Cruel forest law helped condemn Billy to death
Details of the gruesome murder of missing Karen rights activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen released last week by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) sent shivers down many spines. As the case made headlines, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha echoed public sentiment in calling for the culprit to be punished.
Gen Prayut announced that the probe into Billy's murder must be "watertight and the killers brought to justice". It is unfortunate that the prime minister's strong words now contrast sharply with his past indifference to the activist's disappearance.
The DSI deserves some credit for its performance, but it should be noted that before it made the breakthrough, the agency had rejected a petition from Billy's wife to investigate the case.
Did its reluctance have something to do with the fact that Billy dared to challenge the state? At the time he went missing in 2014, the soft-spoken activist was leading his people, a group of ethnic Karen in Ban Bang Kloy Bon, in a lawsuit against then Kaeng Krachan park chief Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn over a brutal 2011 eviction that saw their houses and rice barns in the park reduced to ashes. Billy's grandfather and spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee was taken by force to a relocation site beyond the park boundary.
After Billy's remains were located, a group of park officials were transferred and hope is now rising that the mastermind will soon be caught. Mr Chaiwat, who was said to be the last person to encounter Billy before he mysteriously disappeared, insists he is innocent of any crime, citing his previous acquittal over a lack of evidence.
Public interest in the case is being fuelled by the hunt for the killers. But we also have to admit that the activist, while pursuing his people's dream of returning to their ancestral land, fought not only against heartless officials and unjust forest laws but also public prejudice.
For several decades, the state's rigid efforts to maintain "untamed wilderness" have seen forest dwellers unceremoniously booted out of their homes. The fact that these indigenous people were living in the forest before it was designated protected land has gone ignored.
Records show that a number of eviction operations have been violent, with forest-dwellers routinely harassed and intimidated. Lacking rights to bargain with the state, some even lose their lives, as in the case of Billy. Many of his fellow land defenders are still unaccounted for.
In some cases, indigenous communities have been charged with "damaging" the forest. In a well-known case in 2014, 39 Karen villagers in Mae Hong Son were arrested and charged for belonging to "illegal logging gangs", after a raid carried out by military and forest officials.
The officials found forest lumber being stored in houses at the village. A court sentenced 23 of the villagers to prison terms ranging from one to seven years. The remainder were fined between 10,000 and 20,000 baht depending on the amount of wood in their possession, though no caches were large. The Karen insisted they had to store the wood to repair their houses when necessary.
The tough action indicates that authorities mainly target and criminalise forest-dwellers while allowing the big fish -- illegal timber tycoons -- to slip through the net.
The Prayut regime's harsh forest-reclamation policy makes things worse for these people, as it allows state officials to pursue evictions and infringe on villagers' rights. Even peaceful land-rights defenders are thrown in jail.
It doesn't help that, despite widespread public sympathy for Billy, many of us are indifferent to the cause he championed: his people's right to remain on their ancestral land. Karen traditions are used to promote tourism, while the ethnic group's unique V-neck shirts are a favourite with the fashion industry. Even the suspension bridge beneath which Billy's remains were found has become a tourist attraction after it featured in the 2010 Thai romantic film Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Few of us were aware that villagers on the same spot were waging a battle against eviction that they lost in the year following the film's release.
It seems that our idea of "harmonious co-existence" is highly selective. The state is happy to exploit indigenous ethnic communities for their exotic traditions and culture, but at the same time cruelly rejects their rights. This is why the brutal evictions continue and why society turns a blind eye.
The confirmed death of Billy should not be seen as just another crime case. It should become part of a wider discussion highlighting the reality of conflicts and injustice that result from state policies.
Lest we forget, it's cruel policies such as these that encourage violent crime against the voiceless.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.