Gruesome Laos deaths of Thai activists sends chill through dissident community in exile
July 12, 2020
Human Rights Watch has demanded an investigation into the horrific deaths of two Thai activists whose bodies were found stuffed with concrete in the Mekong river in Laos after they disappeared in December.
The suspicious deaths of Chatcharn Buppawan, 56, and Kraidej Luelert, 46, who were among dozens who fled Thailand after the 2014 military coup has sent a chill through the dissident community in exile.
The two men were known critics of the military and the royal family, and left their homeland under threat of arrest after the military assumed power.
The identification of their bodies coincided with the long-awaited announcement of the Thai general election, which will now be held on March 24.
The Thai army said on Wednesday it had no knowledge of the two exiled dissidents whose decomposed bodies were identified through DNA tests.
The two were close aides to political activist Surachai Danwattananusorn, 78, who has been operating online radio programmes critical of Thailand’s junta and monarchy from Laos.
The Thai government repeatedly demanded that Laos hand over Mr Surachai and all other Thai anti-monarchists, most recently when General Prayut Chan-ocha, the prime minister, visited Vientiane on December 13, said Human Rights Watch. Mr Surachai also disappeared last month and is still missing.
The police said the cause of death of the two activists, who were last seen in the Lao capital Vientiane on December 11, was unknown.
However, HRW claimed their hands and feet were bound and their faces smashed beyond recognition. They had both been disembowelled and injected with concrete.
“The Lao government seems intent on sweeping the abduction and gruesome murder of Thai activists under the rug,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director.
“Lao authorities need to credibly investigate and prosecute this heinous case, which has raised alarms for Thai activists in exile in Laos.”
The activists’ disappearance from Laos has prompted concerns among rights groups that critics of the Thai monarchy and army are being targeted in exile.
A military officer, however, dismissed any idea of army involvement in the disappearances, reported Reuters. “This group of people live outside of our area or responsibility, we could not do anything,” Lieutenant General Tharakorn Thamwinthorn, Second Army Region commander, told the media.
"They are in Laos for many years. We do not know whether they have any problem with people there or not,” he said.
The Thai military seized power in a 2014 coup to end weeks of political turmoil and street demonstrations. Dozens of politicians, university professors and political activists have fled Thailand since the coup.. Some have gained asylum in western countries, while the majority live in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
Many have been charged with Thailand’s tough lese-majeste laws, which can carry sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment for defaming, insulting or threatening members of the royal family.
“It is clear now that we are in danger,” Trairong Sinseubpol, 55, another Thai activist in exile told Reuters. “Things are now very different… Laos doesn’t look that safe.”
Human Rights Watch has documented the disappearance of two other activists in Laos, one in 2016 and the other in 2017.
“The Lao government has an obligation to find out what happened to Surachai and all other Thai activists who have gone missing in Laos,” said Mr Adams. “Foreign governments and donors should press the Lao government to take serious steps to investigate these cases and prosecute whomever is responsible.”