The trial for the murder of indigenous rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen has concluded, said the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF). The Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases will deliver a verdict on 28 September.
CrCF director and lawyer Pornpen Khongkachonkiet (furthest to left) and Porlajee's widow Pinnapa Pruksapan (furthest to right) attending the 28 August hearing along with other Bang Kloi community members.
A final witness examination in the trial of four Kaeng Krachan National Park officials charged with Porlajee’s murder took place last Thursday (31 August), concluding four months of hearing, during which 22 prosecution witnesses and 4 defence witness were called to the stand.
A community and indigenous rights activist and a leader of the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community, 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 only held Porlajee for questioning before letting him go and denied any involvement in his disappearance.
Before his death, Porlajee had been campaigning for the Bang Kloi community’s right to return to the original location of their village at Chai Phaen Din, in the Kaeng Krachan forest, to live according to their traditional way of life. He had also been campaigning for the community to be compensated for the damages caused during a forced evacuation in 2011, when park and military officials raided the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din villages and burned down their houses and rice barns.
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 DSI officers that his body was burned to destroy evidence.
Chaiwat, now Director of the National Parks Office in the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation 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. The trial began on 24 April, 9 years after Porlajee went missing. Porlajee’s widow Pinnapa Pruksapan and his mother Phairochi Rakchongcharoen were the first witnesses summoned to the stand.
Before the trial, civil society organisations demanded that the four park officials be suspended to ensure that the trial will be handled properly. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment did not respond to the demand.
CrCF said Chaiwat and the three officials were summoned to the stand on 28 August. In their testimony, they insisted that they released Porlajee and were not involved in his disappearance.
CrCF director Pornpen Khongkachonkiet said that the public prosecutor did not attend the 28 August witness examination hearing, telling the court that they had to attend a hearing in another case, so the trial proceeded with the judge examining the defendants. However, Pornpen said that Pinnapa, who attended court as a representative of her children, had several questions for the defendants, including the motive for murdering Porlajee, the time they took to release him, and why they made no record of his release, as well as about the burning of the village at Chai Phaen Din during the forced evacuation, and the assassination of human rights advocate and lawyer Tatkamon Ob-om.
Asked whether the prosecutor’s absence would affect the case, Pornpen said that the trial is based on an inquisitorial system where testimonies given at different points during the proceedings, including investigations by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), are also taken into consideration. If a judge had any question, they asked the defendants during the hearing. According to Pornpen, lawyers and prosecutors play very small roles in this type of trial. Nevertheless, she said that the prosecutor’s absence might be interpreted as them having no doubts about the defendants’ testimonies.
Pinnapa told the online news outlet The Reporters that she felt the defendants’ testimonies were unclear. She also wanted relevant agencies to explain on what authority Porlajee was arrested and why his family was not informed when he was released. She asked whether anyone is going to take responsibility for her husband’s death.
The Reporters’ live broadcast video of Pinnapa’s interview and the report published on Facebook have since been removed. The defence lawyer requested a court order for the removal, claiming that the interview damaged the case and that it was inappropriate for Pinnapa to speak to the press about the trial when a verdict has not been delivered.