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3 years after activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit went missing while living in exile in Cambodia, no progress has been made into the investigation of his disappearance, while activists in Cambodia and Thailand held public gatherings on Sunday (4 June), the anniversary of his disappearance.

A participant in the 4 June Pride Parade holding a picture of Wanchalearm along with a rainbow flag.

Wanchalearm went missing on 4 June 2020. He had been living in exile in Cambodia since 2014, and was abducted from in front of the Mekong Garden condominium in Phnom Penh while on the phone with his sister, who heard him say “I can’t breathe” before the line went dead.

The Thai and Cambodian authorities have denied involvement in his disappearance. The Cambodian authorities claimed they have no evidence of the abduction happening in their territory, or that Wanchalearm even lived in Cambodia, even though he had a Cambodian bank account and a Cambodian passport with a Khmer name, while testimony from his friends and family said that, like many other political refugees, he went to live in Phnom Penh after fleeing Thailand.

Prachatai released a CCTV footage following his disappearance, showing a black Toyota Highlander SUV speeding away from Mekong Garden – reportedly the getaway vehicle used by Wanchalearm’s abductors – while two men failed to stop it from leaving.

Three years later, no progress has been made in the search for Wanchalearm, despite his family filing several complaints with the Thai authorities and his sister testifying at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The Cross-Cultural Foundation (CrCF) said that although parts of the CCTV footage of his abduction have been published, it has never been released in full, while his personal belongings and identification documents were never found.

Protests following the disappearance demanded not only an investigation but criticized a system that grants impunity and normalizes enforced disappearance.  But activists who led protests were prosecuted under the State of Emergency, declared at the time allegedly to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Sitanun Satsaksit, Wanchalearm’s older sister who has spearheaded the search for her brother, was charged after speaking at two protests in 2021 about her brother’s disappearance. She has also been included on a police special surveillance ‘red level’ watchlist.

Last Thursday (1 June), Sitanun went to the Centre for Prevention of Torture and Enforced Disappearance at the Office of the Attorney General to file a complaint under the new Anti-Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act and asked that the Centre request information she had already given to other government agencies. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that Pol Capt Chokchai Sitthipolkul, the Centre’s Deputy Director, told Sitanun that the Centre can only follow up if a complaint has already been filed with another agency. After a CrCF lawyer argued that, since the Act has already been implemented, Wanchalearm’s case would fall under it, and that other agencies have not been able to handled it properly, the Centre official said that Sitanun may file a complaint, but if it was found that the proceeding is a repetition of what is being done by other agencies, the case can be dismissed.

The lawyer asked if Wanchalearm’s case would be handled according to the Anti-Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act, saying that the family expects it to be handled by an expert agency and noting that the Centre was founded to handle such cases.

A public prosecutor responsible for Wanchalearm’s case told them that, for a case to be handled as an enforced disappearance under the new law, the perpetrator has to be a state official, but the identity of Wanchalearm’s abductors are unknown and there is no evidence confirming he went missing in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court therefore has to rule that the abduction took place on Cambodian soil before any investigation can proceed.

Sitanun told the public prosecutor that, if this is the case, no victim of enforced disappearance will ever be given justice, since the perpetrators would try to destroy all evidence and it would therefore be impossible for her to find her brother’s abductors herself.

TLHR said that Sitanun was finally allowed to file a complaint and gave her testimony to Centre official. She was told that the Centre may seek further evidence to see if Wanchalearm’s disappearance could be handled as a case of enforced disappearance under the new law.

Activists standing in front of Mekong Garden holding pictures of Wanchalearm. (Photo from ไข่แมวชีส)

Meanwhile, young activists in Cambodia staged a protest in front of Mekong Garden on Sunday 4 June on the 3rd anniversary of Wanchalearm’s disappearance and to demand that the Cambodian authorities investigate the abduction, as well as to stand in solidarity with Thai activists and prevent the disappearance of Cambodian activists. They also called on the Cambodian authorities to respect the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. They also staged a protest in front of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, marking the first time a protest calling for justice for Wanchalearm has been held in Cambodia.

In Bangkok, activists joined Sunday’s Pride parade in the Siam Square shopping district with missing person posters and pictures of Wanchalearm. Members of the Move Forward Party joining the parade were also seen carrying the posters.

Rangsiman Rome (left) holding a missing person poster for Wanchalearm while standing next to an activist wearing a Wanchalearm mask. (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Move Forward Party MP designate and spokesperson Rangsiman Rome wrote on his Facebook page that while enforced disappearance is not new under the NCPO government, Wanchalearm was the first victim that he personally knew and that Wanchalearm’s disappearance reminds him that anyone can become a victim of enforced disappearance if they stand in opposition to a dictator’s power.

He said that now that the Anti-Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act has been implemented, the government has to keep an eye on how well the Act can be enforced. He also promised that the new government will ensure that the Act protects people and that no one suffers the same fate as Wanchalearm.

Kannavee Suebsang, the Fair Party’s Secretary-General who formerly worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also wrote that the Move Forward Party and the Fair Party, as part of the new government coalition, will be working together to ensure that political differences no longer lead to exile for Thai citizens and that Thai political refugees can come home. They will also work to ensure that no one else is forcibly disappeared and are protected under international human rights principles.

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