Where is Wanchelearm Satsakit? The search for exiled Thai activist abducted in Cambodia

Activists in Cambodia hold a protest on the third anniversary of the disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit. Photo from the Facebook post of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

The family, friends, and supporters of Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit continue to search for him three years after he went missing while living in exile in Cambodia.

Wanchalearm fled Thailand after the 2014 coup in that country. He initially resided in Malaysia before settling in Cambodia with other dissidents. Wanchalearm continued opposing Thailand's military-backed government through posts on his satirical Facebook page. Several orders were issued for this arrest on account of his advocacy against military rule.

Wanchalearm disappeared on June 4, 2020, a few days after he posted a video criticizing Thailand’s prime minister. An investigative media report showed that he was abducted by armed men while buying food in front of his place of residence. He was able to call his sister, Sitanun Satsaksit, and his last words to her were “I can’t breathe,” before being cut off.

Wanchalearm’s case is linked to the disappearance of eight other exiled Thai activists in Laos and Vietnam. The dead bodies of two of the eight have been found; the whereabouts of the rest remain unknown. The alarming pattern points to the transnational repression targeting activists and critics of Thailand’s military and monarchy.

The pro-democracy movement that mobilized young activists in 2020 challenged the authorities to investigate the disappearance of Wanchalearm and other activists.

Three years later, Wanchalearm is still missing, but the campaign for justice continues. On June 1, 2023, his sister went to the Centre for Prevention of Torture and Enforced Disappearance at the Office of the Attorney General to file a complaint under the new Anti-Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act.

She told the media in 2021 that she was resolved to continue the search for her brother.

I don’t have a future anymore, but if I don’t fight, if I don’t do this, let me ask you—who is going to do it? Because no one can tell our story as well as us, and no one can tell our story every day. Reporters can only talk about it for no more than three days, so I have to talk about it myself.

During the 2023 Pride event in Bangkok, some activists carried posters bearing the face of Wanchalearm. Human rights advocates urged the incoming government of Thailand to conduct a new probe about the case.

Some officials of the Move Forward Party, which got the highest number of votes in the recent election, have vowed that the new government coalition will work for the return of Thai political refugees.

In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, young activists held a symbolic protest in the street where Wanchalearm was abducted to condemn the inaction of authorities.

Cambodian activist Mean Lisa expressed her disappointment in an interview with CambojaNews:

We don’t really expect that the government will take action or even the Thai embassy. But we just want to raise up, to show a picture to the public, to [show] people what the government is doing. There are so many unfair things that happen in Cambodia.

The group also staged a protest in front of the Thai embassy:

Over the past three years, Wanchalearm’s friends have consistently reminded the public about his legacy. Nuttigar, who is familiar with Wanchalearm’s advocacies, told the media about the importance of continuing the campaign for justice.

Don’t forget who he was. He was just a crazy, ordinary man that was seen as a threat by the state until they had to get rid of him — so don’t let there be a second, third or fourth Wanchalearm.

A video titled ‘Dear Disappeared’ is a letter written by the loved ones of Wanchalearm:

You are a symbol of bravery, hope, determination and strength. For those you left behind, you are a flame that cannot be extinguished. I hope you're safe. I hope you come back. And I promise you this, we will keep seeking the truth for as long as we live. Until we meet again…

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