Justice Missing: A woman’s search for her abducted brother leads to legal trouble

When Sitanan Satsaksit’s brother was ripped away from his phone in broad daylight she knew it would probably be the last time she’d hear his voice. 

It was June 4 last year when she was speaking to her brother, Wanchalearm, a prominent government critic. But as they were talking, a group of unidentified men violently forced Wanchalearm into a van in Phnom Penh, Cambodia breaking the call and separating the two siblings forever.  

Today, the activist is presumed dead. Yet he has since become a symbol of revolution. But in a move to suppress his influence even in death, the authorities are now trying to silence Sitanan too. 

“I knew I had to do something,” Sitsanun told Thai Enquirer. “ I knew from the beginning that this would be an immense struggle. Because I knew what I was fighting against.”

On 20 October, police charged Sitanan for violating the emergency decree when she gave a speech against torture and enforced disappearances at a rally on Sept. 5. Her legal team told Thai Enquirer that they will fight the charges by submitting a petition on Monday to the prosecution’s office to investigate her case further before they proceed. 

Yet Sitanan feels this was just a matter of time. 

Since Wanchalearm’s disappearance, she’s made it her mission to pursue justice for her brother and others like him. She has joined the families of other disappeared activists in the hope of bringing attention to what she says is a glaring problem with enforced disappearance. 

In Thailand, anti-monarchy critics of the powerful institution have been disappearing in concerning numbers. Nine dissidents, including Wanchalearm, have disappeared since June of 2014. Two of those eight men were brutally murdered, a grim discovery in late 2019 on the banks of the Mekong.

Torture and enforced disappearance have long plagued Thailand. However, most of the known cases have gone unresolved. Rights groups have routinely flagged that Thailand has international obligations to criminalize torture and enforced disappearance as they are a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Local rights organizations like Cross Cultural Foundation, (CrCF) say it has documented around 100 cases of enforced disappearance since 1992, while the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances has reported at least 91 cases of enforced disappearances since 1980. 

One of Sitanan’s lawyers, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet from the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), a Thai rights group that documents torture and abuse in police custody, says that it’s an all too familiar problem where the state uses legal tools to bulwark campaigns they see as a threat.

“The issue is these kinds of malicious charges delay the campaigns that they are working on,” Pornpen told Thai Enquirer. “They intentionally take energy and time away from our campaigns to focus on the charges. So we don’t have the capacity to deal with the charges and everything involved in preparing our own campaigns. It’s a technique they have been using for some time now.” 

She said her team will argue that Sitsanan was simply exercising her right to speak to the public and call for justice. But she wishes this case would have received the kind of international attention that it would have just a year ago. 

“Embassies, the international community are very quiet on many things now,” Pornpen said. “Also with Penguin, Mike, Anon, [their detention] have not been addressed by the international community like they were last time,” she said referring to the prominent anti-government activists who have been behind bars for months for breaking royal defamation laws.  

But even in the face of serious legal charges, Sitanan seems emboldened to continue campaigning. 

“When my brother went missing, I started thinking about this deeply,” she said. “ I knew it would cause me a lot of issues.  But now I feel like I have nothing to lose. The younger generation in this country still has a future,  so we can’t let this keep happening. They need to know that they can’t keep doing this.” 

But not only have these new charges put a stop to her campaign against enforced disappearances, but they have also slowed down her own search for the truth. Since day one of her brother’s disappearance, she has been forced to lead up her own investigation into his whereabouts. Sitanan says the state has taken little to no action in finding out what happened to him. 

When she went to the Ministry of Justice looking for assistance, they did not help her. When that failed, she went to the Department of Special Investigations to hand over evidence she collected when she visited Phnom Penh looking for answers last year. She showed government investigators bank statements, CCTV footage, and a Cambodian passport that she says belonged to Wanchalearm.

“But they just kept asking me if I had proper evidence,” Sitanan said.  “I even asked them, ‘do you really believe this is not evidence?’” 

Instead of helping her search for answers, the authorities have gone in the other direction. 

In a twist, on September 16,  the Thai parliament unanimously approved the first reading of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill, a new piece of legislation that would finally outlaw enforced disappearances and other forms of torture. 

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement that the Thai government should move to pass the law immediately. 

“The government and parliament should now urgently work together to make sure that this much-awaited law is drafted in line with international standards and adopted as soon as possible,” Adams said. “For families waiting for answers for years about their missing loved ones, and those permanently scarred by their experiences of torture, every day without a law is one day too many.”

It’s unclear whether or not Sitanan will have to face time if the prosecutors find her guilty of the allegations. But even as these legal charges hang over her head, she doesn’t intend to slow down. For her, her activism is ultimately about forcing the public to be aware that political kidnappings happen. She doesn’t want other families to know the pain of having a loved one suddenly vanish. 

“It’s not about bravery, eight people were missing before this and the ninth is my brother,” she said. “So if we don’t protect each other this will keep happening.” 

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