Eyewitnesses to the abduction of Phnom Penh-based Thai activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, confirmed details of the incident to VOA Khmer, but Cambodian officials continued to maintain that they were unaware of the incident.
In a statement released Friday, Human Rights Watch said Thai pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted by armed men in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2020. Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who fled the Thai junta after the 2014 coup, is a prominent activist affiliated with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the “Red Shirts”, according to the statement.
VOA Khmer visited an apartment building in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district and spoke to eyewitnesses to the abduction. At least three eyewitnesses were able to identify photographs of Wanchalearm Satsaksit and said he was the person who was abducted on Thursday. All witnesses did not want to be identified in the story for fear of reprisals.
The witnesses said they saw the Thai activist sitting at a store near the apartment building, after ordering a plate of meatballs. Shortly after, a black car that one of the witnesses identified as a Toyota Highlander pulled up near Wanchalearm Satsaksit. Three men dressed in black exited the vehicle with concealed weapons.
One of the unidentified men then punched Wanchalearm in the neck, said two of the witnesses, after which the Thai activist was strangled as he was dragged to the car, all the while screaming for help.
“Chuoy pong. Chuoy pong. Chuoy pong. Chuoy pong,” Wanchalearm was heard shouting, which translates to “please help.”
The car then drove away with the Thai activist, the witnesses said. Security guards at the apartment building did not cooperate when asked questions about the incident.
These witness accounts were similar to those put forth by Human Rights Watch in its statement. According to the rights group, the Thai national was buying food outside his apartment, at an unidentified location, and was put into a black car by armed men and taken away.
“Wanchalearm’s colleague, who was talking on the telephone with him when the abduction occurred, heard him scream, ‘Argh, I can’t breathe,’ before the call was cut off,” read the statement.
Cambodian police officials on Friday claimed to not know about the abduction. National Police Chief Neth Savoeun did not immediately deny the abduction, asking a VOA reporter to call a spokesperson for further information.
“Ask the spokesperson. I am in a meeting. I don’t have time to respond,” he said, adding that he will instruct National Police spokesperson Chhay Kimkhoeun to respond to queries after the spokesperson initially claimed to be unaware of the abduction.
However, Chhay Kimkhoeun did not provide any information and was instead unhappy that reporters had requested information from his superior.
“Why do you need to call the big boss? I don’t want to cooperate [with you],” he said. “The police do not know [about the abduction]. You can report whatever information you have.”
Khieu Sopheak, spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, and Kirth Chantharith, the director-general at the Immigration Department, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong said they did not have information about Thai activist's abduction and reverted the questions to the National Police.
VOA Khmer could not reach Interior Minister Sar Kheng for comment. The Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to email and telephonic requests for comment on Friday.
The activist is politically active on social media and has continued to post criticism of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government, posting a video criticizing him on Wednesday.
“The abduction of a prominent Thai political activist on the streets of Phnom Penh demands an immediate response from Cambodian authorities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Cambodian government should urgently act to locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”
Thailand and Cambodia have in the past coordinated to deport critics of the respective regimes, even agreeing in 2018 to work closely to deport “foreign fugitives.”
In February 2018, Thailand deported Sam Sokha, a Kampong Speu resident, for throwing a shoe at a Cambodian People’s Party billboard featuring an image of Prime Minister Hun Sen. She was tried after returning to Cambodia.
In March 2018, The Phnom Penh Post reported that former Cambodia National Rescue Party officials were hiding in Bangkok, after a severe crackdown by the Cambodian government in 2017, reported being surveilled by vehicles with Royal Cambodian Armed Forces plates.
Media fixer Rath Rott Mony fled to Thailand in 2018 after assisting on an RT documentary about alleged child sex trafficking in Phnom Penh, which was severely criticized by the government. He was sent back by Thai officials in December 2018, at the request of the Cambodian authorities, and sent to prison.