"Maybe he's still holding on," says Sitanun Satsaksit. "Maybe he's still waiting for me to come to him. I don't know how long it will take, or if he's still alive. I will do everything in my power to find answers."
Her brother was a vocal critic of Thailand’s government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led a military coup as the army chief in 2014. He lived in exile in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and was reportedly abducted outside his apartment in June last year. His case is the latest in a string of disappearances among political activists.
Many people in Thailand were first alerted to Satsaksit's situation through social media. When the news broke, the hashtag #SaveWanchalearm was trending with more than 500,000 Twitter posts. Since then, the concern has grown into a campaign that's part of the anti-government movement in Thailand.
"It's not the first time this has happened to someone who criticized the authorities. If it could happen to Wanchalearm, it can happen to anyone. And we have to put an end to this," one protester explains.
"I can't breathe."
CCTV footage from June 4, 2020 shows a black SUV speeding away on the road outside Wanchalearm's apartment. He was reportedly bundled into the vehicle by a group of armed men. Sitanun was on the phone with him at the time: "I heard a loud bang. At first, I thought he was in a car accident as he shouted, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe'," she recalls.
"Not a day has gone by that I haven't waited for his text messages. I also check his social media every day," says Sitanun, whose life is forever changed. From a woman who never paid much attention to politics, she is now one of the most prominent human right defenders in Thailand. Together with a team of lawyers and various organizations, Sitanun has embarked on a truth-finding mission.
Nine months and no answers
In December last year, Sitanun presented evidence to a Cambodian court that proves her brother was in Phnom Penh at the time of his alleged abduction. She is requesting further investigation.
Badar Farrukh, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), says two communications have been made to the Thai and Cambodian governments about Wanchalearm's disappearance, calling for prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations. Cambodia's government replied with a preliminary investigation denying every piece of information or evidence that the family has provided.
Sitanun submitted a petition to the Thai government in January. She has been told that her brother's case has been forwarded to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), supervised by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Sitanun was asked by authorities to present the evidence, but the DSI is yet to officially take the case.
Eight others missing
Wanchalearm is one of at least nine pro-democracy activists who have disappeared since the 2014 military coup in Thailand. In December 2018, the bodies of exiled dissidents Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej Luelert were found disemboweled and stuffed with concrete along the Mekong River border with Laos. They had gone into exile in the country in 2014 with Surachai Sae-Dan, a prominent political activist and critic of the Thai monarchy. Surachai disappeared at the same time as his two aides, but his fate remains unknown.
No safe place in Thailand
Activists from other Southeast Asian countries have sought refuge in Thailand, only to put themselves in danger. Od Sayavong was the leader of a pro-democracy movement called Free Lao who had been recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a refugee in Thailand. He vanished from his townhouse in Bangkok in August 2019, and has not been heard from since.
His fellow activist and refugee, Suea Saphachai, lives with constant anxiety. "I sometimes get threatening messages on my social media from people in Laos, saying I'm the only one left. Soon it will be my turn," says Suea. "After Od disappeared, I fear for my life. I keep moving from one apartment to another." Sue is currently seeking asylum in a third country.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has documented at least 1,301 unresolved cases in Southeast Asia. Teddy Baguilat Jr, the executive director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Parliamentarians for Human Rights, warns that the enforced disappearances are part of a disturbing trend.
"There seems to be a kind of collaboration between these autocratic regimes to help each other on silencing dissent all over the region," says Baguilat. "If nothing is done, there's no safe refuge for refugees or migrants, for political activists and dissidents, not just in their own country, but in other countries in the region."