Thai soldiers take away an alleged Red-Shirt protester ahead of a planned gathering in Bangkok in a May 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/ Manan Vatsyayana
Thai soldiers take away an alleged Red Shirt protester ahead of a planned gathering in Bangkok in a May 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/ Manan Vatsyayana

Wuthipong Kochathamakun, a prominent Thai activist opposed to military rule, was abducted in the Lao capital of Vientiane over the weekend after three years in self-imposed exile, according to rights groups that communicated with witnesses to the incident.

Wuthipong, popularly known as Ko Tee, has been one of Thailand’s ruling military junta’s loudest critics and represents the radical fringe of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) ‘Red Shirt’ movement affiliated with self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

According to reports, Wuthipong, his wife and a friend were confronted on the morning of July 29 by ten armed men wearing black balaclavas as they neared Wuthipong’s Vientiane based home. The masked men reportedly beat and shocked the three with stun guns, then handcuffed Wuthipong who was put into the back of a car and driven away.

His wife, who spoke to media after the attack, said the unknown assailants spoke to each other in Thai. Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart denied any knowledge of the abduction.

But Thawip Netniyom, chief of Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC), told local media today that Wuthipong could have faked his own disappearance to create a “buzz” that would “affect the government.” Lao officials have also denied any knowledge of the incident.

Wuthipong fled Thailand after the May 2014 coup that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, and installed a military junta that continues to rule the country with an iron fist.

Soldiers participate in a rehearsal for the funeral of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok, Thailand, July 6, 2017. Photo Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

The outspoken activist has been accused by Thai officials of promoting anti-monarchist sentiments, which are punishable by 15-year prison sentences under Thailand’s harsh lese majeste laws, including over an anti-junta radio station he allegedly operated in Laos. A warrant was issued for Wuthipong’s arrest on 21 charges relating to lese majeste.

Earlier in the year Wuthipong said that he was training “civilian warriors” in Laos, news agencies reported, sparking military fears of a possible rural-based insurgency opposed to its rule. Thailand’s northeastern regions bordering with Laos are known Red Shirt strongholds which have voted overwhelming for Thaksin and Yingluck.

Wuthipong later denied accusations made by the junta that he was hiding weapons and even plotting to kill Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. In March, Thai police say they uncovered dozens of guns and 5,000 rounds of ammunition when they raided his home in Pathum Thani, a province situated outside the national capital Bangkok.

“Wuthipong’s shocking abduction by armed men in Vientiane needs to be fully investigated; it should not be treated with silence or swept under the rug,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights advocacy group, said in a statement.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha talks to the media at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, Thailand, August 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

Prospects for a proper investigation are slim, however. A subsequent HRW report noted that while Laos has signed the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, it has failed to ratify it. The government has also failed to effectively tackle past disappearances of activists, HRW noted.

In June 2016, another Thai dissident, Itthipol Sukpaen, also went missing in Vientiane. His whereabouts are still unknown and the “Lao government failed to conduct a serious investigation,” HRW said in its statement.

The disappearance of the Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone, who went missing after being stopped at a police checkpoint in 2012, remains a source of controversy within the one-party state.

Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone (R) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu (L) on December 15, 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Shui-meng Ng

Because of strict censorship in Laos and restrictions on the media in Thailand, analysts and observers are left to speculate about who carried out Wuthipong’s abduction and why. Indeed, many have asked why after almost three years in self-imposed exile in Laos that Wuthipong was abducted just last week.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Japan, told Asia Times it is important to remember that “refugees in Laos are in conflict and competition all the time.”

“If the disappearance was not executed by the Thai junta, it could have been plotted by refugees of opposing gangs,” he said. However, he added that if the speculation is true that Thai authorities were behind Wuthipong’s abduction, then the junta is sending a clear message that the “lives of refugees in neighboring countries are not safe.”

“As the junta tightens its grip on power, it has continued to apply pressure on Laos and Cambodia over these refugees,” Pavin said. “The aim is to eliminate critics of the junta and monarchy. This is a part of a grand plan to eradicate enemies of the state in preparation for the upcoming election.”

The junta has promised to hold elections in 2018, after the funeral of deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej and coronation of new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. It’s not clear those polls, if indeed held, will allow various politicians affiliated with Thaksin and Yingluck’s Peua Thai party to run.

Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn is seen paying respects at the statue of King Rama I earlier this year. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Certain Red Shirt activists have warned of possible violence when the verdict of deposed premier Yingluck’s trial for criminal negligence in a loss-making rice subsidy scheme she oversaw while in power is handed down on August 25. Yingluck faces up to ten years in jail and the Thai baht equivalent of a US$1 billion dollar fine if found guilty.

“With each day that passes without the Thai junta acknowledging their role in his abduction, I fear it becomes ever more likely that he has been ‘disappeared’,” said James Buchanan, senior research associate at the City University of Hong Kong.

“Networks matter in Thailand and it seems that Wuthipong’s perceived radicalism has left him somewhat isolated among those who sympathize with the Red Shirts back home. This might have exposed him to more danger than the others in exile, who still have some backing and support in influential circles in Thailand,” he added.

Ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets supporters as she arrives at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, July 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Thai officials are known to have pressured their Lao counterparts to extradite Wuthipong since October last year. Early last month The Nation, an English-language Thai newspaper, quoted the NSC’s Thawip saying that there had been “no progress” in getting the Lao government’s cooperation.

The Bangkok Post, another English-language daily, reported the same week that Thai intelligence suspected Wuthipong was ready to move to Cambodia because “Thai authorities sought cooperation from Vientiane to search for him and crack down on his group’s activities.

That’s led to speculation among analysts that Wuthipong might have been abducted by Thai officials with the Lao government’s knowledge.

Because of strict censorship in Laos and restrictions on the media in Thailand, analysts and observers are left to speculate about who carried out Wuthipong’s abduction and why

“He could easily have been abducted by undercover Thai agents working without the knowledge or approval of the Lao government. The similar language certainly allows them to operate in the country more easily than they can elsewhere,” said academic Buchanan.

“On the other hand, it’s possible that what happened is the result of a deal between the Thai junta and some branch or other of the Lao state. I imagine if some such deal was reached, then it would result in the type of abduction we saw with [Wuthipong] as opposed to a more formal legal extradition.”

The arrest of a major Lao drug trafficker, Xaysana Keopimpha, at a Bangkok airport in January reportedly came after a five-month joint investigation by Thai and Lao authorities. That may have set the stage for Wuthipong’s cross-border abduction in a country now notorious for disappearing dissidents and activists.

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