Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Sister of Missing Thai Activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit Pens Letter to Biden

Sitanun Satsaksit, sister of missing Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, speaks to the media in December 2020 in front of the Mekong Gardens building, near where her brother was allegedly abducted in June 2020. CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan
Sitanun Satsaksit, sister of missing Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, speaks to the media in December 2020 in front of the Mekong Gardens building, near where her brother was allegedly abducted in June 2020. CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan

The sister of missing Thai government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit has written to U.S. President Joe Biden, calling on him to raise Wanchalearm’s disappearance from Phnom Penh with Cambodian officials while the president is in the capital for the Asean summit.

In a letter to Biden dated November 8, Sitanun Satsaksit says she remains concerned about her brother’s fate, while the Cambodian government “fails to conduct an effective investigation” into the “enforced disappearance case.”

She calls on Biden to bring up Wanchalearm’s disappearance to the Cambodian government during the Asean summit, and help provide truth and justice to her family, citing Cambodia’s obligation to comply with the U.N. convention on enforced disappearances and investigate alleged cases.

Biden met with Hun Sen on Saturday, urging the premier to “reopen civic and political space” before next year’s elections, and “called for the release of activists detained on politically motivated charges,” including jailed Cambodian-American Seng Theary, according to a White House statement.

The summit, which concludes Sunday, is taking place at the Sokha hotel in Chroy Changva district, a five-minute drive from the Mekong Gardens condominium complex where Wanchalearm was allegedly abducted by armed men on June 4, 2020. He and other Thai dissidents, who fled Thailand for fear of political reprisals, were living at Mekong Gardens under the patronage of a senior Cambodian government official, according to a local news report.

Part of the incident was captured on CCTV footage and observed by anonymous eyewitnesses.

“I myself also overheard part of the abduction as I was on the phone with him at the time,” Sitanun writes in her letter. She has said she heard Wanchalearm say “I can’t breathe” before the line went dead.

Sitanun says she and her lawyers began investigating what happened to her brother, seeking justice with both Cambodian and Thai authorities. But she has received no specific answers from various Thai government agencies, and one year after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned her to provide more information about Wanchalearm’s disappearance, Sitanun says the judge told her lawyer “the evidence we gave could not lead to anywhere, leaving…Wanchalearm’s fate still unknown until today.”

Sam Chamroern, Sitanun’s attorney, said her case was still pending at the court, but no progress had been made in the investigation.

“The investigating judge has ordered police to research the entry visa of Wanchalearm [earlier this year] and currently there is no response,” he said.

Cambodian officials have repeatedly raised doubts that Wanchalearm was in Cambodia at the time of his disappearance, with some saying he didn’t have a valid visa at the time. He did, however, have a Cambodian passport with a Khmer alias, according to Sitanun.

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun requested CamboJA send him questions on Sunday but did not respond as of writing. Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak could not be reached, but he told VOD and Prachatai in July that “there are no new leads” in the case and that local law enforcement had “already lost the trail.”

But news reports and communications between the U.N. and the Cambodian and Thai governments point to various paths for potential investigation, including evidence that Wanchalearm lived in Phnom Penh, had close relations with Cambodian and Thai political elites and helped other Thai dissidents who fled their country following the 2014 coup in Thailand.

Since June 2020, the U.N. has pressed Cambodia and Thailand to investigate Wanchalearm’s disappearance and share information about his fate and whereabouts.

Asked about what the U.N. could do to uncover what happened to Wanchalearm and hold his alleged abductors accountable, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday said the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council existed “to investigate such situations when they occur.”

Speaking with reporters at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, after having met with survivors and touring the former Khmer Rouge prison, Guterres did not elaborate on Wanchalearm’s case.

“Obviously, there are numerous violations of human rights in many parts of the world, but I think that here we need to pay respect to the memory of [those killed],” he said.

Two other family members of Thai dissidents — Chatchan Buppawan, whose body was found in the Mekong River in 2018 in Thailand, and Siam Theerawut, who went missing in 2018 and whose fate is unknown — wrote similar letters to Biden.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Bangkok-based human rights organization Cross Cultural Foundation, which has assisted the families of missing Thai activists, said Sitanun and other relatives hoped their letters to Biden would raise questions during the Asean summit and encourage Asean leaders to recognize the importance of these cases.

“The relatives want to know the truth,” and don’t want disappearances to continue, she said.

In Wanchalearm’s case, despite Sitanun and her lawyers presenting photos, account numbers, and names of witnesses and suspects to government bodies, Pornpen said authorities had not collected evidence or called for witnesses to testify.

“We think authorities must conduct a proper and independent investigation to prove their political will,” she said, noting Thailand’s recent passage of an anti-torture and enforced disappearance law.

“Now Thailand has criminalised enforced disappearance so we will not give up,” she added.

Sitanun has said she will also keep seeking the truth about her brother, but in her letter to Biden she expressed concern that Wanchalearm could be forgotten.

“Even though [his] case sparks the fire in the pro-democracy movement that rises in the past few years [in Thailand], it seems like the silence is growing and that the memory about what happened to my brother would fade away while our family are still suffering from the culture of impunity and left behind in the painful past.”