A protester holds a portrait of allegedly kidnaped Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside the Embassy of Cambodia in…
A protester holds a portrait of allegedly kidnapped Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside the Embassy of Cambodia in Bangkok on June 8, 2020.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Rights groups and lawmakers are calling on Cambodian authorities to carry out a thorough and transparent investigation into the possible kidnapping of a Thai dissident in the capital, Phnom Penh, last week.

Wanchalearm Satsaksit was reportedly abducted by a group of armed men outside his apartment block on the afternoon of June 4, a few days after he posted a salacious Facebook message ridiculing Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha. He had fled Thailand when summoned for questioning by the military after a 2014 coup led by then-General Prayut and was hit with an arrest warrant two years ago over his Facebook page, which he has used to scold the junta and the government that followed a tainted election in 2019.

Eight other Thai dissidents in exile have gone missing in Laos and Vietnam since the coup. Two of them were later found dead in the Mekong River; their bodies had been weighted down with concrete, presumably to make them sink. None of the cases has been solved.

After initially dismissing calls for a probe of Wanchalearm's alleged abduction, Cambodian authorities said Tuesday that they would investigate.

'A legal obligation'

Andrea Giorgetta, Asia director for the International Federation for Human Rights, said Cambodia was duty-bound to do so as one of the few countries in the region to have signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

"So they do have a legal obligation under international law to investigate this case," he said.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Thailand had also "dragged its feet" in asking Cambodia to follow the case.

"But now that the investigation has finally started, the Cambodian government must pursue a serious, impartial and transparent investigation that leaves no stone unturned in finding out what happened to Wanchalearm. They should not rest until they find him and prosecute those responsible for the abduction," he said.

Both governments are also being urged to find Wanchalearm by Amnesty International and the Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a network of past and present lawmakers from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"ASEAN governments that allow these types of actions to take place on their territory are effectively turning our region into an autocrats’ heaven, where the persecution of dissent knows no borders,” Malaysian lawmaker and APHR chairman Charles Santiago said in a statement.

'I thought it was a car crash'

Cambodian officials could not be reached for comment. The Thai government referred questions to the spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, who said he knew nothing about the case. Both governments have rejected accusations of having orchestrated Wanchalearm's abduction.

Wanchalearm's sister, Sitanan Satsaksit, said she was on the phone with her brother from Thailand when he was nabbed.

"And then there was a sound; I thought it was a car crash or something," she recalled. "Then I heard some Cambodian voices, about four people. And all of a sudden, he was saying 'Argh, I can't breathe, I can't breathe, I can't breathe.'"

Sitanan said the call went on like that for nearly half an hour before the line was finally cut. She found out that her brother had been bundled into a black SUV and driven away only after speaking with a Thai journalist who had gone to the apartment and spoken with the security guard, who said he witnessed the abduction but could not intervene because the men were armed. CCTV footage shows the SUV driving off.

Wanchalearm had been living in Phnom Penh for a few years and focusing less on Thai politics than on a few local real estate deals Sitanan said she was also involved in. However, she said her brother's online invectives targeting Prayut and his government picked up after he learned that Thai authorities had visited their mother in Thailand on May 13 to ask about him.

She urged authorities to investigate the case "immediately and quickly."

'They are afraid'

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a Thai activist and past political prisoner who knows Wanchalearm, said the reported kidnapping has put other Thai dissidents living in Cambodia, thought to number around 10, on edge.

"They are afraid and try to hide themselves. They cannot come out from the residence ... They just keep themselves in the room," said Somyot, who has been in touch with a few of them since Wanchalearm went missing.

He had hoped that the reported abduction of three Thai activists in Vietnam just over a year ago would be the last.

"Suddenly we have Wanchalearm again; that means it's not changed," he said. "They are going to try [to find] more and more people ... the people who are critical or criticize the government."

Giorgetta said Cambodia was considered a relative safe haven for Thai dissidents in the first year or two of the junta. That changed as the new regime established regular ties with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has a long history of persecuting his own critics at home.

"So we've seen in the past four or five years more effective cooperation in terms of tracking down dissidents on both sides of the border and in some cases even some of them being sent back or being forced to return to the country or seek refuge in third countries," he said.

With the disappearances in Laos and Vietnam and last year's forced repatriation of a wanted activist from Malaysia, Wanchalearm's suspected kidnapping in Cambodia suggests the shelter for Thai dissidents in the region is shrinking.

"The overall analysis [is] that close neighbors and regional neighbors of Thailand have become unsafe places for asylum seekers," Giorgetta said.