Thai junta deny involvement in dissident's Laos 'abduction'

BANGKOK: Thailand's junta on Tuesday denied involvement in the alleged disappearance of an outspoken monarchy critic from neighbouring Laos after reports emerged he was abducted by a group of armed men.

Wuthipong Kachathamakul, better known by his nickname Ko Tee, is a firebrand self-styled militant leader of the anti-junta "Red Shirt" movement and a vocal critic of Thailand's monarchy.

He fled after arch-royalist generals seized power in 2014, kicking out the Red Shirt-backed elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, and settled in Laos from where he berated the junta in a series of videos and radio broadcasts, often dressed in camouflage outfits.

Over the weekend reports emerged via supporters that Ko Tee was abducted by a group of Thai-speaking armed men from his home in Vientiane last Thursday.

The reports quoted his wife and a friend who said they were tied up, blindfolded, beaten and attacked with stun guns. Ko Tee has allegedly driven away while they were left behind.

The claims have not been independently verified and reporters have yet to speak to Ko Tee's wife or the friend to confirm their account.

But in a statement on Tuesday Human Rights Watch said the reports "raised grave concerns for his (Ko Tee's) safety" as they called on the Laos authorities to investigate.

As local media coverage of the abduction intensified, Thailand's military authorities on Tuesday denied any involvement and accused Ko Tee's network of spreading rumours.

"We have to investigate further as there are several reasons why he (Ko Tee) might just slip away to create news," General Thawip Netniyom, secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, told reporters.

He added that Thai authorities had "monitored" Ko Tee and his network in Laos and pushed for the communist authorities to extradite him. "But we haven't implemented any other measures than that," he said.

It is not the first time a junta critic has gone missing from Laos.

In June 2016 Ittipon Sukpaen, a less well-known dissident, disappeared from the outskirts of Vientiane and has not been seen since. His family have since said they believe he is dead.

The Laos capital lies just a few dozen metres from Thailand, on the opposite side of the Mekong river.

The communist nation has a complicated relationship with its southern neighbour, fuelled by decades of bad blood during the Cold War years when the two countries were on opposite sides of the ideological divide.

While there is some cooperation between law enforcement, Vientiane has so far resisted Bangkok's frequent calls to return dissidents and critics of the monarchy. — AFP