On the 9th anniversary of the disappearance of indigenous rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, activists in Bangkok staged a protest to raise awareness about enforced disappearance and to call for reform of the justice system.
An activist stood on the sky train holding a sign saying "We are all Billy, because enforced disappearance by the state can happen to all of us."
Yesterday (17 April), activists in Bangkok dressed in inmate uniforms and rode the BTS Skytrain from Mo Chit to Siam station and walked around the Siam Paragon shopping mall carrying signs about Porlajee’s disappearance, as well as signs about the new anti-enforced disappearance law and calling for reform of the justice system.
The activists who organized Monday’s activity said that 9 years after Porlajee disappeared and even after park officials have been indicted for his murder, the investigation and trial is progressing very slowly. Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists are still prosecuted and arbitrarily detained. They therefore wanted to raise awareness about issues in the Thai justice system and calls for reform.
Anoter sign carried by an activist during Monday's event, noting that the anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill is now in effect, but the police has asked to postpone its enforcement, claiming they were not ready.
A community and indigenous rights activist and a leader of the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community, Porlajee campaigned for the rights of his community, which was forcibly relocated in 1997 to the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village in Kaeng Krachan National Park, and once again in 2011, when park and military officials raided the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din (meaning “heart of the land”) villages, which are located deep in the Kaeng Krachan forest, and burned down their houses and rice barns.
Porlajee was last seen on 17 April 2014, after he was detained by then-superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn and four other officials for allegedly foraging for wild honey. Chaiwat insisted he held Porlajee only for questioning before letting him go and denied any involvement in his disappearance.
In September 2019, fragments of a human skull were found in a 200-litre oil drum in the Kaeng Krachan Dam, along with 2 steel rods and pieces of charcoal. The bone fragments were later confirmed to be Porlajee’s by DNA testing, leading to speculation by Department of Special Investigation (DSI) officers that his body was burned to destroy evidence.
Chaiwat and three other park officials were indicted for pre-meditated murder in August 2022 for their alleged involvement in Porlajee’s abduction and murder. Nevertheless, the Phetchaburi Administrative Court ruled in September 2022 to allow Chaiwat to return to work, despite previous orders by the Office of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) removing him from his position due to misconduct for his involvement in burning down the indigenous Karen village at Chai Phaen Din. He was then appointed head of a Protected Area Regional Office in Ubon Ratchathani.
Meanwhile, the Bang Kloi community continue to face unresolved community rights issues. They were not allocated land for agriculture as they were promised when they were evicted. The land they did receive were not suitable for growing crops, and they are not able to practice their traditional rotational farming method, while many members of the community missed out on land allocation and welfare because they were in the process of getting Thai citizenship at the time. Many of those employed outside the village also lost income during the Covid-19 pandemic, while those working as weavers at the local craft centre suffer poor working conditions and are paid less than minimum wage.
In September 2022, Chaiwat filed a perjury complaint against human rights lawyer Waraporn Utairangsee, who was the legal representative for the Bang Kloi Indigenous Karen community and its spiritual leader Ko-i Meemi. Acting on behalf of Ko-i and the Bang Kloi community, Waraporn filed a complaint against Chaiwat for burning down the houses and rice barns at Chai Phaen Din, which Chaiwat claimed was perjury because the houses were unoccupied and because the dates she said the burning took place were wrong.
Another activist in Monday's event carrying a sign noting Chaiwat's indictment.
The Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community also held a memorial event for Porlajee on Monday (17 April) at the Kaeng Krachan National Park checkpoint where he was last seen before he went missing. Community leader No-ae Meemi, Porlajee’s wife Pinnapa Prueksapan, and other community members lit candles in front of a Buddha image. They also stood in front of the checkpoint holding banners saying “Someone went missing here” and “9 years on, we’re still looking for Billy.” Another memorial event was also held in the evening at the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village.
Activist and community leader Pongsak Tonnamphet told Transborder News that the event was held in memory of Porlajee, and because witness examination in the case against Chaiwat will begin on Monday (24 April). The community is therefore hoping that justice will be served.
Porlajee's wife Pinnapa Pruksapan at home in 2020
Meanwhile, Pinnapa said that during the 9 years since Porlajee went missing, the issues he campaigned against remain unresolved. She said that they live a hard life, and wanted to return to their ancestral home – something already proposed by an independent commission formed to resolve issues at the Bang Kloi community, but the authorities have yet to agree to it.
Pinnapa said that while some may say that the issues faced by her community have been solved, but for them, this is not true. She would like the authorities to explain what they have already done for her community, because for them, it is as if nothing has been done.
Next Monday (24 April), Pinnapa, along with Porlajee’s mother, will testify in court against Chaiwat as prosecution witnesses in the case’s first witness examination hearing.