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Friends of Vietnamese Dissident Suspect State-Sponsored Abduction in Thailand

Duong Van Thai is seen in this undated photo shared by a friend.
Duong Van Thai is seen in this undated photo shared by a friend.

Friends and colleagues of Vietnamese dissident Duong Van Thai who had been taking refuge in Thailand are gathering video and eyewitness accounts of his last known moments in Thailand for clues about his suspected abduction and forced return to Vietnam earlier this month.

Vietnamese police announced Duong's arrest April 16, claiming he entered the country illegally from Laos, according to Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded private news organization. State media in Vietnam also reported on Duong's arrest for using an undesignated border crossing to enter the country from Laos on April 14.

Rights groups and friends of Duong, however, dispute the claim. They say the journalist and blogger would not have returned to Vietnam voluntarily after having fled the communist country, which has one of the worst human rights records in the region, for his safety.

"I know that he would never return to Vietnam. And he had written several SOS emails to the U.N. in 2021 to 2022 expressing that ... he's not safe in Thailand," said Grace Bui, a Vietnamese rights activist living in Thailand who knows Duong.

"If he's not safe in Thailand because of the Vietnamese government trying to get him, why should he return to Vietnam? So, those [claims] didn't add up," she told VOA.

A member of the outlawed Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, Duong left Vietnam for Thailand in 2019 after receiving threats over his reporting on government corruption. He continued blogging about powerful state officials back in Vietnam from Thailand, where, Bui says, he had secured refugee status from the local United Nations office and was trying to move to a third country with U.N. help.

Bui says Duong had met with U.N. officials in Bangkok about his resettlement goals just days before he disappeared.

The U.N. does not comment on individual refugee cases.

Thailand does not officially recognize any foreigners as refugees but allows the local U.N. office to issue its own ID cards to vetted asylum seekers meant to help protect them from arrest and deportation.

Bui says Duong was last seen on the afternoon of April 13 in Bangkok, after meeting with another friend for coffee and livestreaming an episode for his blog from a park.

With permission from Thai police, Bui adds, she and a few others who know Duong collected CCTV footage from shops and homes along his route that day. She says the last video, recorded a few meters from his rental house, captures audio of Duong yelling for help off-camera at about 6:07 p.m. Two eyewitnesses, she says, told them that at about the same time a pair of white cars pulled up to Duong on his motorbike from both front and back, then wrestled him into one of the vehicles and drove off.

Bui is convinced that Vietnamese authorities are behind the alleged abduction and is urging Thailand to investigate.

"This is really a violation [by] the Vietnamese government, and we want the Thai government and police to get involved to find out what happened and demand the Vietnamese government to give some answers. You cannot just get into a country without the permission and kidnap people," she said.

Spokesmen for the Thai police did not reply to multiple requests for comment. The Foreign Affairs Ministry told VOA it had no information about the situation.

Besides investigating Duong's disappearance, Thai authorities should guarantee that Vietnamese dissidents taking refuge in Thailand are safe, said Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project, a rights group based in the United States advocating for Vietnam's political activists.

"The apparent abduction of Thai Van Duong by Vietnamese agents shows that the Vietnamese government will go to any lengths to silence its critics, including engaging in acts of illegal transnational repression. Duong's abduction is the latest act in what has become a disturbing trend," he said.

In 2018, a German court sentenced a Vietnamese man to jail for his role in a kidnapping ordered by Hanoi of a Vietnamese oil executive in Berlin.

The next year, Vietnamese blogger and RFA contributor Truong Duy Nhat disappeared while in the process of applying for refugee status with the U.N. in Thailand. He surfaced a few months later back in Vietnam, where he was convicted of "abusing his position and authority" and sent to jail for 10 years.

Swanton said Duong's suspected abduction this month has had a "chilling effect" on the other refugees in Thailand. "The message it sends to other critics of the Vietnamese government is that their refugee status affords them little protection," he added.

Bui estimates there are at least two dozen political dissidents from Vietnam still taking refuge in Thailand, and more who left because of religious persecution or ethnic discrimination.

Doan Chuong Huy is one of them.

The labor rights activist says he fled Vietnam for Thailand in 2017, after finishing a second prison stint for his advocacy work and still being harassed by authorities. He says the police tried arresting him again, but failing to do so arrested his father instead.

In prison, Duan told VOA, guards watched passively as other inmates would beat him until he coughed up blood. Determined to not go through that again, he left.

Like Bui, he is sure Vietnamese authorities are behind Duong's disappearance.

"I am very sure that the Vietnamese government is behind this because me and Duong Van Thai are very close and we had many conversation about this," he said. "Duong Van Thai would never want to return to Vietnam."

Like his friend, Duan has the U.N.'s imprimatur as a refugee and is hoping to resettle elsewhere. Since Duong's apparent abduction, though, he is more afraid than ever that the same could happen to him and is taking extra precautions to stay safe.

"We don't leave the house unless we need to. Before, I would go out on my own, but now I always have other people come with me," he said.

Even so, Duan is determined to keep up his rights work for Vietnamese workers from a distance as well as he can.

"The degree of danger has increased, but we need to speak up for the truth," he said.

An official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok hung up on VOA when contacted by phone and did not answer several subsequent calls. Vietnam's Foreign Affairs Ministry did not reply to multiple emails.