About a month ago, two bodies surfaced on the Thai bank of the Mekong River, in the province of Nakhon Phanom. The bodies were handcuffed, disembowelled and stuffed with cement to weigh them down.
Rumours started spreading immediately that they may belong to two of the three Thai activists who disappeared from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on December 12, 2018. Last week the bodies were confirmed to belong to Chatchan “Phoo Chana” Boonphawal, 56, and Kraidet “Kasalong” Luelert, 47, close aides to more widely known republican activist Surachai Danwattananusorn, 76, who disappeared along with them and is still missing.
Whoever killed the activists was hoping that the cement in their stomachs would do its work and sink the bodies, and the memory of them, to the bottom of the river. Yet, as often happens, activists have a stubborn tendency to remain vocal, whether in life or in death.
A pattern of disappearances
The three men were not the first critics of the Thai monarchy to disappear under suspicious circumstances in Laos over the past two years. In June of 2016, Ittipon Sukpaen, aka DJ Sunho, went incommunicado at the outskirts of Vientiane, after he had risen to fame for a series of YouTube videos vocally criticising the monarchy and the ruling Thai military government.
A year later, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, 44, widely known as Ko Tee, the host of a famous anti-monarchic internet radio show, was abducted by 10 Thai-speaking men from his home in Vientiane, forced into a car and never seen again. Both of them had been accused, while in Thailand, of lese majesty – a charge directed at people who defame, insult, or threaten members of the Thai royal family that carries a prison sentence from 3 to 15 years. Both had fled the country to Laos after the Thai military took power in 2014. The similarities between their profiles and those of the three activists who were disappeared on December 12 are uncanny.
Surachai, Chatchan, and Kriadet have been vocal opponents of the Thai monarchy and members of Red Siam, a republican faction of the Red Shirts, the social movement that occupied a central commercial district in Bangkok in March 2010 and was dispersed by a military attack that left behind more than 90 dead nine weeks later. In 2011, Surachai was charged with lese majesty and condemned to 12 years and six months in jail, before being pardoned in October of 2013. Like the others, the three republicans ran away to Laos shortly after the 2014 coup and, since then, operated a number of popular online radio shows criticising Thai military and royal institution.
All five disappeared activists were adamant anti-monarchists, wanted in their homeland on charges of lese majesty. All five of them were refused refugee status in Europe, Japan, and Australia, despite continuous attempts. And all five refused to remain silent and used social media to amplify and disseminate their dissent from outside Thailand.
Many other activists with similar profiles are still in Laos and Cambodia, abandoned by an international community that refuses to see them as persons at risk because they already left their country.
Nonetheless, even though they are outside the official jurisdiction of Thai security forces, one question is keeping them up at night since the two bodies surfaced last week: Is there a Thai death squad operating abroad?
A new normal?
Thai authorities, as they have done for the previous two cases, deny any involvement in the forced disappearances of Surachai, Chatchan, and Kriadet. However, many signs point to an emerging agreement between Thailand and Laos on the fates of dissident Thai activists allegedly residing in Lagos.
Over the past four years, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha has demanded time and again that Laos hand back Thai political fugitives, especially those accused of lese majesty, apparently without much luck. Yet, in a visit to Bangkok in April 2018, Lt General Souvone Leuangbounmy, chief-of-staff of the Lao People’s Armed Forces, promised that his forces will help track down Thai activists who are believed to be in Laos.
Surachai, Chatchan, and Kriadet disappeared just three days before General Prayut’s official visit to Laos, during which the two prime ministers signed multiple memorandums of understanding concerning transport, education, natural resources and energy, vital for Laos’ growing economy.
While these may be just coincidences, among Thai political activists in exile there seems to be little doubt that the military government is somehow connected to the forced disappearances and that these brutal tactics are part of a new gameplan to silence dissidents, both inside and outside Thailand. Suda Rangkupan, a former professor of linguistics who fled after the coup, commented in a private Facebook communication that “these extrajudicial killings are replacing the use of lese majesty in this new royal regime”.
“Lese-majesty cases have been attracting too much attention, both internally and internationally,” she explained. “Instead of arresting us, killing us may be a better way to stop us from talking about regime change, republic, and freedom of speech.”
General Prayut’s regime is not new to “creative” forms of repression that aim at reducing national and international scrutiny while continuing to target activists. Especially since the effective rise to power of the new King Vajiralongkorn in 2017, the number of lese-majesty cases has decreased steadily – there were none in 2018. In their place, the Computer Crime Act and charges of sedition have been used extensively to silence anti-royalist activists without attracting the same international attention directed at lese majesty cases.
However, none of these measures works outside the national borders, from where activists like Surachai and Ko Tee broadcast their voices. Forced disappearance seem to provide the answer the Thai military government has been seeking, but this move may well backfire.
Bodies, over time, have a tendency to be found – sometimes even cement fails to keep them hidden, as last month’s incident proved. The question with which those swollen bodies haunt us is simple: How many more of them will need to pile up before we start paying attention?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.