Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos

Enforced disappearances — a tragedy all too familiar in Latin America — are increasingly becoming a feature of Southeast Asian politics, too.

Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos

Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai activist who has gone missing in Cambodia.

Credit: Private photo given to Human Rights Watch

One of the bloodiest characters of Latin American history is that of los desaparecidos, the activist or dissident or just unfortunate person who says the wrong thing who suddenly disappears, never to be heard of again. Sometimes their body is discovered years later, but in most cases they remain missing forever.   

In the English language, there is no word that conveys the sense of hopelessness and not knowing. The family who finds a murdered loved one can at least grieve – but for the families of those who remain disappeared, it is the not knowing that most consumes their anguish. Having spoken to families of desaparecidos from Argentina to Guatemala, the not-knowing is still as raw as it when their loved ones disappeared decades ago.

A victim of “forced disappearance,” or “one who has disappeared” or “disappeared person,” would be the English translation, but these are too clinical and legalistic to accurately describe the horror, while there’s an odd ring when the verb is rendered “to be disappeared.” In most cases, though, to have been disappeared serves only as a euphemism. What one wants to say, but cannot prove, is that someone has been abducted and likely assassinated, usually by the state.

Now the desaparecido, the tragedy of Latin American politics, is increasingly becoming a feature of Southeast Asian politics, too. Arguably the most well-known case in the region is the Laotian community worker Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in 2014 after being stopped by the police. We still do not know what happened – though the sensible guess is that he fell afoul of Laos’ communist government.

Just this month, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai pro-democracy activist, disappeared while living in exile in Cambodia, a case that has now sparked protests in Thailand and Cambodia. Some sources, including the noted journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, allege Wanchalearm’s abduction was ordered by Thai King Vajiralongkorn himself and overseen by his security chief, Jakrapob Bhuridej.

But Wanchalearm isn’t an exception. A recent Human Rights Watch report notes that at least eight exiled Thai dissidents “have become victims of enforced disappearance” since the country’s military coup in 2014. Reports suggest that five Thai dissidents have been disappeared in Laos since 2016, two of whom were later discovered in the Mekong River, their stomachs filled with concrete. While Thai activists have disappeared in Laos, Laotian dissidents have also disappeared in Thailand, as well, including Od Sayavong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who disappeared in Bangkok last August.

As this makes clear, not only are activists and pro-democracy dissidents being disappeared at home, they are also disappearing in other countries – often in connivance with the local government itself. Indeed, we must wait to see if Phnom Penh is actually going to investigate Wanchalearm’s disappearance.

Last week, Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, appeared to insinuate in an interview with Voice of Democracy that the Cambodian government wouldn’t be launching investigations. “If Thai [authorities] file a complaint about its citizen being abducted, we will do [an investigation],” Sopheak said. “If the Thai Embassy does not file a complaint about the disappearance of a Thai citizen here, what would [we] have to do?” A good question, indeed. Someone is alleged to have been abducted and possibly murdered in Cambodian territory, yet this apparently lies out of the sovereignty of Cambodia’s police and investigators.

On June 9, however, the government appeared to make a U-turn, saying they would be willing to investigate, though, they claim that Wanchalearm had been living in the country illegally since 2017.

It isn’t just that, by themselves, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand are ruled by oppressive governments. They now also engage in reciprocity of repression, tracking down the dissidents of other regimes that have fled and, some claim, turning a blind eye as agents of other states enter their country to hunt down exiled activists. By doing so, the region’s governments are making sure that if a dissident wants to find safety in exile, they must leave the region.

For the repressive government, this is clever. Most pro-democracy activists and dissidents aren’t wealthy, so cannot afford to set up a new home in, say, Singapore or Taiwan or South Korea, where they would be afforded more security but remain not far from home. Instead, most dissidents from the region choose to hop across the border for safety – from Thailand to Laos and vice versa, for instance. For dissidents, this allows them to stay near to home, in case of the need for a quick return, and to settle among their own expatriated countrymen. Thailand has a large Cambodian community, while there are many Thais in Laos and Laotians in Thailand.

But by making sure that a dissident isn’t safe (or doesn’t feel safe) in a neighboring country, the region’s repressive governments are trying to force their dissidents much farther away from home – where a return is only possible by plane, which is easily preventable, and where they cannot so easily mix with their own compatriots. Every exiled dissident knows that the longer they stay abroad, especially the farther away from home they are, the more they lose touch with ordinary people back home and with what’s happening on the ground.

Recall the events of last November when, after refusing exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy permission to land in a Cambodian airport, following his much-hyped pledge to return after four years in exile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen then persuaded his neighboring governments to ban Sam Rainsy from landing in their countries, too. They accepted, and thus Hun Sen prevented an opposition figurehead from leading pro-democracy supporters back into Cambodia across a land border. Hun Sen could only have done this with the support of his neighbors, all of whom would not be best pleased if democracy sprouts in the region.

Put simply, mainland Southeast Asia is now creating a zone where no activist or dissident can feel safe. For many, leaving the region entirely might now be the only safe option.