An art installation featuring a man made of plaster buried upside down in a steel drum on display at a protest in Bangkok on Feb. 22 in testament to the way Christian ethnic minority activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen’s body was disposed of by his murderers in 2014. (Photo: UCA News)
Hundreds of young Thais gathered on Feb. 22 outside a cultural center in downtown Bangkok to demand greater rights for their country’s ethnic minorities in memory of a Christian minority rights activist who was murdered in 2014.
Unintimidated by a heavy police presence, several young pro-democracy activists, including university students, held rousing speeches and conducted singalongs calling for justice for Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, an ethnic Karen rights activist.
They carried signs that read “Save minorities” and “No expropriation of minority land without the consent of the people.”
The centerpiece of the protest was an art installation featuring a man made of plaster buried upside down in a steel drum in testament to the way Porlajee’s body was disposed of by his murderers.
“Billy was a fighter and we cannot let his fight [die down]. We need to keep fighting on his behalf,” a 21-year-old Catholic who studies at an international college in Bangkok told a UCA News reporter.
“Look how many people have gathered here today. This shows he hasn’t been forgotten,” she added.
Porlajee, a father of five who was then 30 years old, disappeared in April 2014 in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province.
He was last seen at a checkpoint set up by Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, the park’s then chief, and some of his men who later said they had detained the Karen man for collecting wild honey illegally in a protected forest reserve. They said they shortly released him unharmed.
Several years later, bone fragments belonging to the Christian man were found inside an oil drum in the reservoir of a dam near the office of the park. It is widely believed that Chaiwat and some of his men murdered Porlajee for leading a publicity campaign against them.
Porlajee had been campaigning against the planned evacuation of Christian Karen villagers from their ancestral land inside protected forests where they have lived for generations. He had accused officials of harassing villagers and seeking to drive them away by force.
In 2011, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn ordered soldiers and forest rangers to torch the bamboo huts and rice barns of the indigenous locals, whom they accused of running drugs from Myanmar and supporting a separatist Karen militia in the neighboring country.
In response, Porlajee launched a publicity campaign against the officials, who allegedly threatened to kill him. Before his disappearance he told his wife, Pinnapa Prueksapan, that he might soon be murdered.
“He told me: ‘The people involved in this aren’t happy with me. They say that if they find me they will kill me. If I do disappear, don’t come looking for me. Don’t wonder where I have gone. They will probably have killed me,’” Pinnapa recalled years later.
To this day, Porlajee’s group of Christian Karens in the village of Bang Kloi are under pressure from authorities who want to see the indigenous forest dwellers gone from the protected reserve, citing the need for wildlife conservation as a reason.
“Under the forest law written by the forest authorities, all forest land in the country is under their sole control,” a columnist for the Bangkok Post explained.
Indigenous people like the Karen Christians in the Kaeng Krachan National Park “are punished by law [with] eviction, arrest and imprisonment. The result is great suffering,” she added.
Despite all the available evidence, the Office of the Attorney-General has failed to press a murder charge against Chaiwat and his alleged accomplices, saying there was a lack of evidence.
“Thailand is a land of injustice,” a young protester participating in the rally on Feb. 23 told UCA News. “Powerful people can kill someone like Billy and nothing will happen to them.”