Portraits of disappeared activists paraded in downtown Bangkok

Activists Siam Square

Event participants dress themselves up with plastic bags and placards with photos of the disappeared Thai activists. Photo and caption from Prachatai. Used with permission.

This article was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

To mark International Day of the Disappeared on August 30, a dozen people affiliated with the Mok Luang Rim Nam student activist group gathered at Ratchaprasong Intersection in downtown Bangkok. A small parade was held by activists in Siam Square to raise awareness about forced disappearances. The marchers carried portraits of abducted activists, some of whom were later found dead.

The group carried photos of Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, and Siam Theerawut — Thai victims of forced disappearance. Hanging photos of the victims around their necks, some covered their heads with plastic bags in imitation of a suffocation torture technique.

Porlajee Rakchongcharoen is a Karen environmental activist last seen in April 2014 in the custody of Kaeng Krachan National Park officials in Phetchaburi province. Surachai Danwattananusorn, a veteran activist who fled the country after the 2014 coup, disappeared in December 2018 in a neighboring country, and his dead body was later found at the Thai-Laos border. Siam Theerawut also fled in 2014 and was arrested by Vietnamese authorities in 2019 before his reported extradition to Thailand. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Speaking on the occasion, activist Tanruthai Thaenrut said that the group wanted to raise awareness about forced disappearances, to tell people that the government is ignoring these disappearances and silencing the people to make disappearance seem normal.

A 2020 report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances estimates there are at least 75 victims of enforced disappearance in Thailand . Since the 2014 military coup, nine Thai political refugees living in neighboring countries have gone missing. Two were subsequently found dead. There has been no progress in the investigations of the other seven disappearances.

Uniformed police were seen standing guard at the National Police Headquarters on the way to Siam Square. Plainclothes police were reportedly taking photographs of event participants before the event started.

When they reached their destination, the Superintendent of Pathumwan police station arrived with other police officers, to quietly monitor the situation.

During the gathering, activists staged a performance symbolizing an abduction. One of the participants placed a black bag over Tanruthai's head while she was giving a speech. Two others then carried her away while other activists shouted, “Free our friends.”

Photo of Wanchalearm Satsaksit

Photo of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, one of the disappeared activists in exile. Source: Prachatai.

Mint, a Thai traditional dancer-turned-activist who participated in the march, said that the performance signified that anyone could become a victim of forced disappearance. She noted that human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was abducted in the middle of Bangkok, and added that the fates of most people who disappeared remain unknown.

“The next person could be you. It could be anyone, anyone who wants to speak out about problems, anyone who wants real democracy, anyone who wants to express their opinion,” Mint said.

Mint noted that as they were staging their march, women police officers were deployed in the area, possibly to remove them from the protest location.

I don't know how remembering people who disappeared is a threat to national security. Do you think we pose a threat to national security? Does anyone here have an army? Do I have a gun? No. Do I have soldiers? No. I only have you journalists, myself, and a bag. I don’t have bodyguards. I could disappear at any time.

So, we have organised this event to look back at the twisted things that have happened in this country. They call it democracy but you can be abducted or killed for just expressing your opinion.

Chan (pseudonym), 18, another participant who was on the authorities’ watchlist, said he wanted officials to have empathy toward their victims.

… think of the hearts of family members who have been forced to live with loss. One day it could be someone close to you. Don’t use the excuse that ‘superiors ordered it’ – in the future, in your children or grandchildren’s time, it could be your children or grandchildren who get it.

Nobody should be disappeared because they think differently.

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