Authorities in Thailand have denied any involvement in mounting reports of disappearances and killings of Thais accused of lèse-majesté, while other activists and their relatives continue to live in fear, both at home and abroad.
“I thought my life was going to be calmer after going into exile, but no (...) I am afraid because my friends are disappearing”, said Yam Faiyen, a 33-year-old Thai woman who lives in exile after being accused of defaming Thailand’s monarchy.
Her fear is shared by another dissident who fled abroad, 32-year-old Nithiwat Wannasiri; both have requested help from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), so far unsuccessfully.
In 2014, when a military junta seized power after a coup d’etat, around 20 dissidents sought refuge in neighboring Laos to avoid punishment under the strict lèse-majesté law that hands down jail terms of between three and 15 years for critiques of the monarchy.
At least eight of them have been killed or have disappeared in the past two years; no perpetrators have been brought to justice.
On May 9, Kanya Theerawut was working at her family’s air conditioning repair shop when she received a video which said that her son, Siam Theerawut, had been detained along with another two dissidents who were trying to cross the border between Cambodia and Vietnam with fake Indonesian passports.
In the video, a spokesperson for the NGO Thai Alliance for Human Rights says that the Vietnamese authorities had handed the three activists, who allegedly used social media to criticize the military junta and the monarchy, over to Thailand.
But authorities in both countries have not made any official statement on the detentions, and Human Rights Watch and other groups believe the activists have disappeared.
“I want to ask the authorities not to kill them, that they believe that we all love our children”, Kanya told EFE in her home in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Siam fled to Laos in 2014 after an arrest warrant was issued for his participation in a play titled “The Wife of the Wolf”, which Thai authorities considered to be anti-monarchist.
Ever since, his mother says she rarely speaks to him; the last time she saw him was one or two years ago when she visited him in Laos.
Kanya is illiterate, but when she was sent the video, she began to mobilize friends and acquaintances to spread the news.
She also went to the Thai police to inquire about the whereabouts of her son, but she has yet to receive an answer.
A few days later, she took part in a demonstration outside the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok to demand an explanation and also called on the UN and the EU to help.
“I am very worried about my son’s life, because I do not know if they made it to Thailand or if someone has kidnapped or killed them”, Kanya said.
“He is a good person (...) he liked to study languages: English, Vietnamese, Cambodian…” she says of her son, who got a degree in political science at the University of Ramkhamhaeng in Bangkok. He is also a member of Faiyen, a politically rebellious music group, along with Nithiwat and Yam.
At her home, Kanya looks at photographs with great pride of Siam’s graduation in a room with her son’s books and portraits of Thai royals on the walls.
Kanya says she is afraid, but displays a poignant tenacity in finding her son or finding out if he has died.
Sources from the Thai defense ministry told EFE that they had no information on the cases, and that the government does not carry out kidnappings or assassinations of fugitives living abroad.
The commander of the Crime Suppression Division, Jirabhop Bhuridej, acknowledged that he was aware of the case but the disappeared "have not been arrested or handed over" to Thailand despite the fact that an arrest warrant was issued against them.
The disappearances of Thai dissidents in Laos began in 2016 with Ittipon Sukpaen, known as DJ Sunho; one year later the wife of Wuthipong Kachathamakul, an activist known as Ko Tee, saw strangers kidnap her husband. She has not heard anything since.
Three other dissidents - Surachai Danwattanananusorn, Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej Luelert - disappeared in Laos last December. The bodies of two of them were found disemboweled and filled with cement in the Mekong River that divides Laos and Thailand.