By Kay Johnson and Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Protests flared in Bangkok on Monday against the suspected kidnapping of a Thai activist in Cambodia which has reignited protests against Thailand’s military-royalist elite, with some online questioning a law banning criticism of the monarchy.
Small student protests over the banning of a youth-oriented opposition party had bubbled up before the coronavirus pandemic, but were stopped by government restrictions during the health crisis.
Now anger is building again around Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, a previously little-known activist who fled Thailand following a 2014 coup.
Wanchalearm was abducted by unknown gunmen on Thursday in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where he had lived to escape criminal charges for criticising the former Thai junta.
Dozens of protesters outside the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok demanded an investigation into the disappearance and accused the Thai state of orchestrating his kidnapping, which Thailand’s police and government have denied.
“I want the Thai government to protect people who are living abroad whether they are political exiles or not,” said protester Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree.
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters he had no information on the case but that Thailand would discuss it with Cambodian authorities.
“This case is their matter,” he said.
Cambodia’s government and police were not available for comment. They had previously denied knowledge of the incident.
At the weekend, posters labelled “Missing” appeared around Bangkok featuring photos of Wanchalearm and other critics of military governments who have disappeared in past decades.
The posters were the work of the Spring Movement, a small group of students at Bangkok’s elite Chulalongkorn University, group member Pun Thongsai told Reuters.
“After Wanchalearm disappeared, we wanted to do something beyond online,” said Pun, 26, a maths graduate. “We do not know who directly ordered the abduction, but we can see the ruling elite of this country does not care about this issue.”
In recent years, at least eight Thai activists who fled after a 2014 military coup have disappeared (https://www.reuters.com/article/thailand-rights-exiles/rpt-insight-thai-exiles-in-fear-after-murders-and-disappearances-idUSL4N230193) from Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, with the bodies of two of them later found floating in the Mekong River.
Wanchalearm was speaking on his mobile phone to his elder sister, Sitanun Satsaksit, on Thursday, she said.
The line was abruptly cut and after 20 minutes of frantic calls, she was told by a friend that her brother had been kidnapped from the street.
In a sign that the incident had stirred rare open questioning of the Thai monarchy as well as the government, the hashtag “#abolish112” trended on Thai-language Twitter, used or retweeted more than 450,000 times by midday on Monday.
It was an apparent reference to Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, which makes it illegal to insult the royal family and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Any questioning of the monarchy’s sacrosanct position was once rare in the traditionalist Buddhist society.
Several of the missing dissidents had been accused of violating Article 112, but Thai officials denied that Wanchalearm faced lese majeste charges and his sister said he was not an anti-monarchist.
“The palace has no comment on this issue,” an official there said.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Nick Macfie)