Opinion: Wanchalearm case evokes ASEAN’s history as a dictator’s club

The Argentinians have a word for it. Los Desparecidos. Translated to English, it simply means the disappeared. During the height of the Videla dictatorship in Argentina, at least 6,000 people (up to 30,000 by some estimates) were ‘disappeared’ by the government for dissent or expressing a different political belief.

Many of those taken by the Videla government, it has been revealed, were tortured in government facilities in Buenos Aires and throughout the country before being killed. Many were killed on vuelos de la muerte (death flights), thrown alive from military planes into the Atlantic Ocean or the jungles of Argentina to leave behind no traces.

This episode in Argentinian history has become so etched in the national psyche that commemoration marches and calls for investigations still persist into the modern period.

Yet we now know that the Videla government did not act alone in suppressing its dissidents.

Rather, a regional effort by the autocratic governments of South America and backed by Henry Kissinger’s State Department carried out operations to murder leftist dissidents.

Now known as Operation Condor, the program included the cross-border kidnapping and assassination of dissidents with the tacit approval of each dictatorial regime. At its most brazen, Operation Condor carried out assassinations as far as the United States with the murder of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier (and vocal opponent of the Pinochet junta) in broad daylight in Washington DC being particularly noted.

ASEAN

Argentina is not the only place in the world where the term Los Desparecidos carries weight. Filipinos have also used the word to describe the dissidents that were kidnapped and murdered by the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.

The Philippines, like Argentina, also had regional help in pursuing and killing its dissidents.

Backed by the very same Henry Kissinger, the Marcos regime shared intelligence with the other dictatorships of the region on leftist movements that posed a threat to the status quo. Indonesia’s Suharto, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, the plethora of military dictators of Thailand all benefited from the American-backed intelligence sharing system and American military aid.

Eventually those countries would go on to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under the auspicious of “regional cooperation” with ‘non-interference’ as a founding philosophy.

Cooperation with non-interference characteristics

The reason that non-interference was essential to the founding members of ASEAN was because the clause allows the members of the bloc to suppress plurality and dissent within their own countries without the fear of criticism from its neighbours.

It is the reason that the dictatorships of the 70s and 80s got along so well. It is also why Ne Win’s successors were never called out in Myanmar (who joined ASEAN in 1997 with Laos) despite the bloc slowly transitioning to democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But the non-interference clause did not stop cooperation when it came to political dissidents. The members of ASEAN was free to help each other track down and report on the political refugees that had crossed borders or sought refuge. Whether it is the Hmong escaping Laos to Thailand or Islamists escaping authorities in the South of the Philippines to Indonesia and Malaysia.

This has manifested itself again in the case of Wanchalearm Satsakit, a Thai activist living in self-exile in Cambodia. Wanchalearm was disappeared last Thursday.

He is one of 13 Thai activists living in neighbouring countries that have been abducted by unknown actors since 2010.

It is likely that Thai security forces had some role in his disappearance. It is also unlikely that any Thai state-actor could operate freely in Cambodia without the knowledge of the Hun Sen government.

Once again, ASEAN has lived up to its history and its efficacy.

And once again, it is time to question the bloc’s purpose and its existence.

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