Thai Dissidents Disappear Or Turn Up Dead, Even After Escaping Nation
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Thailand's new king was formally crowned this month, and the ruling military junta has put a priority on protecting his image. It is jailing citizens who defame, insult or threaten the monarchy. As Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok, Thai dissidents may not find safety even when they flee the country.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Sixty-four-year-old Tanya Tirawut’s son Siam fled to Laos shortly after the coup after running afoul of the military. But the two stayed in touch via social media until a few months ago when he went quiet. Two weeks ago, she heard from activists that he and two other dissidents had been forcibly returned to Thailand after trying to enter Vietnam on false passports. She hasn't heard anything since but fears the worst.
TANYA TIRAWUT: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "Yes," she says, "I think all three of them are dead." They wouldn't be the first. Two years ago, at least two Thai dissidents were forcibly disappeared while living in Laos and then there was this grisly discovery just a few months back.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: In January, Thai television showed pictures of the bodies of two antimonarchists on the Thai side of the Mekong River. They'd disappeared in the Lao capital a month earlier, along with another prominent activist. The dead men's hands and feet were bound with rope. They'd been disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.
SUNAI PHASUK: Thai authorities and Lao authority in the beginning totally deny knowledge of their disappearances. It took a long time for them to confirm that those were the bodies of missing activists.
SULLIVAN: And even after they did, says Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch, the authorities offered no assurances of a proper investigation, which surprised him not at all.
PHASUK: Human Rights Watch has seen paper evidence, even official requests from Thai goverment to the Lao government of names that the Thai want the Lao's authority to help arresting and handing them over. And these names include those who have gone missing, those who have been murdered.
SULLIVAN: Despite this, Thai authorities deny having any role in the disappearances of any Thai activists, including the three allegedly returned to Thailand from Vietnam earlier this month.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Thai).
PRAWIT WONGSUWAN: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: Deputy prime minister and former general Prawit Wongsuwan says the government has no idea what's become of the three. The Vietnamese government isn't talking either - not surprising given that a Vietnamese blogger who applied for refugee status at the U.N. in Bangkok disappeared right after filing his application in January. He turned up a few days later in jail in Hanoi. Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk says there seems to be a quid pro quo among Southeast Asian governments these days to help each other hunt down asylum-seekers.
PHASUK: Enforced disappearances of dissidents and critics of governments in fact routine in Vietnam and Thailand, but now it has reached a new level of danger for activists.
SULLIVAN: Activists like Nithiwat Wannasiri of the folk group Fai Yen currently in hiding with two other band members who also fled after the coup and have written songs critical of both the military and the monarchy.
NITHIWAT WANNASIRI: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: Nithiwat says he's sure they'll be targeted next. "We're on their list," he says. "We just have to stay alert and try to be ready if they come." Sixty-four-year-old Tanya Tirawut is pretty sure they already came for her son, Siam. All she wants is closure.
TIRAWUT: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: "I can't get any answer," she says. "If someone took your son, how would you feel? Is he dead or not? Just give me an answer," she says. "I need an answer." For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.