Joseph steps off the subway train onto Bangkok’s Chatuchak metro station platform. As the 29-year-old Laotian refugee exits to the street above he notices two men trailing behind him.
Both men are carrying large suitcases that seem light to the touch as they lift them easily on to the escalator, Joseph* recalls.
He had recently read about the hit squad that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Istanbul and stuffed his remains into a suitcase. The killers then fled Turkey, where it all went down, without a trace.
Terrified, Joseph rushes into the street and hides behind a large electrical box. He watches the men talk to each other before quickly searching the surrounding area and departing.
Several other political activists and dissidents from neighbouring Mekong countries who have fled to Bangkok seeking asylum have felt that same fear as Joseph.
Some human rights advocates in Thailand have begun to call the capital a “hunting ground” as repressive regimes search Bangkok streets or its detention facilities to find and forcibly repatriate their nationals, whether or not they’re registered as refugees or awaiting refugee status from the UN.
This violates the international legal principle of non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.
Following September 11 in 2001, the United States’ “War on Terror” was brought to the region as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up and operated its first “black site” in Thailand, where terrorism suspects were brought for “enhanced interrogation.”
“After that, the door was left wide open,” says Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok.
The current CIA director Gina Haspel ran the site in northeast Thailand, where suspects were allegedly tortured.
“I thought Bangkok would be a safe place since there are so many human rights groups here. I was wrong.”
In an attempt to replicate the US activities, Thai authorities have been accused by rights groups of using the same tactics and are alleged to have allowed foreign agents to monitor and surveil dissidents seeking asylum in Bangkok and its environs.
A Thai police spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.
But it is the story of five missing Thai Republicans and two of their bodies discovered dead and mutilated in the Mekong River in December 2018 that has exposed a sinister connection between Thailand and its neighbouring countries.
Thai folk band Fai Yen was hiding in the Laos capital Vientiane following the gruesome deaths of these known Thai anti-monarchists.
The band had fled Thailand to Laos in the aftermath of the 2014 Thai military coup under the increasing threat of Article 112, the nation’s lese-majeste law, which has been used to jail critical voices. But soon after their exodus, Fai Yen began to fear they were targeted for execution like their compatriots.
An international response called #SaveFaiyen was launched on social media. They received asylum from the French government and await refugee status.
“I Thought Bangkok Would Be Safe”
Those who have fled to Thailand—once considered a safe haven—from countries in the Mekong region have faced similar threats.
In 2018, Cambodian translator Rath Rott Mony was arrested by Thai police in Bangkok and deported to Phnom Penh where he was sentenced to two years in jail over a televised film he worked on about child sexual exploitation.
In 2019, Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat was awaiting a hearing with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok but disappeared from a shopping mall and turned up last March in a Hanoi courtroom facing trial.
Nhat was sentenced in March 2020 to 10 years in jail for fraud.
It is suspected by Nhat’s family and associates in Thailand that Vietnamese security agents forcibly repatriated him with the help of local authorities.
About 5,000 urban asylum seekers and refugees from more than 40 countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, were in Thailand last year, UNHCR says. Due to protection concerns, UNHCR declined to provide the exact number of those fleeing persecution to Thailand from neighbouring countries.
Many asylum seekers and registered refugees in Bangkok still live in fear of arrest, detention and possible deportation from Thailand. But now they have the added fear of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killing.
“This issue creates a chilling effect. … The families need to receive information on the whereabouts of their loved ones who’ve disappeared.”
Groups like Asylum Access Thailand are able to provide support to asylum seekers to access and apply for refugee status with the UNHCR office in Bangkok.
Becoming a UN-registered refugee is the only official way to find resettlement to a third country like France. But as Joseph attests, it does nothing to quell the fear he has felt every day since arriving in Thailand two years ago.
Joseph has had to move apartments several times in Bangkok because of threats to his life, which he believes came from Thai and Laos authorities. He fled Laos in 2018 across the border to Thailand.
Joseph remembered how six years earlier, Laotian community development worker Sombath Somphone disappeared from the same streets of Vientiane where he was hiding.
Sombath has never been seen or heard from since. The Laotian government denies it had anything to do with the disappearance despite video evidence proving police involvement.
Once in Thailand, Joseph made his way by car from Nong Khai on the Laos-Thailand border to Bangkok.
“I thought Bangkok would be a safe place since there are so many human rights groups here. I was wrong. I realised being in Thailand wasn’t as easy as I had been told,” he says.
“Information on Those Who’ve Disappeared”
Od Sayavong was a UN-registered refugee in Bangkok awaiting resettlement to a third country when he suddenly disappeared from the city late last year.
Od’s whereabouts are still unknown. But increased cooperation between the Thai and Laos authorities, plus repeated violations of non-refoulement, have led many rights groups to fear the worst.
Thailand never signed the UN Refugee Convention and does not guarantee any protection to refugees and asylum seekers. But with the help of the UNHCR, the Thai government will begin a national screening mechanism this year to help identify refugees.
Chanmony is a UN-registered refugee from Cambodia. She fled from Phnom Penh to Bangkok last year after receiving threats to her life for participating in protests.
“I came to Bangkok because I thought my son and I would be safe. But now I realise we’re not,” she says. “Police have come looking for me. But I don’t answer the door.”
Under Thailand’s national screening mechanism, all UN-registered refugees must register with the Thai government.
But for those seeking asylum from Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia, the Thai government could still consider them economic migrants searching for work, rather than potential refugees fleeing persecution at home.
For asylum seekers and registered UN refugees in today’s Thailand, there’s no guaranteed protection from non-refoulement, or enforced disappearance.
This year, civil society groups renewed calls for the Thai and Laos governments to investigate enforced disappearances on both sides of the Mekong River.
“This issue creates a chilling effect. We have to work regionally. The families need to receive information on the whereabouts of their loved ones who’ve disappeared,” says Piyanut Kotsan, Thailand country director of Amnesty International.
Draft legislation called the Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act has yet to be signed into law by Thailand’s parliament. This would allow authorities to hold those last seen with the victim accountable.
The legislation could possibly help Thai authorities in their case to find Od, the missing Laotian refugee.
“Neighbours Doing the Same Thing”
Piyanut from Amnesty spoke about enforced disappearances at the annual Amnesty International Human Rights in Asia Pacific Review of 2019, held in Bangkok earlier this year.
The Amnesty report highlights human rights in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, but Laos did not receive a mention.
Joseph knows the feeling of being forgotten. Besides the lack of progress by Thai police on Od’s case, his friend inside Laos, Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison shortly after Od’s disappearance.
Muay was convicted of violating a law against spreading “anti-state propaganda.” She had shared a 17-minute Facebook Live video drawing attention to the Laotian government’s inaction in communities affected by flooding in the south of the country.
“People should care more about Laos. We all need to work together,” says Emilie Pradichit, director of Manushya Foundation, a rights group based in Bangkok.
Muay is a 31-year-old mother who worked as a tour guide. She was supporting her parents before she was jailed for speaking out against the government in Laos.
“I feel guilty about Muay’s arrest because I encouraged her to continue her work. I was working with her and saying we need to stand up and denounce human rights violations in Laos,” Joseph says.
Joseph and other Laotian refugees have teamed up with Thai political activists to form a new group called Humanity Beyond Borders. This group seeks to assist those fleeing from repressive regimes in the Mekong region.
To kick off, they have launched the #FreeMuay campaign on social media to highlight Muay’s case and the need for international pressure on Laos to release her from prison.
They are hoping it could be successful like #SaveFaiyen was for the Thai folk band.
But for asylum seekers and registered UN refugees like Joseph and Chanmony in today’s Thailand, there’s no guaranteed protection from non-refoulement, or enforced disappearance.
Sunai at Human Rights Watch believes international action will not be forthcoming due to the deteriorating human rights situation in Thailand that has taken place over the last two decades.
“If we want to look at the precedent that has been set we need to look at the way that Thailand collaborated with the Americans. Other countries followed suit,” he says.
“The Thai government granted permission to the Americans to carry out this rendition [program] and the Chinese are doing it. Now our neighbours, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians and the Lao are doing the same thing.”
*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.