“BILLY ” BRIDGE
BANGKOK — The director of Kaeng Krachan National Park has been transferred from his post, five months after he was first accused of engineering the disappearance of a local Karen activist in the park.
Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn has been moved to the water management department in Prachinburi province, Niphon Chotiban, director of the Department of National Park, told Khaosod yesterday. The transfer will be effective on 6 October.
In April, local Karen communities accused Chaiwat of masterminding the abduction and disappearance of Porlachee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a staunch campaigner for the Karens’ right to live inside the park. The Karens say they settled in the park before Thai authorities declared it a protected area.
Prior to his disappearance, Billy was organising testimony and documents for a lawsuit filed against Chaiwat and several other park agencies in relation to the alleged burning and destruction of the houses of more than 20 Karen families living in the park in July 2011.
The wife of a prominent Karen activist, missing since April 17, has called on the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to help find her husband.
Pinnapa Preuksapan submitted a petition yesterday addressed to NCPO chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha via Colonel Anucha Chumkham, who heads the Army’s PR Division.
“There is no progress with the investigation into his disappearance,” she lamented.
Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen was last seen with the chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi before he mysteriously disappeared.
Separately, Kriangkrai Cheechuang of the Karen Network for Culture and Environment yesterday dismissed a claim by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) that Karen people had been cutting down trees in the forest with automatic saws.
“The Karen do not have such heavy equipment,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a move to have the case ready for consideration by the Special Case Committee next week, officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) went to Kaeng Krachan to gather more information about the Karen-Thai people’s plight and Billy’s disappearance.
This follows the release of a video clip showing Kaeng Krachan National Park officials allegedly felling trees filmed by Billy before he disappeared.
In another report, the Protected Areas Regional Office 3 has said it will set up a committee to look into the alleged logging in a week.
Human Rights Watch has said it is seriously concerned about an ethnic Karen activist who apparently disappeared after being temporarily detained last week at a national park southwest of Bangkok, and has urged Thai authorities to provide information about him.
Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen, known as Billy – who had been preparing a lawsuit against the authorities for destroying the homes of ethnic Karen living in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Petchaburi province – was detained and then released on Thursday at a checkpoint in the park, but did not return home afterwards and has not been seen since.
Local authorities have not disclosed information on Billy’s detention or evidence of his release, “raising grave concerns” for his safety, HRW said on Monday, noting that Billy was involved in a lawsuit against park officials, including the park chief who has been charged with involvement in the killing of another activist in 2011.
“The apparent disappearance of this prominent Karen activist demands an immediate government response,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
Billy was detained while travelling from his village in Kaeng Krachan district to meet ethnic Karen villagers and activists to prepare for a forthcoming court hearing of a lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, HRW said.
The villagers allege in the lawsuit that in July 2011, the authorities were responsible for the destruction and burning of houses and property of more than 20 Karen families living in the villages in the national park. When Billy was detained, he was carrying case files and related documents.
The head of the Kaeng Krachan National Park Office, Chaiwat Limlikitaksor, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that Billy had been taken for questioning on Thursday evening about an unlawful wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey alleged to have been found in his possession, but was released after questioning.
“I didn’t think it was a big offence, so I just let him go. There were witnesses, people saw me release him,” Chaiwat told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Villagers and local activists have tried unsuccessfully to contact Billy, and on April 19 his family filed a missing person’s complaint with local police.
HRW fears Billy has been “forcibly disappeared” – the term used in international law when state officials take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts.
According to HRW, Chaiwat was charged in a separate case with masterminding the 2011 killing of Tatkamol Ob-om, a Thai activist from Billy’s network who had been helping Karen villagers report on alleged violence, illegal logging and poaching by park officials.
Chaiwat accused the activists of hounding him: “They are linking me to every single case. I can prove where I was and what I was doing. If I really did do wrong, then I would be in jail.”
Referring to the charges in the case that Billy had been preparing, Chaiwat defended the burning of the villagers’ homes.
“They trespassed on state property, chopped down trees that were hundreds of years old, and planted marijuana,” he said. “Come and see for yourself how they chopped down my trees, how they were planting drugs.”
HRW’s Thailand representative Sunai Phasuk said the use of excessive violence by park officials was not acceptable.
“We understand the duties of park officials to protect forests and animals, but they are using excessive violence against the ethnic Karen who lived in the park hundreds of years before the enforcement of the national conservation laws,” Sunai told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We have very serious concerns that Kaeng Krachan National Park has become a dangerous area for people who speak up for the rights of Karen villagers. One of them was gunned down and now we have another who has disappeared.”
June 20, 2014 MISSING KAREN activist Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen made a heartfelt plea for a return of his home in the forests of Phetchaburi to His Majesty the King in a petition sent before he went missing, his wife said.
The petition, which requested royal intervention to stop alleged oppression by forest rangers of Karen-Thai people, contained an impassioned plea from Billy, asking for a return to his home and traditional indigenous lifestyle.
Pinnapa Preuksapan said she is considering lodging a petition with junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to ask for his help in seeking her husband Billy. Pinnapa suspects that Kaeng Krachan National Park’s former chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn could have been behind Billy’s disappearance, after a conflict sprang from the activist’s campaign against efforts by forest rangers to drive Karen people from the park.
She said Billy and Chaiwat knew each other well for a long time. However, conflict soured their relationship and Billy was accused of being involved in the poaching of wild elephants. Billy went missing after his motorcycle was pulled over at a checkpoint and he was accused of unlawfully possessing wild honey. Forest rangers claimed that he was briefly detained and later released.
A number of Karen people are granted an audience with His Majesty under a protocol as indigenous people. Billy had planned to lodge his complaint during a Coronation Day ceremony at the King’s Klai Kangwon Palace in Prachuap Khiri Khan province on May 5.
Reading out text in Billy’s petition in tears, Pinnapa said Karen people based in upper Bang Kloy were told to move down to lower Bang Kloy when the upper part was incorporated into Kaeng Krachan National Park in 1981. She said families were not provided with farmland as promised initially. And when they finally were, several plots were not cultivatable because they were located on a rock foundation.
The petition accuses forest rangers of secretly using violence and scare tactics to drive Karen out of upper Bang Kloy, including torching of their homes and barns in 2011, felling trees and making arrests. The petition claims that a number of Karen died from starvation and malnutrition and a few women suffered miscarriages after escaping and hiding from the oppression.
Six Karen people accusing park rangers of torching their homes and other unlawful acts have lodged a petition with the Central Administration Court. The petition asks that all relocated Karen be allowed to return and resettle in upper Bang Kloy and are protected from oppression. It also calls for a clear-cut designation of lands for farming and crop plantations.
“We just want to live our lives as jungle people in a peaceful way,” Pinnapa said. “I believe that the petition should have reached its destination by now.”
Suraphong Kongjanthuek, a senior official with the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand, who is in charge of the petition lodged with the Central Administrative Court, said he would work tirelessly on behalf of the Karen. He said he would prove that all Karen people based in Kaeng Krachan had acquired Thai nationality and possessed identity cards, and that the torching of their homes and barns had really occurred.
When His Majesty learned of the torching, he had the military hand Bt5,000 in initial aid to 20 affected families. The Karen were later granted permission to have an occasional audience with His Majesty along with other groups of indigenous people.
On June 5, a group of academics and human-rights activists, acting under supervision from the National Human Rights Commission, made an inspection visit to both Bang Kloy areas and met with the Karen villagers.
Commissioner Nirun Phitak-watchara said most of the 300-rai (48-hectare) area designated as farmland was not cultivatable and expansion of their homes to accommodate new family members was disallowed under forestry restrictions.
Three working panels have been set up to sort out the problem, with the Phetchaburi provincial governor and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) being invited, Nirun said.
The chief of a forestry area office, Saratcha Suriyakul na Ayutthaya, said farmland in three new locations, totalling 200 rai, was under consideration to be designated as for the Karen. This proposal would be made to the DNP soon and it would take about another 30 days to be concluded. cr. nationmultimedia.com