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As four park officials charged with pre-meditated murder for their alleged involvement in the abduction and death of indigenous right activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen go on trial, civil society organizations have demanded that they be suspended to make sure the judicial process cannot be tampered with.

Civil society representatives went to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on Friday (21 April) to file an open letter demanding the suspension of the four park officials.

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 charged with pre-meditated murder and indicted in August 2022 for their alleged involvement in Porlajee’s abduction and death.

Chaiwat was previously dismissed from his position by order of the Office of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission due to misconduct for his involvement in burning down the indigenous Karen village at Chai Phaen Din. However, the Phetchaburi Administrative Court ruled in September 2022 to overturn the dismissal. He was then appointed head of a Protected Area Regional Office in Ubon Ratchathani.

In February 2023, Chaiwat was appointed head of the National Park Office in the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP). The appointment came after he exposed former DNP director-general Ratchada Suriyakul na Ayutthaya for allegedly soliciting bribes from his subordinates so they could hold onto their posts, leading to Rutchada’s arrest and dismissal.

Kriangkrai Cheechuang holding a list of alleged charges against Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn while speaking to reporters at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on Friday (21 April).

Kriangkrai Cheechuang, coordinator for the Karen Network for Culture and Environment, went to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on Friday (21 April) to file an open letter demanding the four officials’ suspension, signed by 10 civil society organizations: the Human Rights Lawyers Association, the Cross-Cultural Foundation, the Union for Civil Liberty, the Karen Network for Culture and Environment, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the Save Bangkloi Coalition, the Human Rights and Development Foundation, the Community Resource Centre Foundation, the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, and the indigenous youth network TKN.

Kriangkrai said that the groups want the Ministry to temporarily suspend Chaiwat and the three other officials while the trial is ongoing, because while the public has been paying attention to Porlajee’s disappearance and murder, the Ministry has not shown that it intends to ensure that the case is handled properly.

He also raised questions about whether the Ministry is being unfair in how it treats its own personnel when it comes to corruption. He noted that, in addition to being charged with Porlajee’s murder and accused of ordering the burning of houses at Chai Phaen Din village, Chaiwat is being investigated for alleged corruption at several conservation areas, but the investigation seems to be going nowhere, leading to questions as to why he has been repeatedly promoted while other civil servants facing similar charges have already been dismissed.

Kriangkrai also said that suspending the four officials would mean that witnesses or community members won’t have to fear harassment while the trial is ongoing. He noted that Chaiwat’s current position oversees conservation areas in the country, where communities living in forest areas are still being prosecuted, and so the organizations believe that he should be suspended so that witnesses won’t be pressured and so that other suitable persons can step in to resolve community rights issues facing communities living on forest land.

When asked if the Bang Kloi community fears that they would be harassed or face violence, Kriangkrai said that harassment can have many forms, either physical violence, psychological tactics, or blocking projects that can improve the community’s quality of life. For example, Kriangkrai said, the road up to the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village is under the authority of the Kaeng Krachan National Park, and if the National Park Office doesn’t approve a project to improve the road, the community will have to live with the risk travelling on an unmaintained road. Meanwhile, the Ministry’s reputation will also be affected if it continues to promote someone facing so many charges, and the public may think that benefits were involved.

Civil representatives at the Ministry after filing their open letter

Three witnesses will be summoned to court next Monday (24 April) in the first hearing of the murder trial, including Porlajee’s wife Pinnapa Pruksapan and his mother.

The Cross-Cultural Foundation, the Karen Network for Culture and Environment, the Save Bangkloi Coalition, the Dinsorsee Creative Group, and other organizations are also holding a panel discussion and concert on Sunday (23 April) at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre as a memorial event for Porlajee on the 9th anniversary of his disappearance.

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