The United Nations continues to press the Cambodian government for answers in the case of a Thai political activist allegedly abducted in the capital Phnom Penh.
On September 14, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a batch of correspondence with the Cambodian government concerning the disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, who was reportedly bundled into an SUV outside his condo on July 4.
In the correspondence, officials voice their concerns that the Cambodian government did not undertake a full investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance, in spite of Phnom Penh’s assurances that it had pursued all available leads.
In a letter dated July 15, four leading U.N. human rights officials underlined to the Cambodian government “the importance of urgent action to ascertain his fate and whereabouts.” It also raised concerns about the lack of new information on the activist’s disappearance, “despite the registration number of the car involved being known and there being multiple witnesses.”
Wanchalearm, 37, is affiliated with Thailand’s “red shirt” United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and fled to Cambodia after the country’s military seized power in a coup in May 2014. He remained politically active online, prompting Thai authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest in July 2018.
According to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), a group of armed men abducted Wanchalearm as he walked down to the street to buy food in front of his apartment at around 5:54pm on June 4. HRW based its conclusions on interviews with several witnesses and apartment security cameras. In its July 15 letter, the U.N. officials also claim that some of the armed men were heard speaking the Khmer language.
It also made public the response that it received from the Cambodian authorities on June 19, which laid out the threadbare conclusions from its investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance. The U.N. initially wrote to the Cambodian government on June 12, eight days after the apparent abduction, to express their “serious concerns” about the activist’s disappearance and call for a thorough investigation.
According to the Cambodian government’s response, authorities identified the SUV as a blue Toyota Highlander but said that the vehicle did not appear in Transport Ministry records. They also claimed that security cameras and local witnesses offered “no clue” about the incident. “Based on the testimony of three witnesses (living around the location of the alleged incident), they confirmed that there were no reports of abduction in the said area,” the letter stated.
The government also said its last record of Wanchalearm entering Cambodia was in October 2015 and that his visa had expired in December 2017. In the later letter, however, U.N. experts claimed that Wanchalearm had traveled internationally after 2017 and returned to Cambodia.
As David Hutt wrote in these pages back in June, Wanchalearm’s disappearance forms part of a harrowing trend of enforced disappearances in Southeast Asia. Most worryingly, Hutt noted some of these abductions have taken place in other countries, indicating a growing “reciprocity of repression” between Southeast Asian governments. Thai authorities have been especially aggressive in pursuing exiles abroad. According to HRW, at least eight exiled Thai dissidents have become the victims of enforced disappearances since the 2014 coup.
Given these trends, there is little reason to believe that the Cambodian government – currently in the middle of its own crackdown on dissent – had any intention of mounting a thorough investigation into the abduction of Wanchalearm. On the contrary, its correspondence with U.N. human rights officials reveals a government very much going through the motions in its approach to the U.N.’s requests. Cambodia has long offered a sanctuary for Thai political exiles, including numerous “red shirt” activists – at times, with the government’s tacit support. Wanchalearm’s disappearance, and the government’s perfunctory response to it, indicates that it now represents hostile and unwelcoming terrain.