A year ago today, Wanchalearm Satsaksit walked downstairs from the apartment he was renting at the Mekong Gardens condominium, in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. At about 4:45 p.m., a group of armed men abducted the 37-year-old Thai national and bundled him into a waiting SUV, according to the rights group Human Rights Watch. Multiple witnesses then saw the car – widely identified as a dark Toyota Highlander –speed off down the street. Wanchalearm hasn’t been seen since.
An activist affiliated with Thailand’s “red shirt” United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, Wanchalearm fled to Cambodia after the country’s military seized power in a coup in May 2014. From his base there, he remained politically active enough that Thailand’s military junta issued an warrant for his arrest in 2018, alleging that he had violated the country’s Computer Crime Act by posting anti-government material on a satirical Facebook page. “I am Exiled from Thailand because I support democracy,” states his still-active Facebook page.
Wanchalearm’s disappearance was one of the sparks that helped set alight the campaign of anti-government protests that unfolded in the second half of 2020, which aired demands for democratic reforms that included nearly unprecedented criticisms of the political role of the Thai monarchy.
International rights groups have used the anniversary of Wanchalearm’s disappearance as an opportunity to highlight the paucity of the official investigations and an alarming recent trend of enforced disappearances in mainland Southeast Asia. Thai authorities have been especially aggressive in this respect. According to Human Rights Watch, at least eight exiled Thai dissidents “have become victims of enforced disappearance” since the 2014 coup.
While the Cambodian government did open an investigation into the activist’s disappearance, it appears to have been haphazard and half-hearted, apparently turning up no meaningful clues as to his fate.
Last September, frustrated at the slow pace of the investigation, the U.N. human rights office released its correspondence with the Cambodian government over Wanchalearm’s disappearance. According to the correspondence, the the Cambodian government told the U.N. that it had 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. In response, the U.N. raised concerns about the lack of new information, “despite the registration number of the car involved being known and there being multiple witnesses.”
“The authorities in both countries appear to be deliberately slow-walking their investigation,” HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement. “This charade raises concerns about their own role in Wanchalearm’s disappearance.”
In its broad outlines, the Cambodian “investigation” is consistent with a pattern in the case of the politically motivated killings of opposition figures and rights defenders: the government opens nominal investigations in order to satisfy foreign governments and other outside constituencies, which end up going nowhere or fingering the wrong culprits.
In a statement today, Amnesty International described the Cambodian investigation as “negligent.” “The past year has been marked by foot-dragging, finger-pointing and the absence of any credible effort to examine what really happened to Wanchalearm,” Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, said in the statement, calling for the Thai government to launch an independent probe into his fate.
But the Thai government has done little over the past year to push its neighbor to investigate the case. Moreover, given the inclinations of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government, currently in the midst of pursuing harsh persecutions against dozens of those involved in last year’s protests, seems very unlikely to take up the issue in a serious way.
Barring a sudden change of heart (or government) in Phnom Penh or Bangkok, Wanchalearm Satsaksit seems sadly destined to join the growing list of missing and murdered activists – from Laos’s Sombath Somphone to Cambodia’s Chea Vichea – whose anniversaries offer periodic reminders of the Mekong region’s enduring impunity.