Remembering the ‘disappeared’ activists of Thailand

September 27, 2023
Thai activists and their allies rally for the disappeared, in Sydney on September 19. Photo: Peter Boyle

In early June, 2020, Sitanan Satsakit was talking on the telephone to her brother Wanchalearm Satsakit, a young Thai democracy activist living in self-exile in Cambodia since the 2014 military coup. Her brother said he was about to head out to buy some meatballs. Then Sitanan said she heard three loud bangs and her brother repeating the words: “I can’t breathe”.

That was the moment Wanchalearm became one of a growing list of “disappeared” Thai democracy activists.

Wanchalearm’s disappearance spurred on a new generation of young activists, who still haven’t given up on the struggle for democracy in Thailand, despite the recent blocking of a popularly elected government from taking office after the May 14 general election.

At a rally in Sydney on September 19, a young Thai woman read out a message from Sitinan, her voice quivering with emotion.

“In my memory, Wanchalearm and I were very close. He was jolly, fun-loving, and friendly. He became friends with anyone easily.

“The fact that my brother was abducted is not an ordinary thing.

“I was at my wit's end at that time. I didn't know where to start. If I didn't get the support from the general public and activists, who came out to demand his whereabouts and assurances of his wellbeing from the [Thai] government, I wouldn't have been able to survive these darkest times.

“I would like to thank everyone who sees the importances of this matter and stands up for truth and justice in Thailand and overseas.

“I hope that one day no one will have to seek asylum and no one will experience enforced disappearance for being a dissident ever again.”

Wanchalearm's exact fate remains a mystery, but his family, friends and supporters have good reason to fear the worst.

Two bodies washed up on the banks of the Mekong River on December 25, 2018. The bodies had been gutted and stuffed with concrete and were later identified as Thai dissidents — Chatcharn Buppawan, 56 (known as Puchana) and Kraidej Luelert, 46 (known as Kasalong). They had been living in exile in Laos with Surachai Danwattananusorn, a former communist guerilla leader who became a leader of the Red Shirt movement that rose against the 2006 military coup.

Surachai, Puchana and Kasalong had disappeared from their home in Laos near the Thai border on December 12. Surachai’s body has never been found, however his wife, Pranee, filed a complaint with police over the possible destruction of a third corpse, which she believes was her husband.

At the Sydney rally, Kanyanatt Kalfagiannis, spokesperson of the Australian Alliance for Thai Democracy, said the enforced disappearance of activists who speak out against the military coup leaders and the closely associated Thai monarchy has marred politics in Thailand for many years.

“Today marks the 17th anniversary of the 2006 coup when many of the victims we mourn for today had to flee Thailand to escape the draconian law, the lèse-majesté law, that strips their rights and freedom of speech.

“The history of Thai politics is full of misery, deaths and enforced disappearances of many brave activists.”

Kalfagiannis recounted the case of the disappearance of Tanong Po-Arn, former head of the Labour Union of Thailand (the biggest union in the country) and a staunch critic of the 1991 military coup, who disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

After the February 23 coup that year, all the labour leaders were called to meet with the junta. The junta then announced Order No 54, which nullified the unions in all state-owned companies, and limited workers’ rights and freedom of assembly.

While some labour leaders supported the junta — even bringing a bouquet of flowers to congratulate the coup leaders — Tanong denounced the coup regime’s attacks on workers’ and democratic rights.

He was invited to attend an International Labour Organization (ILO) conference in Switzerland in June, 1991, as a representative from Thailand and planned to inform the conference of the coup regime’s attacks on workers’ rights. But just before he began his journey, he was stripped of the right to travel overseas.

Tanong disappeared just days before the ILO conference was scheduled to begin. His empty car was found near his office in Bangkok.

Before his disappearance he had received ominous threats. He warned his closest relatives: “If I disappear for more than three days, report to the police, I may have been abducted. If you haven’t heard from me for more than seven days, be prepared that I may have been killed.”

Those were Tanong’s last words to his family.

Kalfagiannis said there is a “pervasive culture of impunity, providing protection to those responsible for enforced disappearances”.

“The absence of domestic legislation designating enforced disappearances as a crime perpetuates a lack of accountability and lenient punishments upon rare convictions.

“Alarmingly, forced disappearances are not always orchestrated by state actors, presenting a worrisome evolution in this heinous practice.”

Even when the perpetrators admit to being involved in enforced disappearances, compromised criminal justice systems and corrupted judicial institutions ensure that the perpetrators get away with minimal punishment.

“Human rights organisations face formidable challenges in documenting cases, including interference, death threats, and complicity from Thai authorities,” Kalfagiannis said.

“The relatives of victims like Tanong and Wanchalerm are left grappling in the dark, struggling to comprehend the circumstances surrounding their loved one's disappearance.”

The complicity of neighbouring countries endangers activists seeking refuge outside Thailand.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances reported 86 unresolved cases, particularly affecting land rights activists and environmental protectors.

Thailand has yet to ratify the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

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