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Five Days on, Cambodian Interior Ministry and Thai Embassy Have ‘No Information’ on Missing Activist

Activists hold photos of Thai dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit gather for a rally in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, June 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Activists hold photos of Thai dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit gather for a rally in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, June 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The Cambodian Interior Ministry and Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh said they had no information related to the disappearance of a Thai pro-democracy activist, despite several international rights groups and news organizations reporting the incident that occurred on June 4.

Last Friday, VOA Khmer reported eyewitness accounts from Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district of popular Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit being dragged into a black SUV by three unidentified men. The abduction was reported by Human Rights Watch in a statement released Friday morning.

Five days after the incident, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said the government will not investigate the incident unless the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh or Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s family files an official complaint with the local police.

Despite multiple media reports and statements released by rights groups, Khieu Sopheak said the ministry had no information about the missing activist.

“They [family] should file a complaint since we don’t have any information about this at all,” he said. “If there is a disappearance [of a Thai national], the Thai government should cooperate with us.”

Other Cambodian senior officials said on Friday they did not know about the abduction, including spokespersons from the Foreign Ministry, National Police, and Immigration Department.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

A staffer at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh answered the phone Monday morning, only to convey a message from his superiors.

“The embassy left a message with me that they had no information about the abduction of the Thai person,” said the staffer. “I don’t know whether there will be an investigation or not.”

The Thai embassy, in an email, directed queries to the Thai Foreign Ministry’s Department of Information. The department did not respond to an email request for comment.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted outside his apartment, as he waited for a plate of meatballs at a nearby food stall. A black Toyota Highlander SUV pulled up next to the Thai activist, according to sources who spoke to VOA Khmer.

One unidentified man, dressed in black and wearing a mask, then punched Wanchalearm Satsaksit in the neck and dragged him to the car. Two other unidentified men were also part of the abduction.

“Chuoy pong. Chuoy pong. Chuoy pong. Chuoy pong,” were the last words bystanders heard Wanchalearm shouting, which translates to “please help.”

Wanchalearm Satsaksit fled the Thai junta after the 2014 coup and is a prominent activist affiliated with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the “Red Shirts”, according to the statement. He is wanted for alleged online crimes and purportedly violating Thailand’s strict lese-majeste provision.

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 June 3, a day before he went missing.

On Monday afternoon, Thai activists protested outside the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok calling for an investigation into the missing activist. Around 20 to 30 people were outside the embassy, chanting “Save Wanchalearm” and raising the three-finger salute.

The salute, borrowed from the “Hunger Games” movies and used as an act of rebellion, was banned by the Thai military, shortly after it was used to oppose the 2014 military coup.

The Bangkok Post on Monday reported that Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s sister, Sitanan Satsaksit, called for an investigation into the disappearance of her brother. She said the family wanted the abductors to release the Thai activist.

“We are looking forward to his release, and we hope that this abduction will be the last case of forced disappearance,” said Sitanan Satsaksit, according to the Bangkok Post.

Last Friday, the Bangkok Post also reported that Krissana Pattanacharoen, the deputy national police spokesman in Thailand, said Thai police had contacted their Cambodian counterparts regarding the extradition of Wanchalearm Satsaksit and other exiled activists.

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc in Cambodia, said Cambodian authorities should investigate the incident even without complaint, given that the case is now an international issue.

“We are worried that if there is no investigation, people will think more that it is because of political [calculations],” Soeng Senkaruna said.

Am Sam Ath, the deputy director for rights monitoring at Licadho, said the abduction was a serious human rights violation and that Cambodian officials should go ahead with an investigation immediately.

“I think Cambodian authorities should not rush to refuse an investigation into this since it happened in our [jurisdiction],” he said. “The authorities have to investigate thoroughly despite having [little] information about this.”

The Cambodian government has arrested at least 30 individuals recently for allegedly spreading fake news about COVID-19, though most of the detentions include former Cambodia National Rescue Party officials and charges unrelated to fake news.

The police nor the courts have publicly produced any formal complaints about these arrests.