Activist’s murder trial begins after 9 years

The trial of four Kaeng Krachan National Park officials charged with the murder of indigenous rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen began on Monday (24 April), 9 years after he went missing. His family say their lives have been turned upside down by his disappearance.

Porochi Rakchongcharoen (centre), Porlajee's mother, walked up the slope to the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases on Monday (24 April). 
(Photo by Pornpen Khongkachonkiet)

Porlajee was last seen on 17 April 2014, after he was detained by the then-superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn and four other officials for allegedly foraging for wild honey. Chaiwat insisted he only detained Porlajee for questioning and then released him.

5 years after Porlajee’s disappearance, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) conducted a search of the Kaeng Krachan Dam and found fragments of a human skull, along with a 200-litre oil drum, 2 steel rods, 4 pieces of charcoal, and fragments of the oil drum lid. The bone fragments were later confirmed in September 2019 to be Porlajee’s by DNA testing, leading to speculation by DSI officers that his body had been burned to destroy evidence.

Chaiwat and the three officials were charged with pre-meditated murder, abduction, and illegal detention, among other charges. They were indicted on 10 August 2022 and arrested on 12 November 2022, but were later granted bail.

Pinnapa Pruksapan, Porlajee's wife, during Sunday's panel discussion

On Sunday (23 April), the Cross-Cultural Foundation, the Karen Network for Culture and Environment, the Save Bangkloi Coalition, the Dinsorsee Creative Group, and other organizations held a panel discussion and concert at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) as a memorial event for Porlajee.

Pinnapa Pruksapan, Porlajee’s wife, said during the panel discussion that her life had been turned upside down by his disappearance, and that the past 9 years have been difficult. When he first went missing, Pinnapa went to a local police station to file a missing person report, but the police told her she had to find evidence before she could and that it was not their problem if she couldn’t find evidence that Porlajee was missing. When she returned later in the day, the officers told her that Porlajee had been detained but had already been released. When she asked why her husband hadn’t returned, the police told her she had to ask the people who arrested him, and only after she started arguing with them that the officers agreed to hear her complaint.

Pinnapa said that, since Porlajee’s disappearance, her community lives in fear that they, too, would go missing. Meanwhile, park officials often stop her from going to the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Village, an indigenous Karen village in the Kaeng Krachan National Park where members of the Bang Kloi community now live after being forcibly evacuated from their ancestral land at Chai Phaen Din. She said that officials often demand written requests, even though she told them she is not a tourist but is a family member, and that she has to ask people in the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi village to pick her up if she wants to visit them.

“It’s like living in a refugee centre or something, where outsiders need to be stopped from getting in easily,” she said.

Pinnapa said that she would like society to understand indigenous peoples, for her community’s problems to be solved, and for them to be given equal rights. She would also like to see those involved in her husband’s abduction and murder get the punishment they deserve.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet during Sunday's panel discussion

Meanwhile, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, said that Monday’s hearing was a significant milestone in the case, and that this was the first time that an investigation into a case of enforced disappearance reach a point where the missing person’s fate was revealed and was likely the first case where forensic evidence has been found. 

Pornpen said that even though anyone charged with a crime should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, this principle does not apply to everyone in the Thai justice system and is most often upheld when the defendant is a state official. She also noted that the Thai state has a history of granting impunity to state officials, and said that if the justice system served everyone equally and if park officials had been prosecuted for burning down Chai Phaen Din village, subsequent events like the murder of land rights activist Tassakamon Ob-om and Porlajee’s disappearance might not have happened. For Pornpen, the justice system has let these officials get away with their crime, and it was only because of the public prosecutor and the DSI that they have now been indicted while the organization they are affiliated with allows them to stay in their position and has even promoted them.

Porochi Rakchongcharoen speaking to attendants at Sunday's event

Speaking through an interpreter, Porlajee’s mother Porochi Rakchongcharoen, who was attending the event, said that her life has been difficult since her son’s disappearance. From someone who usually stays at home, she has had to travel places, and has had to live with the stress and grief for the past 9 years.

Phairochi said she still questions why her son was killed when he did no harm to anyone and was only delivering some honey, and why no trace of him, not even his motorcycle, was found when the park officials said they had already released him. She said she wanted her son’s killers to face the consequences of their action and to be punished.

The Cross-Cultural Foundation said that the hearing was observed by diplomats from several embassies, including those of Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland, and representatives of international organizations. Other than Pinnapa and Phairochi, an inquiry officer who worked on Porlajee’s disappearance before the case was forwarded to the DSI was also summoned to testify.

The next witness examination hearing will take place on 22 May, when two Kaeng Krachan National Park officials and a student interning at the park at the time will testify as witnesses.

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