Thailand: Calls Mount for Probe into Disappearance of Karen Activist

Nontarat Phaicharoen
2016.04.11
Bangkok
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160411-TH-billy-1000 Supporters hold up posters of missing Karen activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen as they call for a fair investigation into his disappearance, April 7, 2016.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/Benar News

Nearly two years after an ethnic Karen land-rights activist known as Billy went missing in Thailand, friends, loved ones and activists are calling for a transparent investigation into his disappearance.

Porlajee Rakchongcharoen (a.k.a. Billy), who was 30 years old then, was last seen on April 17, 2014 near Kaeng Krachan National Park in Petch Buri province, 100 miles (161 km) south of Bangkok.

His wife, Pinapa Prueksawan, blamed the then-chief of the national park, Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, and three of his subordinates for detaining her husband who never returned home.

The next day, Billy was expected to testify as a witness for ethnic Karen farmers in a court case. He was helping Karen farmers who live in Pongluek-Bangkloy, a village near the national park, who were seeking compensation after park officials allegedly set fire to several homes in 2011.

Last week, rights activists went to the Bangkok headquarters of the Department of National Parks to present officials with a petition calling on its acting director to investigate whether any officials in the parks service were responsible for Billy’s disappearance.

“We seek the suspension of Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn,” said Pornpen Kongkajornkiat, director of the Thai NGO Cross-Cultural Foundation (CrCF), referring to an official who headed Kaeng Krachan National Park when Bill went missing. “We believe Chaiwat was involved in arresting Billy ….”

Pornpen joined other human rights advocates and ethnic Karen in handing the petition to officials on Thursday.

Ruengsak Teekasuk, an official at the department, said authorities were not ignoring the issue.

“I will forward the petition to the director. This issue has reached the court level. The department is not taking it lightly and is trying to give justice to all parties,” Ruengsak told the activists.

According to Pornpen, the department has established a committee to investigate Billy’s case, but it has not shared results with his relatives, the Karen community and the public.

The case has drawn international attention.

When Amnesty International in February released its latest annual report, “The State of The World’s Human Rights,” AI Secretary-General Salil Shetty  called on Thai authorities to investigate the cases of the alleged “enforced disappearances” of Billy and Somchai Neelapaijit, a lawyer from Thailand’s restive Deep South who vanished from a Bangkok street 12 years ago, the Bangkok Post reported.

A hill tribe

The Bwa G’Naw people, otherwise known as Karen, Kariang or Yang, are members of a hill tribe that is scattered across Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

According to population estimates, the number of Karen ranges between 7.5 million to 14 million, with most of them concentrated in Myanmar. Some 320,000 Karen live in Thailand, according to the Frontier Projects Thailand website operated by the Pentecostal Assemblies of Tribes.

The Karen differ from other hill tribes in that they live in permanent villages at lower elevations.

Karen communities sometimes practice slash-and-burn farming, which can lead to conflict with forestry officials, especially when certain zones are declared forest reserves or protected national parkland.

According to the Bangkok Post, park officials set fire to 20 Karen homes in 2011 in an effort to stave off alleged land encroachment by Karen.

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