Thai twitter was sent into a storm on August 5 as a tweet seemingly confirming the death of missing pro-democracy activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit began trending. The activist’s family, however, has denied a body has been found or knowledge of his death.
The news quickly circulated on Twitter with the hashtag #ripwanchalerm trending, garnering more than 400,000 tweets as of writing. However, Wanchalerm’s sister, Sitanan Satsaksit, denied the news to the Globe, claiming that confirmations of his death were “only a rumour”.
Thai political street artist, Headache Stencil, whose work depicts the military government in a satirical manner, first tweeted about the news.
“Today I had the opportunity to talk over video call with Wanchalerm’s sister. I expressed my condolences to Wanchalerm’s sister from the information that I received, in which she said she has known for a while, and thanks everyone for continuing to fight for Wanchalerm. #ripwanchalerm,” the artist’s tweet read in Thai.
The video call Headache Stencil referred to was held to ask for permission to use Wanchalerm’s photo, Sitanan explained.
“I had a video call with the artist because he wanted to ask for permission to use Wanchalerm’s photo in his artwork. I’m confused about how the news came out like this. I did not confirm anything,” Sitanan said.
Wanchalerm, a human rights advocate who had been living in self-exile since 2015, was residing in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh when he was snatched off the street by masked men on June 4. Sitanan was on the phone with Wanchalerm at the time of the incident, hearing his final words “I can’t breathe” before losing contact.
“Despite the news, both the Thai and the Cambodian government have not given me any updates or information,” Sitanan said.
The disappearance of Wanchalearm, who stood accused of violating Thailand’s strict lèse majesté law prohibiting critical speech of the monarchy, has attracted widespread public attention in Thailand and internationally.
Although Covid-19 travel restrictions have caused delays in the process, I have to go to Cambodia, to seek the truth
The outpouring of condolences on Twitter following the false rumours of his death reflect a growing discontent in Thailand with the kingdom’s authorities. Beyond twitter trends and speculation, the activist’s disappearance has been one of several factors contributing to rising pro-democracy street protests in recent weeks.
Two months since Wanchalerm’s disappearance, there is still no evidence as to his whereabouts, and an investigation by Thai or Cambodian authorities has been slow to get off the ground. Until his body is found, nothing is certain.
“I am happy that people have not forgotten about Wanchalerm. But for me, I have to continue on my journey,” Sitanan said. “Although Covid-19 travel restrictions have caused delays in the process, I have to go to Cambodia, to seek the truth.”