A Karen land-rights activist who went missing in 2014 was murdered, Thai police said Tuesday, after divers recovered a portion of his burned skull from a reservoir near his home.
Porlajee Rakchongcharoen (also known as “Billy”), was last seen on April 17, 2014, near Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, 100 miles (160 km) south of Bangkok. He was 30 when he disappeared in suspicious circumstances.
“He was murdered,” police Lt. Col. Korawat Parnprapakorn, deputy director of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), told reporters Tuesday.
“The DNA test matches the skull to his mother, Porrogee Rakchongcharoen,” said Korawat, adding that a witness led investigators to the crime scene. “We can confirm that the discovered skull belongs to Billy.”
DSI director Col. Paisit Wongmaung said investigators began diving into the reservoir in May and continued through late August to gather evidence.
Korat said divers used sonar to detect submerged items, including a burned 200-liter barrel containing firewood and human bones.
Billy’s widow, Pinapa Prueksawan, said she would discuss the latest development in the case during a news conference on Wednesday.
In 2016, Pinapa blamed the then-chief of the national park, Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, and three of his subordinates for detaining her husband.
Billy was to testify in a court case filed by his fellow ethnic Karen farmers against Chaiwat and others. The farmers had alleged that Chaiwat and others ransacked and burned their homes and properties in Pongluek-Bangkloy, a village near the national park, in 2011.
Billy disappeared a day before he was to take the witness stand and Chaiwat was acquitted over insufficient evidence in July 2014.
Three years later, Billy’s widow and rights activists called on the DSI to reopen investigation.
Pornpen Kongkachonkiet, director of the Thai Cross-Cultural Foundation, an NGO that advocates for minorities, joined the request for DSI to reopen the case.
On Tuesday, she welcomed the confirmation of a DNA match, but feared those responsible for Billy’s death could escape prosecution.
“There was no summons nor arrest warrant against suspects or wrongdoers who took part in Billy’s murder,” Pornpen told BenarNews. “Such influential figures may try to elude such a heavy charge. I hope DSI is prepared to prevent that.”
A hill tribe
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.
The Karen differ from other hill tribes in that they live in permanent villages at lower elevations.
Their 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. 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.