(Bangkok) – Thai authorities should fully and fairly prosecute all those responsible for the murder of a prominent ethnic Karen environmental activist in 2014, Human Rights Watch said today.
On August 15, 2022, the Attorney General’s Office formally notified the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) of its decision to indict four park officials accused of abducting and murdering Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in April 2014. The charges include illegal confinement, premeditated murder, and concealing the victim’s body.
“Thai officials have long hindered justice for Billy through cover-ups and exploitation of legal loopholes,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities can right this wrong by ensuring that the attorney general’s decision to indict four officials moves promptly to an effective and fair prosecution.”
Billy was last seen on April 17, 2014, in the custody of Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, then-head of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, and his staff. The park officials said they released him after questioning him briefly and had no information regarding his whereabouts. On September 3, 2019, DSI officials announced that his remains had been found in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Chaiwit was among the four indicted.
Pinnapa Prueksapan, Billy’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that she hoped there would be answers to basic questions, such as who had abducted and killed her husband, and who had obstructed justice.
Thailand is obligated under international human rights treaties to which it is a party to investigate and appropriately prosecute enforced disappearance, torture, custodial deaths, and other alleged human rights violations. In addition, in September 2019, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha ordered the Department of Special Investigation to ensure that the case was watertight so the culprits could be brought to justice, regardless of their rank or position.
However, the investigation has suffered from a cover-up, Human Rights Watch said. Despite a long list of allegations against Chaiwat for serious abuses and misconduct during his tenure as head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, he has never been held to account.
In addition, Thai law does yet not recognize enforced disappearances as a crime. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged Prime Minister Prayut and his government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012, and make enforced disappearance a criminal offense.
Chaiwat and his staff arrested Billy on April 17, 2014, for alleged illegal possession of a wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey.
At the time of his enforced disappearance, he was traveling to meet with ethnic Karen villagers and activists in preparation for an upcoming court hearing in the villagers’ lawsuit against Chaiwat and the National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
The villagers alleged in the lawsuit that, in July 2011, park authorities had burned and destroyed the houses and property of more than 20 Karen families in the Bangkloy Bon village. Billy was also preparing to submit a petition about this case to Thailand’s monarch. When he was arrested, he was carrying case files and related documents with him. Those files have never been recovered.
In September 2014, Police Region 7 officers filed malfeasance charges under article 157 of the penal code against Chaiwat and three other park officials for unlawfully detaining him. The other suspects named in the case are Boontaen Bussarakham, Thanaseth or Pitoon Chaemthes, and Krissanapong Jitthes. The DSI found traces of human blood in a vehicle belonging to the park office, but was not able to verify if the blood belonged to Billy because the vehicle was cleaned before forensic experts could examine it.
On September 3, 2019, the DSI announced that his remains had been found in Kaeng Krachan National Park, where he was last seen in custody of the park officials. The investigation team found an oil barrel, its lid, two steel rods, a burned wooden piece, and two bones at the bottom of the reservoir on April 26, 2019.
The Central Institute of Forensic Science subsequently confirmed the genetic trace of one of the bones found inside the barrel matched Billy’s mother. The investigation team then concluded it was part of his remains. The condition of this piece of human skull, which was burned, cracked, and shrunk due to exposure to heat of 200 to 300 degrees Celsius, suggests the killers burned his body to conceal the crime.
“The indictment of Chaiwat and other park officials is an important step for justice for Billy and all those whom Thai government officials have forcibly disappeared and killed,” Pearson said. “Thai authorities should recognize that they can’t escape being held accountable for the most heinous crimes.”