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Latest Deportation, Disappearances Rattle Thai Dissident Diaspora

FILE - Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party flashes a three finger salute to his supporters as he leaves a police station after hearing a sedition complaint filed by the army in Bangkok, Thailand, Apr. 6, 2019.
FILE - Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party flashes a three finger salute to his supporters as he leaves a police station after hearing a sedition complaint filed by the army in Bangkok, Thailand, Apr. 6, 2019.

Yammy and her friends sleep in shifts. They venture out of the house they share only every few days to stock up on food, and have stopped their live webcasts so as not to give away their location.

Together they comprise the band Faiyen, Cold Fire, whose blistering lyrics bashing Thailand's constitutional monarchy and military government have put them at dangerous odds with the country's ruling junta.

Like the dozens of other Thai dissidents who have exiled themselves to Laos in recent years for fear of attack or arrest back home, the forced repatriation and disappearance of four fellow Thai activists in recent weeks have left them rattled.

"It's made us more certain that we are wanted by the Thai government," Yammy, the stage name of Romchalee Sombulrattanakul, told VOA by phone Saturday.

"We now take turns sleeping so that there is always someone awake around the clock," she said. "We don't leave our place unless it's necessary, only to buy food, and we buy food that can last us for two, three days."

The added caution follows unconfirmed reports that three Thai activists living in Laos were arrested in Vietnam and tuned over to Thai authorities on May 8, and the forced repatriation of another Thai activist from Malaysia two days later, confirmed by her lawyer.

FILE - Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.
FILE - Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.

The woman deported from Malaysia was being held at Bangkok's central women's prison and faces charges of sedition and joining a secret organization, her lawyer told VOA Thursday. Thailand's security czar, Prawit Wongsuwan, told reporters the week before that the government did not have the three who went missing in Vietnam, though rights groups fear the junta may be holding them in secret.

Dissidents in Laos have been on heightened alert at least since December, when Surachai Danwattananusorn, who ran an online radio show from the country critical of the Thai junta and monarchy, went missing. The following month, two of his colleagues, Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej Luelert, turned up dead; their bodies were found in the Mekong River stuffed with concrete.

In a letter addressed to the Thai government in March, a group of U.N. envoys noted that the activists were wanted and all tied to the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a political movement affiliated with ousted Prime Minister and junta foe Thaksin Shinawatra. “Given the active arrest warrants and their involvement with the UDD, it is believed Thai officials may be responsible," they said.

The military has reportedly said it had no information about the bodies.

Spokesmen for the government and police did not reply to multiple requests for comment last week. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said she had no information about the latest cases or any recent efforts to bring wanted dissidents back to Thailand, but added that the government followed all applicable laws and procedures.

But activists and rights groups say the latest repatriation and disappearances may portend more to come and have made dissidents in neighboring countries ever more vigilant.

"The Thai government has stepped up pressure more and more, and it seems that now it has reached the point that neighboring governments surrender," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"We have learned that the remaining activists in Lao have received warnings that there could be a new round of attempts to arrest them by Thai authorities. They have been told to move their location. As for activists in Cambodia, they have been told to lay low and stop any political activity," he said.

The number of self-exiled dissidents in the region is hard to pin down. While some keep a high profile online, others choose to keep quiet.

Sunai said there were likely more than 20 in Laos, about half of them with open cases for lèse majesté, sedition or security related crimes. Yammy put the number at over 30.

Snea Thinsan, founder of the U.S.-based Thai Alliance for Human Rights, said there may be more than 100 in Laos, along with a handful in Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

He said the news of the past few weeks has sent them deeper underground and scrambling to find asylum farther afield, especially the most outspoken among them.

"All these vocal ones, ones, know that their lives are in danger, they could be the next victim," he said. "So that means, especially now, they are doing every way they can to really leave the country, leave Laos."

Those who can are trying to leave the region altogether, worried that nowhere in Southeast Asia is safe any longer. Malaysia deported Praphan Pipithnamporn on May 10 even after she had applied for asylum with the UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency; her lawyer said the country accorded her none of the due process she was owed under its international treaty obligations.

Snea said a prominent Thai activist in Cambodia left for the Middle East a few weeks ago after a senior Cambodian official told him his government could not resist mounting pressure from Thailand to send him back much longer. Yammy said she and her band mates were recently told by a senior official with an international organization in Bangkok that they may be targeted this week, and that they were working with a team of lawyers to land asylum in Europe.

While many of the activists are UDD members, some support and promote the Organization for Thai Federation, which would like to turn Thailand into a federated republic shorn of its constitutional monarchy.

Even questioning the monarchy's position is a high-risk gamble in Thailand, where tough lèse majesté laws place the royal palace beyond reproach. The junta's top leaders have branded group members separatists and "traitors" and a threat to national security.

But Sunai said their modus operandi has been peaceful.

"They haven't committed any act of violence at all, so therefore this is still within the bounds of free expression," he said.

Before fleeing to Malaysia in January, Praphan had been arrested for wearing a T-shirt bearing the Organization for Thai Federation's logo and handing out leaflets at a Bangkok shopping mall.

Snea said a few dissidents in exile have espoused more extreme tactics but added that all should be afforded due process.

"They may have [made] mistakes, they may have done something illegal, OK. When you catch them, then bring them to justice, fair trial, open trial," he said.