‘What if it’s you?’, calls for an end to enforced disappearance

Victims of harassment and relatives of Thais who disappeared while living in self exile voiced their grievances at Government House, underlining the seriousness of the threats against those who think differently from the state.

Participants lighting candles arranged to form the phrase "Returning justice".

People gathered on 4 July to hold a candle-lit vigil to commemorate the victims of enforced disappearance, including Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai activist who was abducted while in exile in Phnom Penh on 4 June 2020. The organizers aim to stage the activity on 4th of every month to highlight the issue of enforced disappearance. 

Sopon Suraritthamrong, a student in the radiology programme at the Faculty of Medicine Vajira Hospital, Navamindradhiraj University, said that he and a group called Mok Luang Rim Nam are organising the memorial event for the victims of enforced disappearance to call for an end to intimidation against dissenters. 

"Imagine that one day it's you who are raising questions against your superior, or if it's someone in your family, your child, your husband, your wife, and expressing an opinion different from those in power means you are threatened. Some people are hurt or are pressured at work. Some people face legal charges. Do you think that this situation is okay, even though all you did was have a different opinion?" 

Sopon said that Wanchalearm Satsaksit's disappearance took place at a time when he had just started taking part in activism, and is a prominent case, as Wanchalearm did nothing extreme but had to go into exile and was disappeared. Sopon said that it was because of the government that Wanchalearm had to run, but the Thai authorities still claim that they are not involved. 

"If this can happen to Tar (Wanchalearm), then it can happen to anyone," Sopon said.  

Grievances remain as stories of the disappeared are told

Since the 2014 coup, 8 Thais have been abducted while living in self-exile in neighbouring countries. 2 were later confirmed dead. The another one, Den Kamlae, was abducted in Thailand and later found dead as well.

A portrait of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, the latest Thai exile to be abducted.

Phattaranit Yaodam, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at Amnesty International Thailand, said that while new legislation is important, the aim is to change social mores, putting a spotlight on torture and enforced disappearance cases in order to change Thai society for the better when it is perceived that such acts are serious crimes and human rights violations.

Kuekkong Bupphawan, son of political activist Chatchan Bupphawan, or Phuchana, one of the two who were found dead after being abducted, joined the activity via a video call, saying that he had been harassed by the police many times following his father's death. For example, an official from an unspecified agency showed up at his father’s funeral questioning a monk who attended the funeral.

Kuekkong appears via a video call.

Phuchana disappeared from Laos along with Surachai Danwattananusorn and Kraidej Luelert in mid-December 2018. His body was found in the Mekong River, mutilated and filled with concrete, at the end of December. Kraidej’s body was found in the same manner.

‘He was never involved in violence’ says Phuchana’s son

Kuekkong said the last time he spoke to his father, Chatchan said he had to go into hiding and wouldn't be able to be contacted. On 13 December 2018, Kuekkong told him to get in touch whenever he could, because his birthday was on 23 December and he wanted a video call so the family could talk to him, but Chatchan was not heard from after that. 

After Chatchan's death, it was reported that Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha lost his father. Kuekkong said that the Prime Minister seemed unhappy, which he understood to be the look of a son who lost his father, but he himself, who also lost his father, did not even get the chance to say goodbye. The last Kuekkong saw of his father was the body in the morgue, in a condition he only knew was his father from DNA results. He said that missing political refugees are all someone's brothers, fathers, someone who is important to someone else. 

Labour rights advisor Worachat Aharntarig, friend of missing labour rights activist Tanong Po-arn, said that Tanong was campaigning for labour rights and welfare, including a welfare state, a minimum wage, the Social Security Act, and increasing workers' power to negotiate with the government. 

Left: Worachat Aharntarig

Tanong went missing following the 1991 military coup, a day before he was scheduled to travel to attend an International Labour Organization meeting in Geneva, where he declared that he would expose the injustice against workers in Thailand on the international stage. Worachat said that Tanong was prohibited from traveling by the government and was not given funding. Nevertheless, Tanong used his own money to travel, but was abducted before his scheduled travel date. 

Worachat believed that one of the reasons for Tanong's disappearance was that he said to the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC) leader Suchinda Kraprayoon, who led the 1991 coup, "Democracy is going to be fully realized, but there's a buffalo in the way."

Worachat said that the labour rights movement has continued Tanong's work in campaigning for workers' welfare and a wage structure where pay is increased in levels, instead of staying at the minimum wage after working for years. 

He called for people to not give up and to fight to continue the work of those who disappeared.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a famous Thai exile and monarchy critic living in Japan who has faced two incidents of harassment while living there, also participated in the event via a video recording. 

Pavin also appears via a video call.

Pavin said he started to realize that Thai authorities take part in enforced disappearances as more people who criticize the government and monarchy are being abducted while living in self-exile. Abduction is a serious crime and also a serious breach of neighbouring countries’ sovereignty. A country that claims to be democratic must not retaliate like this against those who think differently. Pavin urged society to keep calling out against this atrocity.

Slow official process everywhere

Bird (pseudonym), a young protester who was assaulted in March 2021 after attending the protest, gave a speech at the event. He said he was attacked near his house after attending the protest on 6 March and suffered an injury to a bone in his back. He said the police did not do much after he filed a complaint. They even had him look for evidence and witnesses at the scene.

Despite fear and pressure, he said he would continue joining protests, seeing it as his duty to call out against a distorted society.

Bird and his friends said at the event that they spotted a motorcycle that looked exactly like the one used by the attackers at the protest. Bird reported that he went home safely afterward.

Cross Cultural Foundation Director Pornpen Khongkachonkiet said that enforced disappearance constitutes detention and torture in preventing a person from returning to society, and there is concealment of a body, which is a serious accusation but is still not criminalised under Thai law.

She said civil society has drafted an anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill in order to make enforced disappearance a crime under Thai law. The bill is now waiting in a long queue to go before parliament, and Pornpen said that without such legislation, Wanchalearm's case will probably not be the last. 

Sitanun Satsaksit, the sister of Wanchalearm, said that when a person goes missing, their family is affected the most. She said that she does not know her brother's fate, and it hurts her whenever she thinks of him. 

She said that evidence from the Technology Crime Suppression Division shows that the Thai authorities were following Wanchalearm while he was living in Cambodia in 2015, and that Wanchalearm previously told her that some strangers had come asking for him. 

She also said that official documents she obtained and filed with the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Special Investigation confirmed that Wanchalearm was living in Cambodia. 

No progress has been made in Wanchalearm's case in the year since his disappearance, and Sitanun said that it is not strange for the family to pressure the authorities but for the authorities not to do their duty is strange. 

She said that she would go so far as to say the Thai government is definitely involved in Wanchalearm's disappearance. She is only surprised that they chose Wanchalearm, who did not seem radical, but this means that such a thing can happen to anyone.

Source: 
https://prachatai.com/journal/2021/07/93818

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