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Thai court clears park rangers in murder case of activist ‘Billy’

Four park rangers have been acquitted, while the former national park chief is sentenced to prison in connection with the disappearance of the prominent Karen activist, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. For the family, the quest for justice continues.

BANGKOK – In the murder case of indigenous Karen human rights defender Porajee “Billy” Rakchoncharoen, four accused park rangers have been acquitted of the murder charge, concluding a year-long trial.

On 28 September, the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases in Bangkok dismissed the murder charge against Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, the former national park chief, and his three former staffers at Kaeng Krachan National Park in western Thailand. A year earlier, they had been indicted for misconduct, illegal confinement, premeditated murder, and concealing the victim’s body.

The court, after examining the forensic results of a bone found in an oil barrel retrieved from a reservoir in the national park, ruled that there was insufficient evidence to conclusively link the remains to Billy. Although scientific tests indicated that the remains were related to his mother, the possibility remained that they belonged to another relative.

Nevertheless, Chaiwat was sentenced to three years in prison for misconduct related to Billy’s detention under Section 157 of the Criminal Code. Billy had disappeared on 17 April 2014, after being detained for possessing wild bee honey at a checkpoint. Park officials claimed they released Billy after questioning him and denied knowledge of his subsequent whereabouts.

Legally, the officers should have handed Billy over to the Provincial Police Station, submitted the confiscated honey, and informed both the arrested individual and his relatives of their legal rights – a process Chaiwat failed to execute.

Chaiwat, who is still the director of Thailand’s national park division, was released on 800,000 baht ($21,700) bail and is restricted from leaving the country. He plans to appeal his conviction. His three subordinates were cleared of all charges.

“We insisted in the facts that we are not related to the Billy case,” said Chaiwat told the media after his bail “It’s the same old story park rangers have to encounter – how do we live together with the communities without conflicts while trying to protect the forest with the restricted conservation law.”

He highlighted Thailand’s revised 2019 conservation law, aimed at easing conflicts between national parks and the communities residing within them. When Porajee disappeared, existing legislation prohibited indigenous communities, who had been living in forest areas prior to the establishment of national parks, from foraging.

Quest for justice continues

This decision thrusts Thailand’s noted human rights violation case back into obscurity. The family’s lawyer had previously described it as “the first enforced disappearance case in Thailand to be investigated and proven as murder.”

“Everything has gone back to the same. Billy has returned to be an enforced disappeared person,” said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, the family’s lawyer and the director of the Cross Cultural Foundation. She pointed out that the officers were still the last person to hold Billy in custody before his disappearance. “Now, the responsibility is on the government to bring justice to the family.”

Despite the acquittal, the court highlighted inconsistencies in the rangers’ testimonies, notably their claims about releasing Billy, which were contradicted by nearby CCTV footage timings.

Billy’s widow, Pinnapa Rakchoncharoen, said that she was speechless. The family plans to appeal against the ruling according to the lawyer. 

Unsolved disappearances

Thailand’s first bill on enforced disappearance recently came into effect, yet numerous cases, including that of political rights activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit who disappeared in 2020, remain uninvestigated. Wanchalearm’s sister attended Billy’s court ruling in a show of solidarity.

Billy was a prominent ethnic Karen activist who advocated for his indigenous community’s right to remain in the forest complex. His wife explained to the court that he had obtained video footage allegedly showing national park rangers’ illegal logging activities and planned to address his people’s land rights struggles to the King.

The unresolved tension between indigenous communities and official conservation efforts continues. Earlier this month, Karen communities petitioned the new minister of natural resources to expedite the resolution process, which has been delayed due to the country’s political transition to a new government.

 

Photo: Peerapon Boonyakiat/HaRDstories