Bangkok Post: 21 December 2019
One year ago this month, Thai activist Surachai Danwattananusorn disappeared mysteriously from his residence in the Lao capital of Vientiane, while the bodies of his two aides were found in the Mekong River. Also, seven years ago this month, Lao activist Sombath Somphone suffered a “forced disappearance” in Vientiane.
These men were all prominent critics of the state, and this is perhaps a good enough explanation as to why neither the Thai and Lao governments have managed to unearth the truth behind the disappearances and killings.
Mr Surachai fled Thailand a few days before the 2014 coup and lived in exile in Vientiane to avoid being thrown behind bars for alleged lese majeste offences. He was followed by his aides, Chatchan Bupphawan and Kraidej Luelert, who used their time in Laos to criticise the military junta and the institution.
On Dec 12 last year, they disappeared. Then, one body was found floating in the Mekong on Dec 27 and another on Dec 29. DNA tests confirmed that the two bodies — disembowelled and attached to a concrete block before being stuffed into sacks and dumped in the river — were Mr Surachai’s aides.
Mr Surachai is still considered a “missing person”. Despite the police pledging to “seek cooperation” from their Lao counterparts to investigate these cases, they have yet to come up with any findings or conclusions. And the government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha seems to have decided to ignore these cases, or maybe it believes the public’s demand to know the truth will simply go away.
These disappearances began happening after the Thai and Lao governments agreed in December 2017 to cooperate in locating people they saw as “security threats”.
Meanwhile, the disappearance of Lao civil-society leader Sombath in 2012 has remained a mystery despite calls from the international community for the Lao government to investigate the case and ensure justice for him and his family. Footage from security cameras showed Mr Sombath being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, and then being forced into another vehicle in the presence of police officers. This prompted speculation of state officials’ involvement in his disappearance.
With no explanation from either government about what transpired in these cases, it appears as if both countries expect the public and the international community to accept these disappearances and killings as a new normal for dissidents in the region.
There are many other disappearances in the Mekong region over the past few years that remain unsolved. There was the case of Thai activist Itthipol Sukpaen vanishing in June 2016 and Wuthipong “Ko Tee” Kochathamakun disappearing in July 2017. Both were living in exile in Vientiane.
In May this year, three Thai activists facing lese majeste charges — Chucheep Chiwasut, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai — disappeared after reportedly being arrested in Vietnam. Though there have been reports suggesting they were sent back to Thailand, the Thai government has denied any knowledge of this. In August this year, Lao political activist Od Sayavong went missing in Bangkok while awaiting resettlement to a third country. Again, the government has failed to find out where he is.
Perhaps it is time for the Prayut government to start keeping the public informed about what happened to these activists and who should be held responsible for the deaths and disappearances. There must be justice.