A high-ranking National Park officer and three of his former subordinates turned themselves in to authorities in Bangkok on Tuesday, a day after a Thai court issued arrest warrants against them on charges linked to killing a rights activist whose remains were found in September.
Chaiwat Limlikhit-akson, two national park officers and one former park officer face murder and other charges in connection with the slaying of ethnic Karen activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen (also known as Billy), according to arrest warrants issued by a special court for state officials on Monday.
Investigators said Billy was killed at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in 2014 when Chaiwat was the park’s chief and the three men were his aides.
In September, Department of Special Investigation (DSI) members found bone fragments in an oil tank submerged in a reservoir inside the national park, and officials issued arrest warrants after DNA analysis confirmed the remains as those of the missing activist.
“I deny every allegation against me,” Chaiwat told reporters after he and the others reported to the DSI office in Bangkok on Tuesday.
“We are protectors of national forests, our lives have been dedicated to the benefit of the nation,” said Chaiwat, the chief of a northeastern conservation area. “Currently, I have been turned into a suspect, especially by social media. It’s unfair to me – I can tell you that I have fought for the justice system all along.”
The four suspects all denied the charges against them during interrogation, DSI deputy Lt. Col. Pakorn Sucheevakul told reporters.
They appeared before the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases where each posted bail of 800,000 baht ($26,360).
Slain man fought for Karen land rights
Billy was a leader of the Karen ethnic minority living in an area of Kaeng Krachan National park who fought for land rights after Chaiwat sought to move them from the park.
The initial police investigation showed Billy went missing on April 17, 2014, the day he was stopped by park officers at a checkpoint while traveling to meet Karen villagers who had accused officials of setting fire to their homes three years earlier.
Park officials set fire to 20 homes in 2011 in an effort to stave off alleged land encroachment by Karen, according to the Bangkok Post.
Chaiwat and his aides had told police they released Billy after questioning him for illegally gathering honey.
Billy’s family sued Chaiwat for Billy’s disappearance but the case was dismissed after a judge ruled there that there was not enough evidence to prosecute.
With the help of rights advocates, Billy’s widow, Pinapa Prueksawan, lodged a new complaint asking DSI to reopen the case.
The Bwa G’Naw people, otherwise known as Karen, Kariang or Yang, are members of a hill tribe scattered across Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.
The number of Karen ranges between 7.5 million and 14 million, with most of them concentrated in Myanmar, according to official population estimates. The Australian Karen Foundation estimates as many as 1 million Karen live in Thailand.