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Friends and family members of missing activist in exile Wanchalearm Satsaksit celebrated his 41st birthday on 11 August.  No progress has been made in the investigation into his disappearance.

Participants in the 11 August event lit candles and sang Happy Birthday for Wanchalearm on his 41st birthday.

An advocate for LGBTQ rights, political satirist, and former campaign worker for the Pheu Thai party, Wanchalearm fled Thailand and went into exile after the 2014 military coup. On 4 June 2020, he was abducted from in front of the Mekong Gardens Condominium in Phnom Penh, where he has been living since going into exile. His sister, Sitanun Satsaksit, said she was on the phone with him when he was abducted and heard him say “I can’t breathe” before the line went dead.

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

Prachatai released CCTV footage following his disappearance.  The footage shows a black Toyota Highlander SUV speeding away from Mekong Garden – reportedly the getaway vehicle used by Wanchalearms abductors. Two men at the scene failed to stop it from leaving. Cambodian authorities said that the SUV was not registered with the Transportation Ministry.

Three years later, no progress has been made in the search for Wanchalearm, even though Sitanun has filed several complaints with both Thai and Cambodian authorities and testified at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

On 1 June 2023, 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. She was initially told that the Centre can only follow up if a complaint has already been filed with another agency, but was eventually allowed to file a complaint and submit her testimony after her lawyer argued that Wanchalearm’s case fell under the new Act and that other agencies had not handled it properly.

CrCF Director Pornpen Khongkachonkiet (left) and Sitanun Satsaksit (right) giving a presentation about Wanchalearm at the 11 August event, showing a picture of his Cambodian passport and a photo of him sitting next to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

On 11 August, the Cross-Cultural Foundation (CrCF) and Wanchalearm’s friends and family organised an event on his 41st birthday. Sitanun and CrCF Director Pornpen Khongkachonkiet gave a presentation on Wanchalearm’s work and his life in exile.   It included pictures they submitted to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as evidence of Wanchalearm’s life in Cambodia, records of Sitanun’s call to her brother on the chat application Line and Wanchalearm’s Cambodian passport.

Sitanun questioned why her brother had a Cambodian passport, noting that another person who was able to obtain such passport was former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and adding that an ordinary political refugee would not have been able to get one without help. She believes Wanchalearm was still working for the Pheu Thai Party in exile, and that her brother was close to leaders of the party.

A 2022 investigation by Prachatai and Voice of Democracy (VOD) found that Thai exiles in Phnom Penh were being supported by the former governor of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva district, Khliang Huot, who provided them with housing, paid them an allowance, and took them out for meals and drinks. Huot denied that he was supporting the exiles, although his social media accounts show multiple photos of him with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and other Thai political figures.  He downplayed these relationship, saying he “likes to drink” and “has a lot of friends.”

Sources said that Wanchalearm was deeply embedded in the Red Shirt movement and the Pheu Thai Party. Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk also told Prachatai and VOD he believed Wanchalearm “must be very high up” in Pheu Thai’s network in Cambodia, since he was given a Cambodian passport with a Khmer name and could travel freely.

Multiple sources said Huot met Wanchalearm for drinks several times a year. They were also photographed together in front of a body of water, holding crabs and smiling to the camera.

The same photo was shown at the birthday event, along with another photo of Huot, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Thaksin on a golf course. Seeing pictures released earlier this month of Thaksin hugging Hun Sen at the latter’s birthday party with Huot standing in the background, Sitanun said the family has some questions for Thaksin. She believes that, given the relationship between the two politicians, Thaksin would have asked Hun Sen about what happened to Wanchalearm, but has never spoken to the family or gave them any information,  She thinks Thaksin is trying distance himself from the issue, even though her brother was working for his party.

Wanchalearm Satsaksit (right) and Khliang Huot (left), both posed, shirtless and holding up crabs. Sitanun posted the photo to her personal Facebook account in June 2022 and showed it at the 11 August event.

Sitanun said that the past three years have been very difficult for the family. Since Wanchalearm disappeared while overseas, it was hard for her to investigate or file complaints, and the search effort would have been impossible without support from organisations like CrCF. She thinks that it would have been much easier for the government, which has the money and manpower, as well as the ability to contact another country’s authorities directly.

“Because we have had an election, I hoped that we would get a fully democratic government, and a government that cares about the people,” Sitanun said.

“I would like to tell the Pheu Thai party that I don’t care who you shake hands with or if you’re going to dissolve any political sides, but you must not forget about Wanchalearm. You must not forget about refugees who worked for you and disappeared or died. I would like to tell this to Pheu Thai - you have to care about the ordinary people.”

Rangsiman Rome

The event also included a panel discussion. Move Forward Party MP Rangsiman Rome spoke on the panel, saying that enforced disappearance is diabolic, since family members will never know what happened to the victims and people in society will also feel unsafe. Because perpetrators of enforced disappearances hide their identities, other people may think that they could also become victims.

Rangsiman added that Wanchalearm’s disappearance was one of the cases that pushed parliament to become more aware of issues like torture and enforced disappearance and pass the new law.  The acting government tried to postpone the implementation of some sections in the Anti-Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act by issuing an Emergency Decree, but it was blocked by the Constitutional Court which ruled that doing so was unconstitutional. Normally the Prime Minister must resign in such situation, Rangsiman said, but Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha refused to do so, citing the fact that he is now an acting Prime Minister as the reason.

Rangsiman said that it is the job of government agencies to investigate and prevent enforced disappearances, adding that in many cases, those responsible were not brought to justice because the victims are political dissenters. In Wanchalearm’s case, the authorities claimed they could not do anything because the abduction took place overseas, but Rangsiman said he believes government agents were responsible for Wanchalearm’s disappearance as only the powerful could do something like this.

He also said that, even though his party will not be part of the government coalition, agencies like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the police, or the public prosecutor still have a duty to investigate such cases.  They must find out what happened to victims of enforced disappearance to bring justice to the families. He promised that, as an MP, he will be speaking about enforced disappearances in parliament, and if an ad hoc committee can be formed, relevant agencies will be summoned to testify on what they had done to investigate enforced disappearances.

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