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HRW calls for Thai authorities to investigate Lao activist's disappearance

Thai authorities should urgently investigate the apparent enforced disappearance of Od Sayavong, a refugee from Laos and prominent critic of the Lao government, Human Rights Watch said today (7 September). Od, 34, was last seen at his house in Bangkok’s Bueng Kum district on August 26, 2019.

“The Thai government should immediately provide information on the whereabouts of outspoken Lao activist Od Sayavong,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bangkok’s streets should be safe from abductions and wrongful arrests.”

Od’s colleagues filed a report with the Thai police on September 2. No progress in the investigation has been reported. On September 6, the Defense Ministry spokesman, Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich, denied knowledge of Od’s whereabouts.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about Od’s safety. He is affiliated with the “Free Lao” group, a loose network of Lao migrant workers and activists in exile based in Bangkok and neighboring provinces who peacefully advocate for human rights and democracy in Laos. Od and other group members have occasionally held peaceful protests outside the Lao embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Bangkok. They have also organized human rights workshops for Lao migrant workers in Thailand.

The Lao government has arbitrarily arrested and detained activists and those deemed critical of the government. The penal code effectively gives the authorities sweeping powers to prosecute dissidents. Harsh prison sentences range from up to 5 years for anti-government propaganda to 15 years for journalists who fail to file “constructive reports” or who seek to “obstruct” the work of the government.

In recent weeks, members of “Free Lao” told Human Rights Watch that they have been put under surveillance and intimidated by Thai and Lao authorities. They believe this is to stop them from protesting or otherwise criticizing the Lao government during the ASEAN People’s Forum, being held in Bangkok on September 10-12.

Thai authorities have frequently collaborated with foreign governments to harass, arbitrarily arrest, and forcibly return exiled dissidents in violation of international law. This has included people formally registered as persons of concern by the UN refugee agency. Some countries, including Laos, have allegedly reciprocated by turning a blind eye to the enforced disappearance and murder of Thai dissidents seeking asylum in their territory.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international laws the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Thailand is obligated to investigate and appropriately prosecute enforced disappearance.

Thailand is also prohibited under international law from forcibly sending someone to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.

“The Thai government’s deference to abusive neighbors has once again appeared to have taken priority over its legal obligations,” Adams said. “Thailand needs to reestablish itself as a place where refugees are safe and stop assisting abusive countries by returning their dissidents.”