By: John Berthelsen

On August 26, a Laotian refugee and prominent critic of the Laotian government named Od Sayavong disappeared from his house in Bangkok and has never been seen since.

Od’s disappearance is the latest to raise red flags among human rights advocates across Asia that Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos have established a web of cooperation to ensnare political activists who have fled their own borders and send them back sans extradition proceedings to face torture and possible death.

In extreme cases, these countries allegedly have allowed activists to be murdered by foreign agents, according to Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Reuters bureau chief in Bangkok and author of “A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-first Century.” In particular, Marshall said, “Laos has allowed Thai special forces to kill at least eight people. This is yet another blow to democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law in the region.”

In January of this year, according to Amnesty International, a Vietnamese writer and dissident named Truong Duy Nhat, who had fled to Thailand, disappeared from a Bangkok shopping mall and later resurfaced in a Vietnamese jail.  

“The Vietnamese and Thai authorities need to come clean about why and how Nhat returned to Viet Nam so soon after he applied for asylum in Bangkok,” Amnesty International said in a printed statement. “There is a strong possibility that he was transferred to Vietnamese custody despite the real risk of serious human rights violations. Nhat is a journalist and a former prisoner of conscience who has already suffered greatly for peacefully expressing his political views. If he is being detained, he should be given immediate access to legal counsel and brought before a judge. Unless the Vietnamese authorities can show valid grounds to detain Nhat they must free him immediately.”

Nhat was later confirmed to be detained in Hanoi’s T-16 jail. Reuters, in a report about the case in March, said that human rights campaigners “have decried what they called increased cooperation in the forced return of refugees and asylum-seekers. Since last year, there have been at least eight cases of Southeast Asian governments being accused of either officially arresting, or cooperating in the abduction of, political refugees from fellow ASEAN countries.”

Marshall, who has become one of the foremost critics of the Thai government, cited the case of Chaloemsak Ruenmongkon, a sub-lieutenant in the Thai special forces who fled to Cambodia and then to Manila after he was suspected of being behind an anti-monarchy Facebook page. The authorities canceled his visa and passport. Chaloemsak is said to have disappeared shortly after arriving in Manila on April 6. Diplomatic sources told Marshall he left the Philippines and traveled to Malaysia, where he was believed to have been detained and taken back to Thailand. He is believed to have been beaten to death 

Following the coup that brought down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, many of the government officials fled for Cambodia and Laos to escape the clutches of the government, which almost immediately began “re-educating” her supporters. 

Most of those who subsequently disappeared were hardcore Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship and supporters of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a coup in 2006. The first two disappeared from Laos. Ittipon Sukpan, also known as DJ Sunho, went missing on June 2016. Wuthipong Kochathammakun, alias Kotee, also vanished without a trace on July 2017. 

Both were strident anti-junta and anti-monarchist figures and engaged in “underground” operations. Ittipon rose to fame after releasing a series of YouTube videos ferociously criticizing the Thai monarchy, a much-revered institution protected by the draconian lèse-majesté law. His colleague, Kotee, was also a fierce critic of the royal institution.

In December 2018, news of the disappearance of three more dissidents in Laos was widespread among Thai social media users. One of them was a prominent ex-communist and anti-monarchist, Surachai Danwattananuson. He went missing alongside two of his assistants, Kraidej Leulert and Chatchan Bubpawan. Surachai joined Thaksin’s party and set up the Red Siam movement in 2006. In 2011, he was imprisoned for lèse-majesté but received a royal pardon two years later before running away after the coup.

On Dec. 23, three bodies were found floating in the Mekong River at the Thai-Lao border. The autopsy of the first two bodies confirmed the identity of Kraidej and Chatchan. The third body that was found mysteriously disappeared. It was believed to have been Surachai’s.

In May of 2017, Turgay Karaman, a Turkish school principal, disappeared from Kuala Lumpur after Turkey allegedly ordered his arrest in a post-coup crackdown that saw more than 100,000 people detained. The school official was said to have been on his way to a meeting with lawyers when he was intercepted and bundled into a waiting car. According to local media, CCTV footage taken in an underground car park showed him being led away with his hands restrained behind his back.

In May of this year, Human Rights Watch condemned the forcible repatriation by Malaysian authorities of Thai asylum seeker Praphan Pipithanamporn to Thailand where she faced persecution for her peaceful political activities. Praphan, who was registered as an asylum seeker by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was repatriated in violation of Malaysia’s international legal obligations and detained by Thai authorities.

“Malaysia’s flouting of international law has placed a Thai activist at grave risk of arbitrary detention and an unjust prosecution in Thailand,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Malaysian authorities have an obligation to protect asylum seekers like Praphan from being forcibly returned to the risk of being persecuted for their peaceful political views.”

 As with Praphan, Adams demanded that Thai authorities urgently investigate Od’s disappearance and provide information on his whereabouts, which seems unlikely. Od is affiliated with the Free Lao group, a loose network of Lao migrant workers and activists in exile based in Bangkok and neighboring provinces who peacefully advocate for human rights and democracy in Laos. Od and other group members have occasionally held peaceful protests outside the Lao embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Bangkok. They have also organized human rights workshops for Lao migrant workers in Thailand.

“The Lao government has arbitrarily arrested and detained activists and those deemed critical of the government,” Adams said in a printed release. “The penal code effectively gives the authorities sweeping powers to prosecute dissidents. Harsh prison sentences range from up to 5 years for anti-government propaganda to 15 years for journalists who fail to file “constructive reports” or who seek to “obstruct” the work of the government.”

Thai authorities, Human Rights Watch said, “have frequently collaborated with foreign governments to harass, arbitrarily arrest, and forcibly return exiled dissidents in violation of international law. This has included people formally registered as persons of concern by the UN refugee agency. Some countries, including Laos, have allegedly reciprocated by turning a blind eye to the enforced disappearance and murder of Thai dissidents seeking asylum in their territory.”

Enforced disappearances are defined under international laws the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Thailand is obligated to investigate and appropriately prosecute enforced disappearance.

 “The Thai government’s deference to abusive neighbors has once again appeared to have taken priority over its legal obligations,” Adams said. “Thailand needs to reestablish itself as a place where refugees are safe and stop assisting abusive countries by returning their dissidents.”