Journalist likely abducted by Vietnamese secret agents in Bangkok, friends say

Duong Van Thai

A journalist and blogger from Vietnam who fled to Thailand from political persecution in 2018 is believed to have been abducted from Bangkok last week by Vietnamese secret agents, friends say. Vietnamese authorities have confirmed that Duong Van Thai is now in their custody, according to Radio Free Asia.

Duong Van Thai, also known as Thai Van Duong, became uncontactable on Thursday, April 13 after leaving his rented home in Bangkok to pick up a friend from the airport. He went missing just hours after a meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who recognised his status as a refugee, reports say.

Police in Ha Ting province in Vietnam reported on Sunday, April 16, that they found Duang Van Thai – born in 1982 – illegally entering Vietnam via a natural channel through Laos, which his friends believe is highly unlikely.

The 41 year old journalist fled to Thailand in 2018 in fear of being arrested in Vietnam for his many posts and videos posted on social media that criticised the Communist Party of Vietnam.

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Since then, Duong has lived in Bangkok and applied for refugee status with the United Nations refugee agency in the city. Hours before going missing, the blogger completed an interview with UNHCR, a friend said.

Neighbours said that Duong left his house, around 11am on Thursday, April 13, on his motorbike. That day, he livestreamed for about 20 minutes on YouTube, talking about last week’s trial of blogger Nguyen Lan Thang and the US Secretary of State’s visit to Vietnam.

Calls and messages to Duong’s WhatsApp went unanswered later that day and he did not answer the door to his house on Friday, April 14. His friends say it is likely that Duong was captured by Vietnamese security forces and imprisoned in Vietnam.

Duong recently published content on his YouTube channel critical of Vietnam’s industrial policy, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and the country’s finance minister.

Yesterday, Senior Southeast Asia Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Shawn Crispin said…

“Vietnamese authorities must immediately release journalist Duong Van Thai and disclose the exact details of his detention.

“Vietnam has a history of targetting journalists living in exile. Thai authorities should thoroughly and transparently investigate the circumstances of his disappearance in Bangkok and ensure that members of the press are not targeted for their work.”

Radio Free Asia reports that the case is similar to that of blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who was kidnapped by Vietnam’s security forces while applying for refugee status in Bangkok in 2019. Two months later he showed up in Vietnam and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “abusing his position of authority.”

Two of Truong Duy Nhat’s associates told CPJ that they believe Duong was abducted by Vietnamese agents working with Thai authorities.

Vietnamese-American human rights activist and friend of Duong, Grace Bui, visited Duong’s home on Monday, reports BenarNews

“Inside his room, everything looks normal just like Duong has just gotten up in the morning and gone out for a quick walk. 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 UNHCR to people who have refugee status and are waiting to be resettled in a third country.

In English and Thai, the card reads…

“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.”

From the inspection of his room, it doesn’t appear at all that Duong was prepared to take an arduous and illegal journey through Laos to return to Vietnam where he faces a heavy prison sentence for his outward political dissent. His friends say he expressed having no intention of ever returning to Vietnam.

A Vietnamese refugee in Thailand, Nguyen Xuan Kim, said that around two weeks before his disappearance, Duong expressed feelings of insecurity after posting videos about politics in Vietnam online.

Duong told Kim that on April 6, a man driving a motorbike with a Chiang Rai number plate arrived at his house and took photos and videos. He spoke Thai, but not fluently, Duong told his friend.

Amnesty International expressed concern over Duong’s arrest in Vietnam, given that the UNHCR recognised his refugee status…

“Vietnam 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.”

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Leah is a translator and news writer for the Thaiger. Leah studied East Asian Religions and Thai Studies at the University of Leeds and Chiang Mai University. Leah covers crime, politics, environment, human rights, entertainment, travel and culture in Thailand and southeast Asia.