Thailand: Karen woman fights for justice over husband’s disappearance
On 17 April 2014, Billy Rakchongcharoen was stopped at a checkpoint near Bangkloy village in western Thailand. He was accused of stealing honeycomb from Kaeng Krachan National Park and taken into detention. The park authorities claim he was released after being questioned. But nobody has seen him since.
His wife, a soft-spoken 29-year-old, is convinced he was murdered. Billy was not only a prominent land rights activist, but he was involved in a legal dispute with the then head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, over the mass evictions of indigenous Karens from the forest. It was Chaiwat who ordered his detention.
“If my husband had been arrested by anyone other than [Chaiwat] I would still have hope, but because he was taken by the head of the park I think he is dead,” says Meu Naw, also known as Pinnapa Prueksaphan, who has been left to care for five young children alone.
When he was detained, Billy was on his way to meet with local activists about a lawsuit charging park authorities with burning down the homes of dozens of Karen villagers in 2011. He also claimed to have evidence of park officials engaging in illegal logging. Chaiwat has previously defended the destruction of Karen villages, accusing the indigenous population of fuelling deforestation, growing marijuana and plotting with armed ethnic groups in neighouring Burma.
This is not the first time that Chaiwat has been implicated in the murder of an activist. In 2011, Chaiwat was questioned over his role in the fatal shooting of Tatkamol Ob-om, a lawyer in Billy’s network who was gunned down by hired assassins. Tatkamol had been helping the Karen fight an order to leave their ancestral lands in Kaeng Krachan National Park, declared a protected area by the Thai government.
Both cases against Chaiwat were subsequently dropped, drawing criticism and outrage from human rights campaigners. The authorities cited a “lack of evidence” as justification for dropping their investigation into Billy’s disappearance, despite the release of CCTV footage showing that the activist was in fact never released from custody. Part of the problem is a loophole in Thai law, which demands that a missing person’s body must be found in order to expedite a murder investigation.
In October 2014, Chaiwat was transferred from his post to another part of Thailand, ostensibly to satisfy concerns about the impartiality of the investigation into Billy’s death. But according to Meu Naw little progress has been made, despite promises by the new park head Kamon Nuan Yai.
“Billy’s topic is in the hands of the responsible party and I hope that it will be resolved in a positive way,” said Kamon, refusing to address allegations about Chaiwat’s role in his disappearance. “For me I can guarantee that as long as I stay here as chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park I will respect the principle of Karen people’s rights”.
In August, Meu Naw filed an appeal to Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, demanding to see the DNA results of blood found in Chaiwat’s car to establish if it matched that of her missing husband. However, Thailand has seen an escalating crackdown on human rights since a military coup in May 2014, casting fresh doubts over a successful resolution to the case.
Meanwhile, the Karens – an indigenous population that has been forcibly displaced by the central government for decades – have lost a crucial leader to their cause.
“Billy was the only one who had been fighting to get more land for the people here,” explained his brother, Charoen Rakchongcharoen.
Kamon said that the Karens must leave their traditional lands, citing Thailand’s controversial conservation laws that prohibit indigenous groups from practicing shifting cultivation, crafting stilted houses from bamboo or even collecting honey comb from the forest (the ‘crime’ for which Billy was detained).
Activists say a Thai government bid to obtain UNESCO World Heritage Status for Kaeng Krachan National Park has aggravated conflicts with the local population. While Kamon acknowledged that the indigenous community has mostly lived in harmony with nature, he insisted that their populations “are growing” and they need to integrate into Thailand’s education and legal system.
“We live in Thailand and therefore we live under Thai law. All the people have to live together in peace,” said Kamon. “I am the law enforcer.”