Ann Norman is a member and former executive director of the Thai Alliance for Human Rights
Thai police have confirmed that two of the three bodies recently found floating in the Mekong River were those of anti-government activists Gasalong and Puchana, assistants to Surachai Danwattananusorn, a prominent critic of the Thai junta and monarchy. (Gasalong and Puchana are known only by their one-name pseudonyms.) All three men were living in Laos and were last seen on Dec. 11. Two weeks later, the two men’s mutilated corpses, wrapped up like mummies, were pulled out of the river. A third body was found and then suspiciously “lost.” It is suspected to be Surachai’s. The killers had tied the men’s hands behind their backs, smashed in their faces and disemboweled them, stuffing their bodies with cement.
The disappearance of the three Thai political refugees in Laos brings the total to five in three years. There are 40 to 50 active dissidents (and some 200 altogether) living in Laos.
Many Thai political dissidents flee to Laos because the language there is similar to Thai. Surachai was one of many regime critics in exile producing YouTube shows skewering the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general who seized power in a coup in 2014, as well as the corrupt and oppressive Thai monarchy.
When Surachai, Gasalong and Puchana disappeared, their friends were not immediately aware they had met with foul play. The reason: Lao officials told all the exiles to hide before the arrival of Prayuth, who was on his way to Laos for an official visit. Rumors flew that Prayuth might be bringing a death squad targeting “lèse majesté suspects” (those accused under Thailand’s notorious laws against insulting the monarchy).
After Prayuth’s departure, the exiles returned to their homes – but not Surachai, Gasalong and Puchana. An investigation of Surachai’s house turned up ominous signs: Essentials had been left behind, including his escape bag and medicines that he needed to take every day. His friends and family were immediately afraid something bad had happened. Indeed, before his disappearance, Surachai had told his wife there was a $300,000 price on his head.
This case is similar to that of Wuthipong Kachathamakul, who was kidnapped and presumably assassinated in Laos on July 29, 2017, just one day after the birthday of the new Thai king. The rumor among the Thai dissidents was that Wuthipong’s murder was King Vajiralongkorn’s present to himself. Wuthipong was tied up and tasered, and the last words heard from him were “I can’t breathe” – eerily reminiscent of Jamal Khashoggi, whose recent assassination by a Saudi hit squad shocked the world. Wuthipong had complained on his YouTube show that he was being “hunted by the king’s servants.”
One year earlier, on June 22, 2016, yet another anti-monarchist in Laos, Itthipol Sukpan, a 28-year-old pro-democracy broadcaster known as DJ Zunho, was snatched from his motorcycle by unknown assailants and pulled into the woods, leaving behind just one shoe. He was never seen again. Everyone, including his family, believes he is dead.
It is no longer plausible that these are random killings. The five men had all worked on one another’s shows. Notably, Surachai and Wuthipong had both collaborated with a sixth anti-monarchist in Laos, Chucheap Chewasut. On Dec. 8, Chucheap’s nonpolitical wife and son were kidnapped by soldiers in Thailand and held for five days – a period that overlapped with the disappearance of the three regime critics in Laos.
Thai political refugees in Laos and around the world are experiencing increased pressure in the lead-up to the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn, which is scheduled for May. The Thai junta does not need exiled Thai broadcasters reminding hundreds of thousands of listeners of the strange and cruel character of the new king. And speaking of disappeared persons, Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, the ex-Princess Srirasmi, has not been seen in public since their divorce in 2014. The official story is that she is under house arrest. Perhaps someone should go check.
My organization, which works to defend Thai dissidents within their homeland and abroad, demands justice for the five men brutally murdered in exile. We urge the Laotian authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide emergency protection for the Thai refugees in Laos, both men and women, who are receiving credible death threats. And finally, Thailand must end the unconscionable lèse majesté law, which underpins a system of terror.