Eight months on, disappeared activist’s family continues searching for answers

Eight months after the disappearance of activist in exile Wanchalearm Satsaksit, his family is still searching for answers, while very little progress has been made by the authorities.  

The panel, from left: Badar Farrukh, Chumaporn Taengkliang, Sunai Phasuk, and Sitanan Satsaksit

Wanchalearm’s sister Sitanan Satsaksit said at the “Missing in Cambodia” press briefing organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) that she and the family’s lawyers went to Cambodia to testify at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and that they submitted a set of documents which confirmed that Wanchalearm was in Cambodia at the time of his disappearance, including documentation from the Thai authorities which confirmed that the Thai authorities had been monitoring Wanchalearm and had always known where he was before he disappeared.

She also said that the family and their lawyers complied the evidence themselves, and that for the past 8 months, the Thai authorities have never given the family any information. The family therefore decided that they would submit the evidence they have compiled to the Cambodian authorities first, and would only give them to the Thai authorities once they have begun a proper investigation.

However, Sitanan said that she learned when she met with the Cambodian deputy police chief that the Cambodian authorities did not conduct a proper investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance. She also met with a Cambodian judge, and said she got the impression that the Cambodian authorities are not taking the investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance seriously. She said that the Cambodian authorities did not pay attention to the evidence she and her lawyers gathered, and the judge told her that, if she cannot provide them with stronger evidence or a witness, then the investigation will not proceed further.

After Sitanan returned to Thailand, she and her team submitted petitions to have the Cambodian authorities summon eyewitnesses, as well as demands to see CCTV footage, because the Cambodian police told her that they could not find Wanchalearm in the CCTV footage from the condominium between 2 – 6 June 2020, while she has seen the footage of Wanchalearm’s abduction, so the process of investigation was not clear.

Sitanan Satsaksit

On 27 January 2021, Sitanan submitted a petition to the Thai Office of the Attorney-General and the Rights and Liberties Protection Department’s National Committee on Torture and Enforced Disappearances. She asked to be informed of the process of the investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance, and was told that the case has been forwarded to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI). While the DSI has not officially taken on the case, they have contacted her and asked for the evidence she presented to the court in Phnom Penh and the information she gained from the Cambodian authorities.  

Sitanan said she thinks that the Thai authorities may have believed they could treat Wanchalearm’s case like previous cases of enforced disappearance, in which the authorities did not launch a proper investigation despite evidence and even when dead bodies were found, and face no consequences. She said that they took the evidence to Cambodia because they would like the international community to know what happened to Wanchalearm, and that she is confident the Thai authorities are involved in Wanchalearm’s disappearance, even though they have denied that Wanchalearm was living in Cambodia.

Sitanan said she wants to call the attention of human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the international community to Wanchalearm’s case, and would like to call on the Cambodian authorities to conduct a proper investigation. She would like to see the perpetrators brought to justice and properly tried in a Cambodian court so that justice would be served.

Badar Farrukh from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that the relevant UN special procedures have issued two communications to the Thai and Cambodian governments about the investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance, calling for prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations, and saying that Wanchalearm’s family has the right to know about the progress and the results of the investigation, the whereabouts of Wanchalearm and the circumstances of his disappearance, as well as the identity of the perpetrators.

“The anguish and sorrow of the family may reach the threshold of torture,” said the UN’s letter of July 2020. “The right to truth is therefore an absolute right which cannot be restricted and there is an absolute obligation to take all the necessary steps to find the person”.

Farrukh said that the Cambodian government has replied to this communication with the results of its preliminary investigation by denying every piece of information or evidence that the family has submitted. The reply stated that, according to Cambodian records, Wanchalearm did not renew his visa after December 2017. The reply also mentioned that they were unable to collect evidence from security cameras and that the car which was supposedly used to abduct Wanchalearm was not registered in Cambodia. The Cambodian authorities also confirmed, based on the testimony of three witnesses, that there was no report of an abduction in the area. 

Chumaporn Taengkiang (left) and Sunai Phasuk (right) holding a t-shirt which says "we are all Wanchalearm". 

Wanchalearm is not the first activist in exile to disappear. However, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sunai Phasuk, who also spoke at the press briefing, said that Wanchalearm’s abduction was different from that of the other exiles, in that it happened in broad daylight and in front of witnesses and security cameras in a crowded neighbourhood.

The public outcry that followed reports of Wanchalearm’s disappearance was also unprecedented, said Sunai, who also noted that this is the first time the Thai government reacted within the first 24 hours of a disappearance. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs instructed the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh to ask the Cambodian authorities to verify media reports about what happened to Wanchalearm, and the Cambodian authorities also promptly replied.

Enforced disappearance became one of the main issues of the 2020 pro-democracy protests. Wanchalearm’s pictures have been printed on protest signs, posters, and t-shirts. Activist Chumaporn Taengkliang, who is also a friend of Wanchalearm, said that Wanchalearm’s disappearance gained so much attention not only because it is a case of enforced disappearance but also because Thailand is unsafe and many are afraid. She said that the student activists are not only speaking about Wanchalearm, but they have also spoken about other cases, because they are aware that this can happen to anyone.

Chumaporn also believes that the Thai youth movement cares not only about their own issues, but also about other issues, such as the military coup in Myanmar. Wanchalearm also worked on many social issues, and Chumaporn believes that his disappearance managed to gain such level of attention because his work touched many people’s lives.

Sunai said that international attention also matters, and it needs to be sustained. During the first months following Wanchalearm’s disappearance, the attention was very high, but it has begun to decline, which Sunai said gave the Cambodian authorities the opportunity to “drag their feet”. He also said that there is a need to rebuild international attention about other cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, because what happened to Wanchalearm could happen to anyone who disagrees with the state and speaks out, until enforced disappearance is permanently ended in Thailand.

Sunai also said that the Thai authorities are responsible for the wellbeing of Thai citizens, whether they are dissidents or supporters of the government, especially when it comes to grave dangers such as enforced disappearance. He said that there needs to be a parliamentary inquiry to follow up on what the Office of the Attorney-General and the DSI are doing and whether it is satisfactory, and the media should also ask the Prime Minister about the progress of the case and whether the DSI will approve Wanchalearm’s case as a special investigation case, so that it will have formal jurisdiction to investigate it.

The UN special procedures have also called on the Thai authorities to investigate Wanchalearm’s case and other cases of enforced disappearance promptly, thoroughly, impartially, and without delay. However, Farrukh noted that this is not possible until enforced disappearance is criminalized in Thailand. Despite the Thai government’s promises to the UN and the public, it has yet to make enforced disappearance a criminal offence, and the anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill proposed by the government has long been pending.

In addition, Sunai said that the bill does not meet international standards, and that that an alternative draft has also been proposed which is in compliance with international standards. However, he said that there has been no indication from the government that it will be combining the two drafts.

In January 2021, the Thai government submitted its second periodic report to the Committee Against Torture, which has been delayed since 2018. The report also provides some details of the anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill, and notes that if torture and enforced disappearance is to be criminalized in Thailand, both offences will have a statute of limitations, as the Thai government does not think that it is necessary to make these offences imprescriptible, or without time limits.  

Meanwhile, Farrukh said that the OHCHR was told by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and the Ministry of Justice’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department (RLPD) that the bill has been moved from the Council of State to the Coordination Committee of the Parliament, and while this is a step forward, the bill has been going through these processes for a very long time.

The FCCT also invited a representative from the Thai government to join the press briefing, but no government representative joined the panel.

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