'Billy' case in the balance

'Billy' case in the balance

The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment yesterday made a U-turn on its decision to take action against Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, former chief of Kaeng Krachan national park chief, who together with his team is charged with murdering Karen activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen.

According to permanent secretary Chatuporn Buruspat, the ministry is to transfer Mr Chaiwat, currently chief of Ubon Ratchathani-based Protected Area Region 9, out of the National Parks Department. He will be placed at a regional position in Pattani, where he will report directly to the Office of the Permanent Secretary. There are concerns that if Mr Chaiwat remains in his current position, he could exploit his connections to interfere in the case.

The Criminal Court last week issued arrest warrants for Mr Chaiwat and his three-member team, as requested by the Department of Special Investigation. Billy disappeared after being detained by the then-park chief in April 2017.

The DSI took up the case last year and in May discovered skull fragments in an oil drum hidden in the park's reservoir, prompting the murder investigation. Mr Chaiwat was hit with charges of murder and seven other serious offences after forensic tests on the bone fragments showed a DNA match with Billy's mother.

The former park chief and his team pleaded their innocence and were released on 800,000-baht bail.

To widespread public dismay, Mr Chutuporn initially refused to either transfer or suspend Mr Chaiwat from work, saying "justice must be allowed to run its course".

The terse statement drew heavy criticism and even a public outcry against the permanent secretary and the ministry. After all, the indigenous Karen community, who have been subject to state violence for decades, deserve justice.

The ministry's abrupt U-turn is being seen as a gesture towards compromise, apparently aimed at appeasing critics. Yet, by resorting to merely moving Mr Chaiwat, authorities have ignored justifiable demands from the civil sector and human rights advocates that he be suspended in order to prevent him from interfering with or intimidating witnesses. This is still a disappointment.

Mr Chatuporn should be aware that such a soft stance sends the wrong signal to the public about severe cases of human rights abuse. It gives the impression that he and his ministry are embracing a culture of impunity. At the time of his brutal murder in 2014, Billy was helping his fellow Karens to sue the Kaeng Khachan National Park Office over a violent eviction in which the huts and rice barns of Karen residents were burned to the ground.

The Karen were relocated to a site unsuited to farming.

Meanwhile, the court has accepted a DSI request to revoke bail for Mr Chaiwat and his team given the aggressive stance taken by the accused against the charges. The court will make its decision later this month.

At this stage, Mr Chatuporn, his ministry and officials have a duty to cooperate with the DSI so that the truth of a case that has for years stained the country's human rights record finally comes out. Only then could it be said that "justice has run its course".


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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