No justice in sight eight years since disappearance of environmental activist

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It’s been eight years since activist, Porlajee ‘Billy’ Rakchongcharoen, vanished.

Billy’s arrest is one of the most widely covered enforced disappearance cases in Thailand. Human rights groups say his disappearance reflects a deeper problem with abductions of environmentalists and other land rights activists who dare to defy powerful corporations or the state. 

Thailand has seen at least 91 cases of enforced disappearances since 1980, but the real number is likely higher, researchers say. Billy, a Karen activist, was last seen alive in Kaeng Krachan National Park, western Phetchaburi Province, Thailand on April 17, 2014. Since then his family has been searching for answers. 

“When we talk about Billy’s disappearance, we should also [remember] the violence against his community, the ethnic Karen villagers who were forcibly evicted from their homes in Chai Paen Din,” Pranom Somwong, a representative of Protection International Thailand, a group that works to protect human rights defenders, told Thai Enquirer.  

“We need to remember that in the same area, Taksamol Aobaom was shot dead on a highway on 10 September 2011. He was a lawyer campaigning against the ill practices of officials of the Kaeng Krachan National Park against an ethnic Karen community living inside the park.” 

Pranom added that Billy’s case reflects other reports of enforced disappearances and killings of indigenious land rights activists in Thailand. She said that too often perpetrators go unpunished, and the state routinely fails to ensure that such acts of violence are brought to justice.

Billy had been fighting to protect his Karen community and their livelihoods for years. He was involved in ongoing legal battles to protect his people from being pushed out of their land. In 1979,  the Thai government designated Kaeng Krachan National Park as “protected,” then began forcing many Karen to leave their homes with often very little resources to survive elsewhere.

Years before Billy’s murder, he helped document the burning of numerous Karen homes along with the eviction of over 20 families in the area. On the day he was arrested in 2014, he was on the way to help a group of  Karen villagers file a lawsuit against the park superintendent for allegedly ordering the evictions and burning of Karen homes in May 2011. The superintendent claimed Billy had illegally extracted honey from the forest, then once he was placed in custody, he was never seen again. 

“It’s been eight years and we’re still seeing this climate of impunity,” Pornpen Khongkachonkiet a human rights defender and the director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, an organization which monitors torture and ill treatment. 

“We still do not know Billy’s whereabouts, and the perpetrators are still at large. Once enforced disappearance is officially illegal and has become a serious crime in Thai law, then we can bring those who abducted him eight years ago to justice.”

Later in April 2019, an oil barrel was discovered at the bottom of a reservoir in the park. Forensic evidence revealed his DNA was found at the bottom of the drum, along with what appeared to be bone fragments. 

“When DSI discovered Billy’s bones and ashes, the Thai government gleefully informed the United Nations and asked for them to delist Billy’s case from the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance despite the fact that the perpetrators still got away unpunished,” Pranom said referring to the UN entity that focuses on researching enforced disappearance cases.  

“There have been 12 other cases that have also been delisted from the UN’s records. The government has convinced the relatives to withdraw the cases too, and they had to concede to the government’s demand.”

Although it’s been almost a decade since his disappearance, no officials have been prosecuted for Billy’s death. His wife and family have been seeking justice for years and were even able to develop sufficient evidence to press murder charges against the park’s superintendent and his colleagues. But the charges were later dropped and the park officers only faced minor offences. 

Experts say that victims of enforced disappearance do not experience the same sense of closure in these circumstances. When perpetrators conduct these kinds of abductions, family members often never fully know if their loved one has died or if they are still alive. 

In a written note from Billy’s daughter, ‘O’, she expressed hope that her father will one day return. 

“Father, where have you been? You’ve been gone for years. Don’t you miss me? I’m all grown and can no longer remember your face. Come back to us all. Everyone’s waiting for you.

Love you, from O.”

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