Wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, shorts and sandals, the man with the glasses whistled as he slid onto the saddle of his Fino motorbike, backed it away from his Bangkok rental home and rode off.
Those were the last images captured by the security camera of blogger Duong Van Thai. The camera screen showed the footage was recorded at 4:37 a.m. on April 13, 2023 – but the timestamp was almost certainly inaccurate.
The video showed Thai motoring away during daylight, and neighbors said he left home at around 11 a.m. on Thursday. Later that day, he live-streamed for about 20 minutes on his YouTube channel with nearly 120,000 followers. He talked about last week’s trial of blogger Nguyen Lan Thang and the U.S. secretary of state’s visit to Vietnam.
Calls to his mobile phone and messages on WhatsApp on Thursday afternoon went unanswered, several of his friends said, and he never returned home.
On Sunday, police in Vietnam’s northern province of Ha Tinh announced they had found a person without identification illegally entering the country via trails on its border with Laos. They confirmed that the person was named Duong Van Thai, born in 1982.
Duong Van Thai, also known as Thai Van Duong, had been applying for refugee status with the United Nations refugee agency’s office in Bangkok. Thailand for many decades has served as an informal safe haven for political refugees in the region.
The 41-year-old fled Vietnam in either 2018 or early 2019 fearing political persecution for his many blog posts and videos that criticized the government and leaders of the Communist Party on Facebook and YouTube.
Now it appears that he was abducted and forced to return to Vietnam.
‘Everything looks normal’ at rental home
Grace Bui, a Vietnamese American human rights activist living in Thailand, told Radio Free Asia that she and her friends went to Thai’s home on Monday.
“Inside his room, everything looks normal, just like Duong has just gotten up in the morning and gone out for a quick walk,” she said. “We found the bag he often carried when going out. His wallet was still in the bag, and his UN card and bank cards were still in the wallet. We found his laptop also.”
The UN card is a refugee card issued by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees office in Bangkok to people who have refugee status and are waiting to be resettled in a third country.
The back of refugee card has text in both English and Thai that reads as follows:
“The bearer of this card is related to UNHCR, registered and documented under the UN General Assembly’s authorization, and cannot be forced to return to their country of origin. All support to the bearer is highly appreciated.”
All the belongings in his room seemed to show that Thai was not prepared for a long trip back to Vietnam, where he faces a heavy sentence for his criticism against the government and the ruling Communist Party.
A close friend of Thai said that Thai had a stable life in Thailand and very much wanted to resettle in a third country. He had no plans to return to Vietnam, according to Hoang Trong Man, also known as Man Hien Phap.
“I would like to affirm that Mr. Duong Van Thai did not intend to return to Vietnam because if he had had such a plan, he would have told us and collected some belongings before he left,” he said.
Several of Thai’s friends told RFA that he had shared with them a piece of great news on Wednesday. He did an interview with UNHCR officials, who asked if he had any relatives in Australia. Thai replied that he wanted to resettle in the United States, where his girlfriend lived.
Bui, who was in regular contact with Thai before his disappearance, told RFA that it was very unlikely that Thai would return to Vietnam a day after doing an immigration interview with UNHCR.
“Duong [Thai] never intended to return to Vietnam, and if you ask Duong’s friends, you will know that he never wanted to go back to Vietnam,” she said.
Nguyen Xuan Kim, another Vietnamese refugee in Thailand and a close friend of Thai’s, said that around two weeks before going missing, he shared his feelings of insecurity just after he posted videos about political infighting in Vietnam.
“His recent posts referred to many senior officials of the Ministry of Public Security, about the general who had an extramarital affair,” Kim said. “He said briefly that he should be vigilant just in case but did not go into the specifics.”
Thai told Kim that one of his neighbors said that on April 6, a man riding a motorbike with a Chiang Rai provincial number plate approached Thai’s home to film and take photos. The man spoke Thai but with a strange accent, the neighbor told Kim.
Kim told RFA on Tuesday that Thai gave him access to his rental home’s security camera system, some social media accounts and some electronic devices. However, Kim said he hasn’t been able to access much of the data.
Who was involved?
A statement from Amnesty International’s regional office expressed concern over the information about Thai’s arrest in Vietnam, particularly given that the UNHCR had recognized his refugee status.
“Viet Nam keeps close tabs on dissidents and has in the past shown that it is not above tracking and surveilling them beyond its borders. Vietnamese refugees living in Thailand who fled the country because of the government’s repression must be protected and should not have to live in constant fear,” the group said in the statement sent to RFA on Tuesday.
RFA contacted UNHCR and its office in Thailand, as well as the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, via email to inquire about Thai’s case but hasn’t received a response.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, urged the Thai government to clarify Thai’s case.
“There are so many highly troubling questions about the abduction of Thai Van Duong, but what is not in dispute is he was living in Thailand as a UNHCR-recognized refugee entitled to full protection,” he said in an email to RFA on Tuesday.
“How he was forced from Thai soil to Vietnam, who was involved, and when and where did it happen are urgent matters that the Thai government must immediately investigate.”
Robertson said he fears that Thai’s case is yet another example that a so-called “swap mart” exists between Thailand and repressive neighboring countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
“It is very unlikely that Vietnam government agents could have just come into Thailand and snatched a dissident without some local Thai officials knowing about this, and agreeing to look the other way,” he said.
“Whoever did this clearly broke both Thai and international law that prohibits sending a person back to where they will face persecution, torture, and abuse, and there is no doubt all those things lie in the future for Thai Van Duong in the hands of the Vietnamese police,” he said. “There must be accountability to end this kind of hunting of refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand, starting with this case.”
Bui said representatives of international rights organizations in Bangkok have met in the past to discuss how to support and protect refugees in Thailand.
Thai Immigration Police and responsible agencies in Vietnam haven’t responded to RFA’s emails sent on Saturday requesting comment.
Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.