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A year has passed since the disappearance of Thai human rights activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit. Witnesses report that he was forcibly abducted from a street near his home in Phnom Penh, where he had been living in self-imposed exile. Despite considerable public interest in the case, the investigation has made little headway.

A panel held by the CrCF on 2 June 2021.

Impediments to the investigation were discussed at recent public panel staged by the Cross Culture Foundation (CrCF), a Bangkok-based human rights group.  Badar Farrukh, Thailand Team Leader at the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for South East Asia, explained that Cambodian authorities still do not acknowledge the existence of witnesses and have repeatedly denied that a crime occurred. 

What Happened to Wanchalearm?

Jirat Thongphiew, Director of Thailand’s Torture and Disappearance Investigation Center in the Department of Special Investigations, also noted that the investigation had stalled in the face of assertions from the Cambodian police that there is no proof Wanchalearm disappeared in Cambodia and no witness of his kidnapping.  As a result, the Torture and Disappearance Investigation Center has been compelled to gather its own evidence, a process which is scheduled to finish this month.  The Center is currently arranging to hear testimony from witnesses in Phnom Penh.

Jirat added that the center had requested information from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Phnom Penh too.

Law banning torture and enforced disappearances pending

At present, four versions of a bill criminalising torture and enforced disappearances are under parliamentary review. All serve the same purpose: making the complicity of state officials in torture and enforced disappearance a punishable offence.

According to Farrukh, Farrukh also noted that Thailand, a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, has been slow to submit periodic mission reports and has yet to criminalise enforced disappearances.

He said passing the bill is extremely important for Thailand’s international standing as a protector of human rights. It will show that Thai authorities are serious about investigating enforced disappearance cases.

Commenting on the matter, Phattaranit Yaodam, a Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at Amnesty International Thailand said that Amnesty and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) sent a legal opinion to Thailand’s Ministry of Justice and National Legislative Assembly, noting problems with existing drafts that might make it difficult to punish perpetrators.  These included definitions of torture that are not in line with international standards, “emergency” exemptions for law enforcement officers, and statutes of limitations that further reduce accountability.

Phattaranit added that while the 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.

Montana Duangprapa, a Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) legal officer, reported that a total of 104 political refugees fled Thailand after the 2014 coup. These she divided into four categories: those who rallied for democracy prior to the coup, youth activists, academics and regular people. When the National Council for Peace and Order began summoning people for questioning, holding them in unknown locations and prosecuting a growing number on lese majeste charges, many people feared for their safety and fled the country.

Since the coup, nine people have been forcibly disappeared.  Two were found dead. Their relatives live on without knowing what happened to a loved one, a torture in its own right.

A hopeless judicial system

On 2 June, Wanchalearm’s sister, Sitanun Satsaksit went to ask for an update on the investigation into her brother’s disappearance.   She was accompanied by the mother and sister of Siam Theerawut, another disappeared activist, and a legal assistance team from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights and CrCF.  There was no progress to report.

Sitanun Satsaksit

Sitanun expressed her despair, noting that she had ” lost all hope in Thai judicial process” as the authorities had “done nothing from day one.”  She remained grateful for the ongoing support of activists and civil groups that were trying to find justice for Wanchalearm.

Rukchanok Srinok, an activist with the Clubhouse for Democracy network, an online chat platform, said that Wanchalearm’s case occurred at time when public awareness of political issues was on the rise.  As a result, many people spoke out about the case, expressing concern that the same thing could happen to anyone criticising the government.   Many also felt that it was up to the current generation of activists to make sure that Thailand improved its abysmal political and human rights record by continuing to draw attention to enforced disappearance.  With this end in mind, Rukchanok called upon people everywhere to speak out.

Parit Wacharasindhu, a founder of Re-Solution, a campaign to amend Thailand’s constitution, noted that the use of new media channels for spreading information had made people more aware of rights issues and they were starting to mobilise against enforced disappearances. He added that the 2014 coup produced an authoritarian constitution and government, reducing transparency and hindered the investigation of enforced disappearance cases.

Parit called for two sections of the constitution to be changed: Section 279 which maintains the legality of the current military-run government and Section 25 which allows state authorities to suspend the rights of Thai citizens for reasons of national security.  He also suggests the provision of a new section giving people the right to oppose coups.  Parit added that a more democratic constitution would help to check torture and enforced disappearance cases.

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