A Thai pro-democracy activist living in exile in Phnom Penh was allegedly abducted on June 4, according to Human Right Watch (HRW), with the group requesting that Cambodian authorities urgently investigate.
In a statement released June 5, the human rights group expressed deep concern for Wanchalearm’s safety. The activist and Thai government critic fled his home nation after the 2014 military coup and has since been living in exile in Cambodia, where he has continued to criticize the government on his social media pages.
“The abduction of a prominent Thai political activist on the streets of Phnom Penh demands an immediate response from Cambodian authorities,” Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW said in the statement. “The Cambodian government should urgently act to locate Wanchalearm and ensure his safety.”
The statement said that Wanchalearm had been seen being forced into a black car by a group of armed men at 5:54 p.m. on June 4 near his home. The witness accounts were corroborated by security footage from nearby apartment buildings, HRW added. Wanchalearm’s colleague was allegedly talking on the telephone with him at the time of the abduction and heard him scream, “Argh, I can’t breathe,” before the call dropped.
However, Cambodian officials said they have not received any reports of the incident and as such, are not planning to investigate.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said his officers did not know about the case, and that police couldn’t investigate simply because HRW had reported it, since the rights group was not a reliable source of information.
“If my office does not receive this information, we can’t do anything,” Kim Khoeun said. “But if the next day, we see information showing that it’s true, we will have to decide how to proceed.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that he had also not received any information of the disappearance.
When asked whether the ministry would investigate based on HRW’s report, Sopheak questioned where the information regarding the alleged abduction had come from.
“No one came to file a complaint and the Thai Embassy also did not take any action,” Sopheak said, adding that if the embassy had provided the Interior Ministry with a request to investigate, they would do so.
He requested that a representative of HRW meet with a ministry official to pass on information.
“If it is clear information, we will act on it,” Sopheak said.
He went on to add that if Adams visited Cambodia, he could risk imprisonment for spreading false information.
“If Mr. Brad Adams comes to Cambodia, he could be arrested because he has published disinformation,” Sopheak said.
In June 2018, Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wanchalearm, alleging that he violated the Computer-Related Crime Act due to a Facebook page that he operated that was critical of the Thai government, according to HRW. Senior Thai police officers said at the time that they would find a way to bring Wanchalearm back to Thailand.
HRW said Thailand has actively pursued dissidents who fled to nearby countries in 2014, demanding that Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia hand them over. At least eight of them have become victims of forced disappearances.
“The Cambodian government is obligated to find out what happened to Wanchalearm, who was taken away at gunpoint in Phnom Penh, and ensure he is safe,” HRW’s Adams said in the statement. “Foreign governments and donors should press the Cambodian government to take all necessary measures to find Wanchalearm or risk being complicit in his abduction.”
Social and political analyst Meas Nee also urged Cambodian authorities to investigate the situation regardless of whether they believe the reports to be true, since the incident occurred in Cambodia.
“If Cambodia denies the abduction and they do not investigate, it could affect Cambodia’s reputation,” Nee said.