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Park rangers face trial in Thailand over murder of indigenous rights defender Billy

Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
Photo: The only road leading to Bang Kloi in the mountainous and remote Kaeng Krachan National Park. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK – Nine years after the disappearance of indigenous rights defender Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, Thailand’s Criminal Court has initiated a series of witness hearings in a case against national park rangers accused of abducting and murdering him.

On 25 April, the Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases in Bangkok began the first of ten scheduled witness hearings in the case of Billy’s death. Testimonies were heard from his wife Pinnapa Pruksaphan, his mother, and Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, as well as three of his staff members.

In August, the Office of the Attorney-General formally decided to indict the four park officers on charges of illegal confinement, premeditated murder, and concealing the victim’s body.

“This is the first enforced disappearance case in Thailand to be investigated and proven as a murder,” said Pornpen Kongkachankiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, which is involved with the case. She expressed concern that Billy’s case was taken up by the court before Thailand’s bill against torture and enforced disappearances came into effect in October 2022, which means it is not treated as a criminal case and will receive less investigation.

Thailand has struggled to solve cases of enforced disappearances, even though the long-awaited bill addressing such issues is now in effect. Four major sections have been postponed and remain unused, including the requirement for officers to record video and audio of interrogations and provide the footage upon request by the family and attorney.

Billy disappeared on 17 April 2014, after being arrested at a checkpoint in Kaeng Krachan National Park in western Thailand. Park officials claimed they released the ethnic Karen man after briefly questioning him and had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Later, special investigators discovered fragments of Billy’s bones in an oil barrel retrieved from the bottom of a reservoir in the national park.

 

Members of the Bang Kloi community in a protest action with their hands chained during a demonstration on 9 March 2021. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories



For Billy’s family, proving his death was a murder would finally dispel the uncertainty that has long shadowed the incident. “I want to see the wrongdoers finally be held accountable and receive punishments that they are supposed to get,” said Pinnapa during a commemoration event held a day before the court hearings began.

Billy’s case is part of a larger conflict between Karen ethnic communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest complex and park officials. In early 2021, community members attempted to return and settle in Jai Pan Din, an area of spiritual and ecological significance, but were again forced out on charges of trespassing in the national park.

To address this conflict, indigenous community members are expected to soon begin a five-year pilot project resettling in Jai Pan Din. The project aims to demonstrate that their traditional rotational farming practices do not harm the environment, contrary to park officials’ claims. An independent committee proposed the initiative, which was approved by the prime minister on 19 April.

Billy was a prominent ethnic Karen activist who advocated for his indigenous community’s right to remain in Kaeng Krachan National Park. The park was designated a World Heritage Site in July 2021 for its abundant natural resources, despite opposition from indigenous communities in the area and international human rights delegates who argued that the conflict between indigenous communities and official preservation efforts remained unresolved.