(New York) – The Lao government should urgently investigate the disappearance of three Thai political activists who were last seen in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 22, 2019, Thai authorities told Human Rights Watch that DNA samples from the bodies found in the Mekong River matched two of the missing activists, Phu Chana and Kasalong.
Prominent Thai anti-monarchist Surachai Danwattananusorn, 78, and two close aides, known as Phu Chana, 54, and Kasalong, 47, were last seen in Vientiane on December 11, 2018. Their colleagues promptly reported the disappearances to Lao authorities.
The identification of Phu Chana and Kasalong’s bodies, found on December 26 and 27 respectively, raised grave concerns for Surachai, Human Rights Watch said. The two bodies’ hands and feet were bound and their faces smashed beyond recognition. They also both had been disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.
“The Lao government seems intent on sweeping the abduction and gruesome murder of Thai activists under the rug,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Lao authorities need to credibly investigate and prosecute this heinous case, which has raised alarms for Thai activists in exile in Laos.”
Two days before the Thai military staged a coup and took power on May 22, 2014, Surachai fled to Laos to escape charges brought against him for lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) and accusations by the Thai military junta regarding his involvement with anti-government militia groups. While in Laos, Surachai, along with the other missing activists, operated online radio programs that strongly criticized military rule in Thailand and the Thai monarchy. The Thai government repeatedly demanded that Laos hand over Surachai and all other Thai anti-monarchists, most recently when Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha visited Vientiane on December 13.
The Lao government has not conducted serious investigations into previous disappearances of Thai anti-monarchists living in Vientiane, including Itthipol Sukpaen, missing since June 2016, and Wuthipong Kachathamakul, missing since July 2017, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not operate an office in Laos, which could offer protection to refugees. The Lao government also does not permit the regional UNHCR office based in Bangkok to provide protection for Thais who to flee to Laos to escape political persecution.
“The Lao government has an obligation to find out what happened to Surachai and all other Thai activists who have gone missing in Laos,” Adams said. “Foreign governments and donors should press the Lao government to take serious steps to investigate these cases and prosecute whomever is responsible.”