PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian authorities say they are willing to investigate the reported abduction of an exiled Thai dissident in Cambodia’s capital, though they claim to have been unaware of his presence for several years.
Fellow activists and human rights groups say armed men snatched Wanchalearm Satsaksit off the street in front of his apartment in Phnom Penh last Thursday. He was then bundled into a black car that drove away.
The incident has sparked protests in Thailand over the past few days, online as well as outside the Cambodian Embassy and elsewhere.
Thai police on Tuesday arrested four students who were tying white ribbons at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument in protest against the apparent forced disappearances of Wanchalearm and other victims. They were accused of violating littering and traffic laws.
Wanchalearm’s reported abduction struck many protesters as similar to the disappearances of at least eight exiled Thai activists in Laos from 2016 to 2018. The bodies of several were later found floating in the Mekong River.
The exiled activists, including Wanchalearm, espoused political positions critical of military rule, and in some cases Thailand’s monarchy. Several propagated their views on social media.
The disappearances in Laos raised suspicions they had been kidnapped by a death squad, either vigilantes or officially sanctioned. The Thai government and military denied any involvement.
Police in Cambodia initially said they would not investigate the disappearance of Wanchalearm because they were unaware of any abduction.
However, Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Khieu Sopheak said Tuesday that police would welcome complaints and evidence from witnesses, rights groups and family members and be happy to offer their cooperation.
Khieu Sopheak said that Wanchalearm first arrived in Cambodia in 2014, the year Thailand’s military seized power in a coup, and that in 2015 he was was granted a visa allowing him to stay until the end of 2017. After that, he said, officials had no idea whether Wanchalearm had been living illegally in hiding in Cambodia or had secretly left the country.
An arrest warrant issued by Thailand in 2018 alleged Wanchalearm violated the Computer Crime Act by operating a Facebook page from Phnom Penh critical of the Thai government, according to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Thai activists believe that because of the sensitive diplomatic issue of offering haven to political activists who in many cases are sought by the Thai police, Cambodian authorities keep at least a loose watch over them.
“The inaction of the two governments on this forced disappearance case is a violation of human rights,” Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a prominent political activist, said at a Monday protest in Bangkok. “It means they are conspiring in the crime of forced disappearance.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Tuesday that the Thai foreign ministry and embassy in Cambodia were working on the case.
He said that is was not an issue requiring action by his office, but that he would get involved in any matters that concerned policy.
Associated Press writer Busaba Sivasomboon in Bangkok contributed to this report.