Activists need protection

Thailand's already battered human rights record has fallen another notch following reports of the mysterious disappearance of three activists accused of lese majeste while in exile in Vietnam.

Last week, Human Rights Watch raised concerns over the fate of Chucheep Chiwasut, who is known by the nom de guerre of "Loong [uncle] Sanam Luang", and fellow activists Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai, who were reportedly turned over to Thai authorities by Vietnam on Wednesday. There are reports that the three had been detained in Vietnam for a month before being deported to Thailand.

Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement: "Vietnam's alleged secret forced return to Thailand of three prominent activists should set off alarm bells in the international community."

It was the US-based Thai Alliance for Human Rights which broke the news of the disappearances.

Chucheep, who has long faced lese majeste charges, kept broadcasting political and anti-monarchy commentary while in exile in Vietnam. Siam was charged in accordance with Section 112 for acting in a performance of The Wolf's Bride, which was held to commemorate the Oct 14 uprising in 2013. He fled the country in the following years after his co-actors were thrown in jail for lese majeste.

The two activists, together with Kritsana, were accused of sedition under Section 116.

A show of indifference by state authorities over these reports has caused anxiety among human rights advocates. Kanya Theerawut, the mother of Siam, who tried to file a complaint with the Crime Suppression Division over her son's disappearance, said the agency turned down her request since it "has not received any reports about him being deported". Yesterday, she sought help from the National Human Rights Commission.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon denied the three activists were in state custody. But neither the deputy premier nor the police have expressed enthusiasm in following up the case.

The disappearance of the three followed the brutal murders of two exiled critics of the military and the royal family in January.

The bodies of Chatcharn Buppawan, 56, also known as Sahai Phuchana, and Kraidej Luelert, 46, who had been living in hiding in Laos, were fished out of the Mekong River near the border. The killers had stuffed their stomachs with concrete, apparently to make the bodies sink.

Another activist, Surachai Danwattananusorn, who had taken refuge in Laos, disappeared in December. There are rumours that he too has been found dead. Mr Surachai, 78, a former member of the Communist Party of Thailand, had been jailed for lese majeste in 2012 but received a royal pardon in 2013. He then travelled to Laos where he operated an online radio station critical of the junta and the monarchy.

Nearly half a year after the two murder cases in Laos came to light, there has been no progress in the investigation. Coupled with the disappearance of Chucheep and his fellow activists, the country's human rights record has certainly dimmed.

The government has moral obligations to handle the case in a manner that is up to international standards. In 2017, the regime put human rights on the national agenda. It must keep to its word by clarifying the matter and properly investigating these cases.

No matter how serious the charges are that these critics may face, they deserve fair legal treatment, with their rights protected.

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