Thai king implicated in disappearance of exiled dissident

Missing poster for Wanchalearm Satsakit
Poster by Thai roadside appealing for information about the disappearance of dissident Wanchalearm Satsakit.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been implicated in the recent abduction and disappearance of Thai dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who had been living in exile in Cambodia.

Wanchalearm was abducted by three armed men in a busy street in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh at 4.40pm on June 4. He was bundled into a black Toyota Highlander, screaming “I can't breathe”, according to his sister Sitanan, who was on a phone call to her brother when the abduction took place.

Although there were several witnesses and CCTV footage showing two vehicles speeding away from the scene, the Cambodian police are insisting nothing happened and therefore there is no investigation.

Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Reuters deputy bureau chief in Bangkok, a veteran war correspondent and author of A Kingdom in Crisis (which is banned in Thailand), told Green Left there is evidence implicating the Thai king in Satsakit's disappearance.

“Aviation sources have also been able to confirm that Vajiralongkorn’s security chief Jakrapob Bhuridej and three of his colleagues boarded a Thai Airways cargo flight from Paris to Bangkok on June 1, to oversee the operation to kill Wanchalearm from Thailand," said Marshall.

“Vajiralongkorn has become increasingly enraged in recent months over the unprecedented level of criticism of the monarchy on social media, and protests by Thai and German activists at the luxury hotel in Bavaria, where he lives with a harem of women.

“The abduction – and probable murder – of Wanchalearm Satsaksit was an attempt by the palace to terrify critics of the monarchy into silence.

“Wanchalearm was not a vocal anti-monarchist and had nothing to do with the protests in Germany, but he was chosen as the target because he was one of the few exiled dissidents still living in Southeast Asia.

“Regimes in the region are cooperating to catch foreign activists living in their countries, and so Wanchalearm was an easy target.”

Marshall met Wanchalearm in Cambodia in 2014, after the Thai military coup, when everyone who criticised the regime was being rounded up.

“Although he was less widely known internationally than other dissidents, Wanchalearm played a key role in helping Thai activists escape the country and find asylum abroad, and many people in the exile community know him and were helped by him," Marshall said. "The Thai regime knew that targeting him would send a message to everybody in the exiled democracy movement.”

“Vajiralongkorn is increasingly isolated and most of his entourage oppose him. They have been leaking information about what’s going on, including his order to kill a democracy activist.”

After news of Wanchalearm's abduction spread, protests took place in Bangkok outside the Cambodian consulate, demanding that the Hun Sen regime investigate the case. Several protestors have been arrested under Emergency Decree powers. International human rights organisations have demanded investigations as well.

"Vajiralongkorn and Jakrapob have been shocked by the uproar over the attack on Wanchalearm. They thought killing him would silence criticism. But instead, it has only fuelled outrage about the crimes of the regime," Marshall told GL.

Marshall said Wanchalearm is the tenth Thai dissident living in exile in Southeast Asia to be attacked or disappeared. Those abducted have been tortured and killed shortly after their kidnapping. Their bodies are then buried in a remote location or thrown into a river.

Even dissidents who have leaft Southeast Asia are not safe. Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, another Thai dissident described to GL in an interview last September how he had been attacked by agents of the Thai junta in his current home in Kyoto, Japan.

“Since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the military has strengthened its political dominance by its association with the monarchy. The two institutions have an interdependent relationship. Together they defined the political landscape in Thailand, creating a political system in which any elected government is kept weak and vulnerable.

“If an elected government proves to be threatening to the military and/or the monarchy, it will be eliminated through a coup.

“The last coup took place in Thailand in 2014 and after that there have been attempts by the Thai state to eliminate those they perceived to be 'enemies of the state',” Pavin explained.

Marshall lived in Cambodia for a year, in 2014, while he was writing his book and got to know Wanchalearm and other exiled Thai dissidents well.

“I got to know him after the coup, when he came to live in Phnom Penh, and he helped some friends of mine who were in a very dangerous situation. Their safety is thanks to him. One day, I hope I can tell the whole story of what he did to help people in danger.”

“Tar”, as Wanchalearm was known to his friends, "was a great guy”, said Marshall.

“He was always positive and smiling. He wanted to do whatever he could to help people. He was very brave and put himself in a lot of danger to help others, but he never boasted about it. He was smart, and talented, and open-minded, and above all he was kind.

“I never heard him say anything hateful about anyone. He was very politically aware, and he wanted to help Thailand become a democracy, but he didn’t hate anyone.

“He was doing his best to help others and help Thailand, working behind the scenes without seeking fame or wealth.”

In the years after 2014, Cambodia became much less safe for Thai dissidents, said Marshall. Relations between Hun Sen’s government in Cambodia and the Thai military junta had improved, and like other regimes in Southeast Asia, they began cooperating to capture exiled dissidents.

“I left at the end of 2014, and almost all of the Thai political exiles left too over the next few years. It was not safe in Cambodia any more.

“But Tar stayed. He had the chance to escape and get asylum in a rich country, but he wanted to stay in Cambodia and planned to start an agricultural business. He had many plans and ideas. He wasn’t harming anyone. Every time I talked to him, he was always positive, he never complained.

“Now he has been disappeared because Vajirakingkorn wanted to send a message, and he was the easiest target because he was still in Cambodia. I don’t think we will ever see him again.

“He was a real hero, funny and smart, brave and kind. I’ll never forget him.”

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