The suspected kidnapping of a Thai activist in exile in Cambodia earlier this month has triggered a series of protests and debate in Thailand.
As soon as it became known that Mr Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, was seized on the street in front of his apartment in Phnom Penh and bundled into a vehicle on June 4, Twitter users in Thailand have demanded answers with the hashtag #SaveWanchalearm, which was retweeted a million times within 24 hours.
In the latest in a series of small protests since June 5, up to 30 people gathered in front of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok on Monday, chanting “Save Wanchale-arm” and accusing the Thai authorities of being involved in his disappearance. They demanded his body be sent back to Thailand for a funeral if he is dead.
Cambodian police said last week it has launched an investigation into the activist’s disappearance.
Another group of protesters later put up pieces of paper with the caption “Missing”, featuring photos of Mr Wanchalearm and the names of other Thais believed to have been victims of enforced disappearances in other countries in South-east Asia in recent years.
Dozens of Thai anti-military and anti-monarchy dissidents have fled the country after the 2014 coup. Two of them were found dead in Mekong river in Thailand in January last year after living in exile in Laos. Their bodies were found stuffed with concrete blocks.
Mr Wanchalearm, who has been charged with computer crimes for allegedly administering an anti-government Facebook page, was not the first Thai activist in exile in other South-east Asian countries believed to have been abducted.
But it was the first time the disappearance of a Thai activist abroad has been widely discussed in mainstream Thai society.
Over the past year, more Thais have turned to Twitter to openly discuss political issues and sensitive ones like the monarchy, even in the light of harsh lese majeste and computer crime penalties, thanks to the anonymity the site provides.
“The fact that there were witnesses to this very brazen daylight abduction and CCTV of the getaway vehicle also means people could see what happened, making them more likely to react than in the other cases where the abduction happened mysteriously,” said Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
A few Thai celebrities who went on social media demanding answers, and questioning if Thais need to live in fear, have received both praise from supporters of the #SaveWanchalearm movement and backlash from hardline royalists and sceptics of the incident.
ON PHONE CALL WHEN ABDUCTED
I was on a call with him when it happened. There is evidence we chatted.
MS SITANUN SATSAKSIT, Mr Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s older sister, on her last phone call with her brother.
CCTV OF GETAWAY VEHICLE
The fact that there were witnesses to this very brazen daylight abduction and CCTV of the getaway vehicle also means people could see what happened, making them more likely to react than in the other cases where the abduction happened mysteriously.
MR PHIL ROBERTSON, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
In a telephone interview with The Straits Times, Mr Wanchalearm’s older sister, Ms Sitanun Satsaksit, recounted her last phone call with him right at the moment he was taken.
“I was on a call with him when it happened. There is evidence we chatted. I can confirm it was enforced disappearance,” said the Thailand-based businesswoman.
“I feel disheartened. I don’t know who we are fighting. I don’t know if he’s still alive,” she added tearfully.
Ms Sitanun, 47, heard a loud bang that she initially thought was a car crash. She heard voices in Cambodian and her brother saying “Argh, I can’t breathe” for 30 minutes before the line was cut off.
She said she talked to her brother a few times on the phone every day.
She had asked her contacts in Cambodia to check on his case but warned them to stop investigations if they felt they were in danger. “Let my brother be the last one,” she said.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said last week he did not know who Mr Wanchalearm was and why he had fled. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Mr Wanchalearm was neither a security threat nor a political refugee recognised by the United Nations and Bangkok can only wait for Phnom Penh to finish its investigation.