The abduction of exiled Thai political activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit, seized near his apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 4, marks a serious escalation in the use of repression by the regime of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Witnesses say that Wanchalerm was seized in broad daylight by a group of armed men. Given the regime’s track record, the Cambodian government’s position that it has no idea as to the whereabouts of the activist holds no water. Thailand says that it can do nothing until Cambodia concludes its “investigation.”
Not content with the arbitrary arrest of supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), some of whom are now in exile in Thailand, the Cambodian government is allowing the abduction of foreign exiles who have come to Cambodia. Hun Sen probably hopes to be able to ask the Thai government to take further action against CNRP supporters in Thailand in return.
Wanchalerm, a pro-democracy campaigner in Thailand, fled to Cambodia after the May 2014 military coup. He had a Facebook page that posted criticism of Thailand’s government, and there was a Thai arrest warrant against him for breaching the Computer Crimes Act.
The possibility of a simple street kidnapping by criminals can be ruled out as no ransom demand has been made. The only other explanation for the disappearance, carried out as Wanchalerm talked on his phone and said he couldn’t breathe, is political abduction.
Hun Sen’s cynical calculation is that, once the initial spate of media stories has passed, the international community will forget about both Wanchalerm, and the CNRP supporters exiled in Thailand.
Hun Sen is an expert in the use of state terrorism. As leader of the Cambodian opposition, I have myself been the target of several attacks which have cost dozens of my colleagues and sympathizers their lives. More recently, Hun Sen has publicly threatened to have me abducted while in exile abroad.
I have informed the French police of Hun Sen’s criminal intentions. It’s possible that the French authorities have dissuaded him from carrying out his threat. Hun Sen was, however, able to successfully appeal to Thailand to prevent me from landing in Bangkok as part of my plan to return to Cambodia with other CNRP leaders in November 2019.
Hun Sen owes Thailand a few favours. In February 2018, Thailand deported Sam Sokha, a mother and garment worker in Kampong Speu, after film of her throwing one of her shoes at a Hun Sen billboard in Cambodia circulated online. This was despite the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had granted her refugee status. She was tried after returning to Cambodia and sentenced to prison for her “crime”.
The United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances has submitted a request to Cambodia to take urgent action over the Wanchalerm case and report what has been done by June 24. The petition was submitted in compliance with the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance, which Cambodia has ratified. The request prompted Cambodia to say that it was investigating the case, after initially dismissing reports of the disappearance as “fake news.”
The European Union is planning to partly end Cambodia’s free-trade access to EU markets under the Everything But Arms (EBA) programme in August as a result of the regime’s disastrous long-term record on democracy and human rights. Decisions on EBA will now have to take account of not only Cambodia’s domestic repression, but also its role in helping foreign governments to round up their own dissidents.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations must also do its utmost to end the disturbing trend in which member states call on each other to seize exiled dissidents.
Cambodia has an international legal obligation to investigate the Wanchalerm case. The international community must see through any half-hearted pretence at doing so, and hold Hun Sen personally responsible for Wanchalerm’s safety.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.