I am police,” one said to him in Thai, before quickly revealing his true identity when telling him in Khmer that “the boss asked me to get you”. The men had a van waiting not five metres away – if it were not for this bungled attack, Chamroeun would have been simply added to a long and growing list of the Mekong subregion’s kidnapping victims. 

Intergovernmental cooperation on these abductions remains almost impossible to prove, despite the unabashed game of dissident swapping happening in the Mekong described as “boys with sports playing cards” by Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

At the bare minimum, it seems each government is content to turn a blind eye to criminal acts by foreign agents on their soil, knowing that their turn to silence pesky critical voices sheltering abroad will come next. 

With neighbouring countries in the region increasingly unsafe for dissidents, many are now looking to move further afield to ensure their safety. Cambodian Chamroeun, one of the lucky ones, is himself in the process of resettling further afield beyond the region. 

But for Wanchalerm – who, according to his sister, had been “living a normal life with no extra precautions” for the past six months, thinking he may be safe due to the Covid-19 outbreak – these warnings were headed too late. 

“Whether Khun Wanchalerm is still alive, I cannot answer,” Sitanan said. “But my family and I have hope.” 

Additional reporting by Wanpen Pajai.

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