Porlajee 'Billy' Rakchongcharoen in Kaeng Krachan National Park. (Photo: BBC.com)
The strange case of a murdered Christian activist has taken another twist.
Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation has promised to look into a decision by prosecutors not to charge several national park officials suspected of killing Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen.
The ethnic Karen rights activist, then aged 30, was last seen alive in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in central Thailand on April 17, 2014, when he was arrested at a checkpoint by the park’s then chief and three of his men.
The officials later claimed they had detained Porlajee, a prominent minority rights campaigner, because he had been collecting wild honey in a protected forest reserve. They said they had later released him and were unsure of his whereabouts.
There was no proof of what happened to Porjalee until last September when searches conducted in a reservoir of a dam yielded several human bone fragments inside a steel drum under a bridge. A subsequent DNA test revealed the bones to be those of the missing activist.
Investigators concluded that he had been murdered and suspicion for the crime fell on the park’s former superintendent, Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, and his men.
Yet in January prosecutors dropped murder charges against Chaiwat and three other men. The prosecution recommended indicting them only on a charge of official misconduct for failing to hand the activist over to police after his detention.
The decision caused outrage in Thailand and was seen as an effort to get the alleged perpetrators off the hook for the murder of the rights activist, who came to prominence in 2011 after he filed a lawsuit against Chaiwat.
In the lawsuit Porjalee accused the park official of evicting several Karen families from their ancestral land inside the forest and burning their houses.
On June 25, Lt. Col. Korrawat Panprapakorn, director-general of the Department of Special Investigation, met Pinnapa Prueksapan, the activist’s widow, at her home in Phetchaburi and promised her that he would make sure justice would be served for her husband. He said he would review the prosecution’s decision.
Back in January, Pinnapa told BBC News that before his disappearance her husband had been fearing for his life because of his activism on behalf of dispossessed and disenfranchised Karen villagers.
“He told me: ‘The people involved in this aren’t happy with me. They say that if they find me they’ll kill me. If I do disappear, don’t come looking for me. Don’t wonder where I've gone. They’ll probably have killed me,’” Pinnapa said.
Yet despite the threat to his life, Porlajee felt obligated to carry on with his activism.
“[Billy] said to me: ‘When you’re doing the right thing, you have to keep fighting, even if it means you may lose your life,’” she recalled.
Right activists have been calling on Thai authorities to bring the murderers of the activist to justice.
“His death should not go unpunished,” Amnesty International stressed in a statement issued on the sixth anniversary of Porlajee’s disappearance in April.
“Lack of justice for Billy’s disappearance strongly highlights his family’s struggle with a cycle of violations, from forced eviction and destruction of their property in 2010 and 2011; death threats for seeking redress for these violations; his disappearance in 2014; and failure to provide his family with redress,” the rights group said.
“Authorities need to do more to remove obstacles his family have faced seeking justice — whether for redress for violations against his community, or for his disappearance.”