No justice in sight for Billy or his people

No justice in sight for Billy or his people

Karen villagers and rights activists arrive in front of Government House on Feb 15, 2021, to discuss the villagers' demand to return and live in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province.
Karen villagers and rights activists arrive in front of Government House on Feb 15, 2021, to discuss the villagers' demand to return and live in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province.

The eldest child of missing Karen rights activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen enrolled in university this year, while her younger siblings are school students, some with financial help from kind-hearted donors. The youngest remains at home in Phetchaburi with his mum and Billy's widow Pinnapa "Mueno" Prueksapan.

The five kids are each following their education dreams, yet one thing that they have never missed is to gather on April 17, the day their father became a victim of enforced disappearance while campaigning for Karen rights in 2014.

Every year, they appear at the spot where the activist was last seen with a team of park officers, and erect a sign that states, simply, "a man is missing here" -- a reminder that justice is still undone for the family and the Karen community.

Bang Kloi Jai Pandin village in the heart of Kaeng Krachan forest is home to indigenous Karen villagers who have lived there for generations. State documents show the village was registered with the Interior Ministry more than a century ago. Their world turned upside down in 1981 when the state designated the forest as a national park, with a plan to propose it as a Unesco world heritage site. In 1996, the state evicted the ethnic villagers to lower Bang Kloi Pong Luek village with promises that each family would get a seven-rai land plot. But they later found the relocation site was barely liveable, as the land was barren. The villagers, led by then spiritual leader Kor-ee, Billy's grandfather, decided to go back to their home village.

The exodus was followed by a violent crackdown, known as the "Tanao Sri" operation during 2010-2011. In pursuing their brutal task, the state wrongly branded the indigenous villagers as wildlife and drug smugglers, as well as a minority armed group. Their farm tools, knives and spades were confiscated as "weapons", while their huts and rice barns were destroyed in flames in 2011. Since then, Bang Kloi Jai Pandin was erased from the state registration system while the Karen villagers scattered. Some had no choice but to go back and face the hardship at the lower relocation site. Others fled to nearby Ratchaburi.

Billy's dreams of bringing his fellow Karen back home never came true. On that doomed day, he was seen being detained by the park officers while on the way to his home from the forest. A number of campaigns were conducted in the hope of holding the culprits to account for their brutal act, but the arm of the law was not long enough.

"Justice has not been done for us. The land issues that Billy tried to tackle are still on. Everything is the same," Mueno replied when asked about her fight for justice for her dead husband over the past nine years.

A lack of progress in the judicial system has made her feel desperate from time to time.

Back in 2019, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found crucial evidence, fragments of Billy's skull in an oil drum deep in the Kaeng Krachan reservoir. A genetic test showed a DNA connection between the skull fragment and Billy's mother.

The finding rekindled Mueno's hope. But the widow was again let down with a decision by the Office of the Attorney General not to indict the park officers implicated in the case, citing "lack of sufficient evidence".

However, the Office of the Supreme Attorney General last year overturned the controversial decision. It set up a panel to review the case that led to the indictment of former Kaeng Krachan Park chief Chaiwat Limlikit-akson and four team members. The first hearing is scheduled for April 24.

"It seems there is no place for good people, unlike the bad. I watched the news. The officer got promoted. That is like a pressure that makes us feel even smaller, awe-struck and we almost dare not do anything," she said, referring to the former head of the park team.

With no faith left in justice, the widow said deep inside, she is always preparing for the worst. "It's 50-50," she said.

Surapong Kongchantuek, chairman of the Cross-Cultural Foundation and a human rights lawyer, noted that the healing process for Bang Kloi is extremely sluggish.

The Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Bang Kloi villagers are indigenous people and ordered compensation for six families who brought the case to court. However, the remaining villagers who lost their property amid the flames got nothing.

The activist was also of the view that the villagers should be allowed back to the original village. He said this is because the park agency had no mandate to relocate them in the first place. Section 64 of the park law requires the authorities to register those who have lived in the forest before designating the area as a park, but they didn't. This is a dereliction of duty on the part of park officers.

However, the minister attached to Prime Minister's Office, Anucha Nakasai, speaking in his capacity as head of a panel tasked with solving the Bang Kloi problems, insisted there is progress in the healing process for those affected and "the situation is better".

The panel wrapped up its study, and according to Mr Anucha, the Karen villagers are divided into two groups.

The first is willing to continue living at the relocation site on the condition that the state improves their quality of life and provides vocational training. The other group, however, still wants to return to the original village in the heart of Kaeng Krachan Park, and at the same time, they are urging the government to promote their indigenous rotational farming as a model for others. The panel has submitted the demands to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha for further action. But while time for the caretaker government is running out, the Bang Kloi issue will drag on further, with ethnic groups left out in the cold.

Karen rights activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen disappeared on April 17, 2014.

Over the past two decades, state violence has torn the Bang Kloi community apart. In failing to keep its promise, the government has hurt the indigenous people's quality of life. They have suffered food shortages and poor health. Without land, several had to abandon the site and seek low-income jobs in town. A few years ago, dozens tried to return to the village only to be arrested and condemned as encroachers.

In principle, the constitution and cabinet resolution dated Aug 3, 2010, recognise indigenous rights and minority groups' ways of living and also the need to restore Karen livelihoods. But in reality, the authorities are paying lip service.

Now indigenous groups are monitoring the situation to see if the state eliminates double standards and prejudice. In fact, political parties vying for public support in the election should be aware that the Bang Kloi issue is a deciding factor in the minds of more than a million ethnic voters when they cast their ballots.

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th

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