Two years on, families of disappeared activists wait for answers

Two years after the disappearance of three Thai activists in exile in Laos, their families wait for answers as no progress has been made in the investigation.

On 12 December 2020, a memorial event was held at the 14 October 1973 Memorial for activist and political refugee Surachai Danwattananusorn, or Surachai Saedan, who went missing in December 2018 while living in exile in Laos, along with two other political refugees: Chatchan Bupphawan, or Phuchana, and Kraidet Luelerd, or Kasalong.

Two mutilated bodies found washed up on the banks of the Mephong River near Nakhon Phanom in early January 2019 were later confirmed to be those of Phuchana and Kasalong. Surachai remains missing and is presumed dead.

Pranee Danwattanusorn

Pranee Danwattananusorn, Surachai’s wife, said during the event that she has gone to several government agencies, including the Rights and Liberties Protection Department and the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police, to seek justice. She has asked for support from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), and filed a complaint to the United Nations that she has not received justice and that Thai government agencies have not done anything. Pranee said that national security agencies have said that they can still see Surachai’s movements in neighbouring countries, but he has not contacted her since December 2018, and Surachai has not made any video clip since, but when she went to various government agencies seeking answers, they cannot answer her.

Pranee said that there are rumours that Surachai is still alive, but no one has ever actually spoken to Surachai, and while the Thai authorities have denied being involved with the disappearances, they have not done anything to show that they care about the missing Thai citizens.

Pranee said that if the Thai government is sincere, then they have to try their best to follow up on the cases and see people as people, not only as subjects. She would like to call on Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to show sincerity by investigating the disappearances, and the government must take responsibility.

The candlelit vigil in memory of the three activists

Pranee said that during the past years, she felt hopeless and tried to comfort herself with the belief that, even though the perpetrators can escape the law, they cannot escape karma and that they will be haunted by their conscience for the rest of their lives. She would like every victim of enforced disappearance to rest in peace, and while she has tried to come to terms with what happened, she would still like to see justice and democracy. Pranee thanked everyone who is fighting for democracy and said that Surachai would be at peace now that young people are fighting for what he also believed in.

In a later media interview, Pranee said that the police have stopped investigating the disappearance, while the Pattaya Provincial Court said that they cannot reduce Surachai’s breach of bail fine as they cannot bring Surachai to court and there is no evidence that he is dead. She went to Lao PDR to follow up on the case, but the Lao authorities have always denied any knowledge of Surachai’s disappearance, while the Thai government said they cannot do anything as the death happened overseas. She said that she hopes that when the country becomes democratic, cases of enforced disappearance will be brought back and there will be justice.

Pongpetch Konghom, a TLHR lawyer, said that there is still 300,00 baht in an outstanding fine in Surachai’s case and that they filed an appeal on the court order in December 2019, but the Appeal Court has not summoned them for a ruling.

Kasalong's son (in black) and Phuchana's sons (in red and in brown vest)

Meanwhile, Phuchana’s son (name withheld) said that police officers have called him to ask whether there has been any progress in the case and that special branch police have called him to ask whether he was going to join activities. He also said that he himself has to call the police officers responsible for the case to follow up on the progress.

Phuchana’s son said that activist Chonticha Jaengraew told him that the parliamentary Standing Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights have called local police in for questioning, and found that the public prosecutor has decided to not issue a prosecution order as there is not enough evidence about who the killer was and where the murder took place, and there is not enough evidence to continue the investigation.

Kasalong’s son (name withheld) said that the situation is the same in his father’s case, but officials from an unknown agency once went to their household registry address, where only his grandparents are staying, to ask about progress on the case, but he himself does not know where the investigation is.

Phuchana’s son said that evidence disappears as time passes, and that he himself does not hope to catch the perpetrator, but he would like the relevant people to take responsibility and to know what is going to be done. He said that there are Thai people who went into exile and have died, and he would like to know what the government would do to investigate these cases. He also said that the police have shown no enthusiasm in trying to find the perpetrators.

He said that when he saw a reporter ask Gen Prayut about the investigation into Surachai’s disappearance, he thought that it was the duty of a leader not to deny involvement when Thai citizens die overseas, but to say how they would investigate the case. He asked who he can expect anything from when even the leader of the country is saying something like this.

Phuchana’s son also said that he has been advised to take the case to court himself, but it has been two years and he does not know how much evidence will remain. He does not think that the perpetrators will ever be found, but he would like some concrete conclusions and to know where and when his father was killed and what evidence exists. The police should be able to say where the evidence came from and where the bodies have been washed up from, but they did no such thing. Instead, they are waiting for him to tell them who he suspects and say he should let them know and then they will investigate, but he is not sure who he should suspect when the disappearance took place in Lao and he did not even believe at first that the body was his father’s.

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk

The event was attended by other activists, including activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk. During the event, flowers were placed in memory of the three activists, and there was a candlelit vigil as well as musical performances.

Somyot, who was in prison at the same time as Surachai, said that Surachai’s friends went to where the abduction took place and saw tire marks from a heavy car in the soil. He also said that he went to Tha Uthen Police Station with Pranee to file a complaint, as well as to see the place where the first body was found on 26 December before it was washed away. He said that he talked to the local village headman who found the body, who said that he did not tamper with the body and that he went to notify the police, but the police said that no one came to notify them.

Somyot said that Surachai dedicated his life to the revolution, and that he said in November 2018 that he would like a republic. Somyot said that he would like Surachai to know that the idea of a republic has now been brought up again by the student activist group Free Youth.

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