Tibor Krausz, Bangkok
Updated: September 13, 2019 05:58 AM GMT
Musicians play at a commemorative event in Bangkok for Porlajee 'Billy' Rakchongcharoen, a young Karen activist who was murdered in 2014 over his activism for his disenfranchised tribespeople. (Photo by Tibor Krausz)
Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, an ethnic Karen rights activist, disappeared without a trace on April 17, 2014, in Thailand’s Phetchaburi province.
The Christian man, then aged 30, was arrested at a checkpoint inside Kaeng Krachan National Park. He was detained by Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, the park’s superintendent, and four of the park’s employees.
The officials accused him of having harvested wild honey illegally in the protected forest. They later said they had released Porlajee the same day and were unaware of his whereabouts.
Last week the rights activist finally reappeared — or rather, what is left of him did.
Small bone fragments, which were discovered recently inside an oil drum where a person’s remains had been burned, proved on forensic examination to belong to the Karen man. The drum was recovered from the reservoir of a dam near a suspension bridge by experts from a Bangkok university during an underwater search.
The father of five was most likely murdered before his corpse was burned in the oil drum in an effort to dispose of evidence for the crime.
That Porlajee was murdered has come as no surprise to residents in the small hamlet of Pong Luk Bang Kloy where he lived. The activist was a thorn in the side of local officials by campaigning relentlessly for the rights of Christian villagers within the national park which they call home.
Porlajee was campaigning against the planned evacuation of Karen villagers from protected local forests where they have lived for generations. He had accused officials of harassing villagers and destroying some of their homes in a bid to drive them away from their ancestral land.
In 2011 the young activist spearheaded a move to file a lawsuit against Chaiwat, alleging that the official had overseen the burning of village homes, along with the forceful evacuation of 20 families from the area.
Last year the villagers won financial compensation from Chaiwat but were not allowed to resettle in the area from where they had been evicted because they lack ownership rights of the land.
“No one is surprised by this [new revelation] that Billy was murdered,” an ethnic Karen man who asked not to be named told ucanews.com in an interview over social media. “We knew all along he didn’t just go missing or into hiding,” he added. “We knew who did it.”
Yet the news of the gruesome discovery has still rattled Porlajee’s wife, Pinnapa Prueksapan. “How could they do this to Billy? Are these people still humans?” she asked tearfully in an interview with Thai media.
Enforced disappearances not outlawed in Thailand
Last week a group of ethnic Karen people, who held a news conference in Bangkok, called on authorities to solve Porlajee’s murder and bring the culprits to justice.
“We demand the state and relevant authorities accelerate their efforts in bringing the offenders to trial as soon as possible,” they said in a prepared statement.
The country’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), which is handling the case, has promised to wrap up its investigation soon. In previous years, however, the DSI dragged its feet over the disappearance of the Karen activist, which has raised concerns that the case may never be officially solved.
In the past decades dozens of anti-government critics and rights activists have disappeared under suspicious circumstances in Thailand. Since 1980 there have been at least 86 unsolved cases of alleged enforced disappearances in the country, according to a United Nations Working Group.
Enforced disappearances have not been outlawed in Thailand. Despite promises to do so, the country has so far failed to enact proper legislation in line with its commitment to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which it signed in January 2012.
“By its inaction, Thailand has allowed a shocking blind spot to prevail in its legislation,” Piyanut Kotsan, director of Amnesty International Thailand, said in a statement. “The result is that Thai citizens may be tortured, or subject to enforced disappearance, while authorities are not fully equipped to pursue those responsible,” she added.
Thai authorities, Piyanut stressed, must “stop their delaying tactics and fulfil their promise to make enforced disappearance a crime under national law.”
Cold, hard proof that Porlajee was brutally murdered has brought renewed attention to the culture of official impunity in Thailand.
It has also highlighted the plight of the Karen community in Kaeng Krachan National Park, which is Thailand’s largest national park and is situated in the country’s western part on the border with Myanmar.
For years Karen villagers have been fighting for the right to stay in their ancestral forests that have been declared protected areas by the government.
“For generations we have been living here in these rich forests,” Porlajee said in a video available online before his enforced disappearance. “Then our traditional lands were turned into protected areas. But we don’t destroy these forests. We protect them.”
Yet ethnic minorities living in protected forests are often seen by officials as squatters with no legal right to stay there. Many villagers have refused resettlement offers.
Shifting the blame
A senior official at the Department of National Parks who asked to remain unnamed stressed that some villages can pose threats to wildlife conservation efforts.
“It’s a sensitive issue. Some villagers hunt protected animals illegally, which can undermine wildlife conservation,” he told ucanews.com. “We are trying to educate them about the need to protect forests and engage them in wildlife conservation. We have had some success in that.”
Ethnic minority activists have rejected such arguments as groundless. If anything, they say, it’s often officials who abuse their power and deplete natural resources through illegal means such as logging.
Some prominent commentators agree.
“To legitimize [their] oppression, forest dwellers and local communities are portrayed as destroyers and national security threats,” Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist for the Bangkok Post newspaper, argued in a recent op-ed.
“By doing so, forest authorities shift the blame for deforestation to the forest poor while the key destroyers — widespread corruption in the organization and top-down state projects, such as forest clearance to counter the southern insurgency, logging, road construction, mining, tree plantations and dams — remain untouched,” she added.
Chaiwat, who has since been promoted despite being embroiled in several controversies and court cases, reportedly owns a palatial mansion made of wood in the local forest.
“We just want to return to our forest home and simple way of living,” Ko-ee Mimee, a Karen elder and Porlajee’s grandfather, pleaded after his grandson’s disappearance.
The elderly man never got the chance to see that happen or learn what happened to his grandson. He died last year.
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