Human rights groups are pressuring authorities to investigate the disappearance of a prominent Karen activist who went missing after his arrest in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province on Thursday. Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, also known as “Billy,” was last seen on that day at the park which is the only access point to his Bangkloybon village.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Karen activist was supposed to ride a motorcycle from his village to meet ethnic Karen villagers and activists in preparation for a court hearing in a lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department and Kaeng Krachan National Park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksor. He was carrying case files when he was stopped by a park official
The Cross Cultural Foundation (CCF) claimed Mr Chaiwat admitted on Friday that Mr Porlajee was arrested after a wild honeycomb and six bottles of wild honey were found in his possession.
Mr Chaiwat claimed Mr Porlajee was released after receiving a warning, according to the CCF, but his current whereabouts are unknown.
“The apparent disappearance of this prominent Karen activist demands an immediate government response. Thai authorities should not stay silent about Mr Porlajee’s case but explain what happened to him,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“National parks should be places to enjoy natural beauty and serene vistas, not a place for officials to abuse people. So long as Mr Porlajee’s whereabouts are unknown, fear will stalk the park communities demanding their rights,” he said.
On Saturday, Mr Porlajee’s family filed a complaint with police regarding his disappearance.
With legal aid from the Lawyers Council of Thailand (LCT), the Bangkloybon villagers led by Mr Porlajee sued authorities in 2011 for burning the houses of more than 20 Karen families living in the Kaeng Krachan National Park. Mr Chaiwat, who led the operation, claimed the villagers were trespassing in protected forest areas.
He also told reporters some villagers were involved in Karen insurgency activities along the Thai-Burmese border even though most had obtained Thai nationality.
Mr Porlajee collected evidence and witnesses to battle authorities in their lawsuit, said Surapong Kongchantuk, chairman of the LCT’s human rights subcommittee on ethnic minorities, the stateless, migrant workers and the displaced. He was also preparing to submit a petition to the King.
“He is a witness, and also an interpreter for other witnesses because of his good Thai language skills,” said Mr Surapong, a close friend of Mr Porlajee.
“He is due to appear at the Administration Court next month. His absence would affect the case. I don’t see any other causes for his absence but his activism.”
Also in 2011, a human rights defender from Mr Chalee’s network Tassanakamol Aobeaom was shot dead while driving a pickup truck in Phetchaburi town.
Mr Chaiwat was charged with masterminding the assassination of Mr Tassanakamol. The case is still pending a court decision while Mr Chaiwat has continued to keep his job at the Kaeng Krachan National Park. Mr Chaiwat yesterday said he did not know Mr Porlajee and had no personal conflict with him.
The activist's disappearance has sparked concern from many independent organisations. The Human Rights Commissioner’s sub-committee for civil and political rights chaired by Niran Pitakwatchara met yesterday to discuss possible action.
Similarly, the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand and the Network of Karens of Thailand met in Chiang Mai to demand the government explain Mr Porlajee's disappearance.