This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The images on the 38-second video show only a knocked-over traffic cone, a parked car and some concrete paving – but the bursts of high-pitched screams from just off-camera are believed to have come from abducted Vietnamese blogger Thai Van Duong.
Thai vanished from the streets just north of Bangkok, in Thailand’s Pathum Thani province, on April 13. Activists went to the area several days later to search for clues, attempt to track down security video and interview witnesses who saw what they believed to be Thai’s kidnapping.
It was closed-circuit video from just down the street that captured Thai’s panicked shrieks, and it may be the best available depiction of the kidnapping, according to Vietnamese-American human rights activist Grace Bui.
One witness who was interviewed, who hadn’t seen the video, did an almost exact imitation of the screams – testimony that helped the activists confirm it was Thai’s cries in the video, Bui said.
“One guy told us that there were two white cars that blocked Thai Van Duong’s motorcycle – one in front and one in the back,” Bui said. “They stopped his motorcycle, and people jumped out and took him inside the car. And [the guy] mimicked the scream of Thai Van Duong exactly what we heard from the video.”
Thai, 41, fled to Thailand in 2019 fearing political persecution for his many posts and videos that criticized the Vietnamese government and leaders of the Communist Party on Facebook and YouTube. He had been applying for refugee status with the United Nations refugee agency’s office in Bangkok.
Friends realized he was missing on April 13 after calls to his mobile phone that afternoon went unanswered. On April 16, police in Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province said he had entered the country via trails on its border with Laos.
But Thai’s friends insist that he was likely kidnapped by Vietnamese security forces and brought back to Vietnam, where the government continues to arrest, convict and imprison dissidents and activists.
Facebook livestream in the park
Those friends – including Bui – have sought to retrace Thai’s steps on the day he disappeared. They’ve spoken to neighbors, people at a coffee shop and a friend he met in a park, and they’ve asked store owners and local authorities to hand over security video.
One video from his rented home north of Bangkok shows him casually getting on a motorbike outside his house at about 3:30 p.m. Other videos show him driving along nearby streets, then turning right at 3:39 p.m. outside his neighborhood’s gate.
Footage from a coffee shop at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi shows him standing at the front register buying coffee. Another video shows him driving through the university’s gate.
At 5:47 p.m., Thai appeared in a video live-streamed on Facebook. He talked about U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to Hanoi and the recent trial in Vietnam of another blogger.
“The Vietnamese Communist Party always propagates that ‘words go hand in hand with works’ – but they never do so,” he said. “On the day they welcome the U.S. secretary of state, they put Nguyen Lan Thang on trial.”
Thang was sentenced to six years in prison and two years of probation on April 12. He was a long-time contributor to RFA’s Vietnamese service and participated in many roundtable discussions with the BBC, which contained contents prosecutors said sabotaged or smeared the Vietnamese government.
Charging Thang under Article 117 of Vietnam’s criminal code – often used by authorities to suppress free speech on social media – contradicted the government’s claim that it values freedom, democracy, human rights and freedom of speech, Thai said in his livestream.
“Why is answering foreign media bad?” he said. “It is not bad to answer foreign media, and doesn’t have anything to do with ‘toppling the government.’”
‘Vanished at that time’
The video with the screams came from a security camera on Soi Lamphu Road and had a timestamp of 6:07 p.m. Several local people told Bui and other Vietnamese activists the same thing – that a person riding a motorbike was blocked by two cars, physically subdued and then taken away.
“Both Duong and his motorcycle vanished at that time,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Robertson went along with Bui and the other Vietnamese activists when they went to the street to look for witnesses.
Thai is being held in Ha Tinh province’s Huong Son district. Despite heavy news coverage of his arrest, police have not provided an update about his status.
Thailand for many decades has served as an informal safe haven for political refugees in the region. Robertson told RFA last week that he fears that Thai’s case is yet another example showing 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.
A missing persons complaint has been made to the Thayanaburi police station, which oversees the area where Thai was abducted, but police haven’t done much to follow up, Robertson said.
“A man was abducted in a community area in what can only be called a brazen, rights-abusing action, and the Thai authorities should get to the bottom of this matter and report what they find,” he said.