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Murder on the Mekong: Why exiled Thai dissidents are abducted and killed

The Thai leadership is blamed for the deaths and disappearances of activists in the buildup to the first elections in eight years

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen  /  The Observer

Illustration: Lance Liu

In the early evening of Dec. 12 last year, in an area of Laos thick with jungle, Surachai Danwattananusorn sat down for sticky rice dessert with the gardener.

For the previous two years, this remote spot is where Surachai — Thailand’s most outspoken political exile, with a 10 million baht (US$315,505) bounty on his head — had lived, in hiding from the Thai authorities.

At 78, Surachai still remained as much of a firebrand activist as when he was among the dozens of Thai republicans and anti-military activists who fled to Laos in the aftermath of the 2014 military coup.

Formerly the head of the Thai communists who led guerrilla warfare in the 1970s and 1980s, Surachai is Thailand’s most notorious dissident. He was a political prisoner until 1996 and later became a leader in Thailand’s pro-democracy Red Shirt movement, before being jailed again under the nation’s notoriously draconian lese-majeste law, which prevents any criticism of the monarchy and carries a 15-year prison sentence.

He was eventually pardoned and finally freed in 2013.

However, less than a year later, as democracy collapsed in Thailand and the military took over, Surachai was labeled an enemy of the state and fled to safety in Laos. It is here that he had stayed ever since, moving around every year or so to avoid discovery and living off donations from supporters.

“Surachai lived for politics and believed in sacrificing everything for your beliefs, even dying for them,” said Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a close friend he met while they were both serving time as political prisoners.

Every Tuesday, from the safety of his hideout in Laos just 30km from the Thai border, Surachai would broadcast videos on his YouTube channel to his thousands of followers. These were incendiary in the eyes of the military regime, filled with ragingly anti-military and anti-monarchy sentiment, and were often a call-to-arms for revolution and the overthrow of the junta.

From time to time, the two other Thai dissidents who lived with Surachai in exile — Chatcharn Buppawan, 56 (known as Puchana) and Kraidej Luelert, 46 (known as Kasalong) — would also appear in these activist videos, all equally outspoken in their mutual loathing of the military regime.

On this particular December evening, after eating, Surachai headed into his small wooden house at 5pm. It would be the last time anyone saw him. A few hours later, at the unusually late hour of 2:31am, he read a message on his phone, though he did not reply. By the time morning broke, Surachai, Puchana and Kasalong had vanished without a trace.

About 13 days later, 300km away in a small Thai village on the banks of the Mekong River, which divides Thailand and Laos, fisherman Denchai Sornsai went down to check his nets. Caught among them was a large mass, wrapped in coarse rice bags and tied up with rope. This was not, as Denchai thought at first, discarded rubbish. This was a decaying human body, the first of two corpses that washed up on the Thai side of the Mekong in Nakhom Phanom Province in late December.

DNA tests carried out in January confirmed that the bodies belonged to dissidents Puchana and Kasalong. Their deaths had been brutal and deliberate; the bodies found disemboweled and stuffed with concrete posts, their legs broken and their hands handcuffed, as well as tied with rope at the neck, waist and knees and wrapped in several thick bags.

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