The Thai bureaucracy comes clean on what it has done about Wanchalearm’s disappearance: ‘We had a meeting’

The Rights and Liberties Protection Department (RLPD) has responded to a request from Prachatai, New Naratif and Voice of Democracy for information regarding progress in the case of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, an activist who was abducted while living in self-exile in Phnom Penh.

The RLPD letter which Prachatai recieved on 19 June.

Dated 16 June 20201, the RLPD letter is signed by Deputy Director-General Tussanee Pao-in and states that a complaint submitted by Wanchalearm’s sister, Sitanun, was recorded by the Subcommittee on the Facilitation of Coordination of Action on Receiving Complaints, Investigation, Consideration, Judgement, Monitoring and Victim Assistance, which deals with cases of torture and enforced disappearance.

The Subcommittee held a meeting to consider a decision on Sitanun’s complaint that requested an investigation into the facts of the Wanchalearm’s disappearance while he was living in Cambodia.  “In this regard,” reads the letter, “the meeting resolved to submit the matter to the Subcommittee on Monitoring and Investigation of Cases of Torture and Enforced Disappearance, in which the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) is the main agency responsible for monitoring, investigating, considering and judging the information and facts.”

Not much of an answer

Wanchalearm fled Thailand after the 2014 military coup and had been living in exile in Cambodia. On 4 June 2020, he was abducted from in front of his condominium and has not been heard from since, while no progress has been made in investigations by the Thai or Cambodian authorities.

What Happened to Wanchalearm?

The RLPD letter gives no answers to many of the questions in the complaint.

  1. Can you confirm that Wanchalearm Satsaksit had a Cambodian passport under the name Sok Heng? If so, was it legally obtained?
  2. Do you still maintain that there is no evidence that Wanchalearm was living in Phnom Penh at the time of his disappearance on June 4, 2020?
  3. What progress has been made in this investigation? What are the challenges? 
  4. What will be the next step in the investigation?
  5. Have any witnesses or suspects been identified, questioned or detained by the authorities in relation to Wanchalearm’s disappearance? If so, how many? 
  6. Are the governments of Cambodia and Thailand fulfilling their obligations under the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances?
  7. Was Wanchalearm Satsaksit kidnapped in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2020?

Monthana Duangprapha, a lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who has been following Wanchalearm’s legal case, said that the information in the letter does not represent any significant development in the investigation into Wanchalearm’s fate and whereabouts. 

According to the Subcommittee’s procedures, the case must be recognized as an enforced disappearance before the case is passed to the Sub-committee on Monitoring and Investigation. The question is whether the family has been informed of this already or not.

“There is progress in that something has been done, but there has been no speedy investigation of [Wanchalearm’s] fate and nothing significant about finding him, including no progress in using the ad-hoc mechanism that the Thai state said it would apply in handling cases of torture and enforced disappearance because Wanchalearm’s case has still not been recognized as an enforced disappearance,” said Monthana

Thailand ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007 and signed the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2015, but has still not passed any law criminalizing these acts. A subcommittee was established in 2017 as an ad-hoc measure to handle these cases.

Wanchalearm’s case is but one case among 8 other Thai activists in exile who have been disappeared since the 2014 coup. Even though the bureaucracy has had the case for a year, it has made more progress than the others due to a combination of public support, the availability of evidence and the dogged perseverance of his sister, Sitanun Satsaksit.

Protesters holding Spring Movement's 'missing person' posters during the 18 July 2020 protest in Bangkok (Anna Lawattanatrakul/Prachatai)

Sitanun was disappointed with the content of the RLPD letter. She said she has no comment on what the authorities have done, since it has taken a great deal of effort and money from her side just to see the authorities passing the buck from one to the other.

Interviewed on 2 June, DSI Director-General Pol Lt Col Korrawat Panprapakorn responded that the DSI had told its working group to expedite their inquiries. If the results show that the case took place in Cambodia, the Attorney General will be tasked with the investigation in line with the Thai Criminal Code.

Monthana hopes that the investigation on both sides will be conducted seriously in a cooperative manner. 

“The judicial systems should shake hands, putting aside issues of sovereignty such that if the case was submitted in Cambodia, the Thai side wouldn’t do anything, or if the case was filed in Thailand, then the Cambodia wouldn’t do anything,”

“You should cooperate. Otherwise, you are using this to cover up for the state not doing anything, or doing things that will not really lead to finding out about the causes and the whereabouts of Wanchalearm,” said Monthana.

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