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Kornkanok Khumta, an activist from Women for Freedom and Democracy, made a bold move during her online speech at the ASEAN People’s Forum 2020 (APF) opening ceremony by mentioning the disappearances of Thai refugees in Laos and Vietnam.

Kornkanok Khumta giving a speech at the APF online opening ceremony. (Source: Facebook/ Campaign for Popular Democracy-CPD)

The opening session was joined by 11 civil society delegates from each ASEAN country member plus Timor-Leste. The event from 4 to 7 November this year is being held online due to the spread of Covid-19 in the region.

Offline events are being held in countries like Vietnam and Thailand where participants gather to attend online sessions together. The Vietnamese Labour Minister as the government representative and an ASEAN Secretariat representative were present at the opening ceremony.

Kornkanok began by addressing the economic hardship of Thai people during the Covid-19 pandemic where the government succeed in controlling disease at the cost of job losses, stigmatization of migrant labour and Thai returnees, and an increasing rate of suicide in the first half of 2020. Thai farmers also suffered from climate change.

She said the Thai people endured until they could not take any more from the military government and the constitution it had drafted. The people started to take the streets with 3 demands: resignation of the PM and cabinet and dissolution of parliament, constitution amendments and monarchy reform.

Kornkanok hopes that ASEAN will truly be a region for the people, not dictators where people are arrested and killed as in the case of Thai refugees in Vietnam and Laos. If the people rise up, ASEAN will be a region of the people in the future.

This is the first APF to be held online since it was established in 2005. But what is also rare is the presence of government delegates, as the forum is usually ignored or distrusted by government delegates from some countries due to their adversarial stance against CSOs.

Cambodia is one of the countries that rejects engagement with CSOs in the country. Vietnam and Lao PDR usually send representatives of their state-organized CSOs to attend where they would meet activists from their countries who live in exile.

Since 2016, at least 9 Thai activists have disappeared while living in self-exile in Southeast Asia. They were the critics of the monarchy and the military government which staged a coup in 2014. Some of them had been charged under the lèse majesté law, Section 112 of the Criminal Code.

Ittipon Sukpan and Wuthipong Kachathamkun, 2 famous red shirt activists, disappeared in Lao PDR in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

On 12 December 2018, Surachai Danwattananusorn (Sae Dan), another famous self-exiled political activist, went missing in Vientiane along with other 2 activists; Kraidej Luelert, or Kasalong, and Chatchan Bupphawan, or Phuchana. Thai exiles recognized that they would have to lay low whenever the Thai and Lao authorities talk about cooperation. But Surachai did not.

Between 26 and 29 December 2018, 2 bodies were washed ashore on the Mekhong River. DNA tests identified them as Kraidet and Chatchan. The internal organs had been removed and replaced with cement and the faces were mutilated. Surachai’s whereabouts remain unknown until now.

On 8 May 2019 the Thai Alliance for Human Rights (TAHR) based in the United States reported that Siam Theerawut, Chucheep Chiwasut and Kritsana Tubthai, 3 activists in exile, were arrested some time earlier and deported from Vietnam. The fate of all three remains unknown as of 6 November. Siam’s family is still looking for him.

On 4 June 2020, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai political activist in exile in Phnom Penh, was kidnapped from in front of his condominium in the evening. No clues have been found, but Wanchalearm’s family is still looking for him.

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