Thai activist and government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted in Cambodia on June 4. Both countries denied any wrongdoing before launching investigations. Here’s how the region’s media covered the story.
Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent critic of the Thai government, has been missing and presumed dead since June 4. Eyewitnesses claim he was abducted in Phnom Penh, where he had lived since fleeing his homeland in 2014.
On June 5, Coconuts reported that Wanchalearm, 37, was forced into a car while he was talking on the phone in the Cambodian capital. That was just hours after he made a Facebook post criticising Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha.
Soon, the #SaveWanchalearm hashtag started trending on Twitter in Thailand, and a protest took place that evening in Bangkok. The next day, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that the Cambodian police claimed his disappearance was “fake news”. RFA also covered the response from Amnesty International and other agencies.
“The Cambodian authorities must urgently investigate Wanchalearm’s alleged abduction in order to establish his whereabouts. The Thai authorities must also confirm whether Wanchalearm was arrested at their request,” an Amnesty statement read.
The case whipped up protests against the Thai government
As the week went on, support for Wanchalearm grew quickly and soon another hashtag, #Abolish112, trended on Twitter. Thais used it to call for the abolition of the country’s lèse majesté law which makes any criticism of the royal family illegal.
Kay Johnson and Panu Wongcha-un wrote for Reuters on June 8 that the kidnapping had “reignited protests against Thailand’s military-royalist elite, with some online questioning a law banning criticism of the monarchy.”
In a parallel with the Black Lives Matter protest that Southeast Asians got behind last week, some celebrities also spoke out. The Bangkok Post reported that former Miss Universe Thailand Maria Poonlertlarp added her voice to the protests on Instagram. “I may or may not stand with him, I don’t know enough to say, but I am standing together with the Thai people in saying that what is happening is wrong and we want answers,” she wrote.
Some influential voices who did not speak out faced criticism, including Praya “Pu” Lundberg, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees goodwill ambassador for Thailand. As Khaosod’s coverage summarised, “The largely conservative bevy of Thai celebrities has not responded to Wanchalearm’s disappearance with the same enthusiasm as their participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.”
As criticism grew, both governments launched investigations
In the days after Wanchalearm’s disappearance, both Cambodian and Thai governments denied any involvement and ignored calls to act. However, by June 9, that changed. “We will investigate whether this information is true or not,” a Cambodian government spokesman told Reuters. Prayut added: “Whatever we can [do to] cooperate we will do so,” he said. “We will not interfere with the authorities of another country. They have their own investigation mechanism.”
The report also clarified that the latest outstanding warrant for Wanchalearm’s arrest in 2018 was for breaching the Computer Crimes Act, ostensibly for running a Facebook page that posted criticism of Thailand’s government. “At least eight other activists who fled Thailand after the coup have disappeared from Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, with the bodies of two later found floating in the Mekong River,” the report concluded.
According to Thai PBS World, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwini admitted he had never heard of Wanchalearm before his abduction. Khmer Times reported that the Thai police claimed to have no idea where Wanchalearm was. A Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman said that as his visa had expired, he would have been in the country illegally.
Six days after his disappearance, the Thai government set up a panel to investigate as criticism mounted, including from opposition members of parliament. One MP, Rangsiman Rome, called the government’s actions “dereliction of duties in protecting Thai citizens abroad,” according to The Pattaya Mail.
Journalists believe Thailand ordered the abduction
A stinging Bangkok Post editorial called the case “another black stain against Thailand’s human rights record.” It continued: “What is clear, however, is the heavy-handedness by the Thai state against its critics and that Wanchalearm is the latest activist to fall victim to a forced disappearance.”
An editorial in Thai Enquirer described how, despite agreements to not interfere with each other politically, ASEAN nations have worked together to stifle dissent. Concluding that Thailand was almost certainly involved in the abduction and probable killing of Wanchalearm, the editorial closed with a broader point. “Once again, ASEAN has lived up to its history and its efficacy. And once again, it is time to question the bloc’s purpose and its existence.”
Prominent journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall laid out his theory about what happened to Wanchalearm. As The Diplomat reported, he took to Facebook to write “the kidnapping and probable murder of activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia is a grim tragedy that has further inflamed anger in Thailand about the criminal behaviour of King Vajiralongkorn and his allies in the military.”
Alleging that the monarch ordered the killing of Wanchalearm to “terrify his critics into silence,” Marshall concluded, “Vajiralongkorn’s targeting of Wanchalearm was a totally pointless crime which has only damaged his reputation further and fuelled online anger and criticism. The Thai monarch is now more hated than ever.”
However, despite such pessimism, Wanchalearm’s sister Sitanan remains hopeful. “We don’t have any grudges against those who committed this crime,” she told The Bangkok Post. “We pray that they will free [Wanchalearm] soon. We are looking forward to his release, and we hope that this abduction will be the last case of forced disappearance.”