Billy's long, long journey for justice
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Billy's long, long journey for justice


Pinnapa Preuksapan, the wife of Karen activist Porlajee 'Billy' Rakchongcharoen, reacts as her lawyers give a statement to the press after murder charges were dropped against four national park officials who were accused of being involved in his disappearance and murder in 2014, at the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases in Bangkok on Sept 28. (Photo: AFP)
Pinnapa Preuksapan, the wife of Karen activist Porlajee 'Billy' Rakchongcharoen, reacts as her lawyers give a statement to the press after murder charges were dropped against four national park officials who were accused of being involved in his disappearance and murder in 2014, at the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases in Bangkok on Sept 28. (Photo: AFP)

After nine relentless years of pursuing justice, Pinnapa "Mueno" Prueksapan was left stunned by the court's verdict late last month that cleared the man she held responsible for her husband's violent death of a murder charge.

Tears cascaded down her face as she grappled with pain and bitterness.

This is a David versus Goliath court case.

On one side are the powerless indigenous forest people in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province. On the other side are national park officials wielding absolute power over the forest people's ancestral homes.

The Karen insist on their ancestral land rights. The forest authorities insist on evicting the forest dwellers, believing it's necessary to safeguard forest health.

The Karen have nothing but their simple way of life to demonstrate that they are forest guardians. The national park officials have draconian laws at their disposal to evict forest dwellers, disregarding their constitutional rights to live and protect their forest homes.

Her husband, Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, disappeared in 2014 after being detained by Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, then the Kaeng Krachan National Park chief in Petchaburi province.

Billy, an ethnic Karen land rights activist, played a key role in helping his grandfather, spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee, and fellow Kaeng Krachan Karen sue Mr Chaiwat for burning down their houses and rice barns during his violent forest eviction drives in 2011.

Billy also openly collaborated with human rights advocates and lawyers to expose the crime and the hardships the Karen faced when uprooted from their forest homes to struggle with hunger and poverty in a resettlement village.

In national parks where forest chiefs have the final say, such a challenge from dirt-poor forest people is deemed unacceptable.

The Bangkok forest authorities were also wary. More than 10 million people reside in national forests. Evictions are routine due to the draconian laws criminalising people in forests as encroachers. It makes no difference if their families have resided there for generations. They fear that other forest communities will imitate Kaeng Krachan.

The Kaeng Krachan legal battle for justice has captured the public's attention from the start, thanks to iconic centenarian spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee, who had come to symbolise the indigenous people's struggle for land rights and identities. His call to return to his ancestral home rekindled similar demands from other hill tribes in Thailand.

The Kaeng Krachan's struggle aligns with global recognition that indigenous people's land security is essential to preserving forests and containing the climate crisis. Yet forest policymakers remain tone-deaf.

While the Kaeng Krachan Karen gained public support during the protracted legal battles, the park chief faced an unfavourable spotlight.

Former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, centre, and three of his subordinates, all accused of being involved in the disappearance and premeditated murder of 'Billy', arrive at court on Sept 28.

The violent evictions he led in 2011 resulted in three helicopter crashes, fatalities, and the first use of arson to evict forest dwellers. Additionally, Mr Chaiwat faced a murder charge for the death of Tatkamol Ob-om, a vocal supporter of Kaeng Krachan Karen. But he was ultimately found not guilty due to a lack of solid evidence.

On the day of his disappearance, Billy had been detained by Mr Chaiwat for possessing wild honey. Mr Chaiwat's claim that he had already set Billy free contained many inaccuracies, however.

Firstly, the two student trainees who initially asserted they witnessed Billy's release later recanted their statements, claiming that they had followed Mr Chaiwat's instructions.

Additionally, the roadside surveillance camera did not capture Mr Chaiwat's vehicle on the routes that he claimed to have taken following the release.

Since Billy's body could not be discovered, he remained legally "missing" under criminal law, preventing charges against suspects.

Many things happened during the lengthy court battle. In 2018, four years after Billy's disappearance, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Mr Chaiwat was guilty of power overreach for arson. The court also confirmed that the Kaeng Krachan Karen were native forest dwellers, not illegal immigrants, as claimed by Mr Chaiwat.

After years of fruitless investigation, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) finally agreed to look into Billy's case due to Mueno's persistence.

"I didn't give up because I want to know where Billy is and what happened to him," said the widow.

In a breakthrough, the DSI discovered a scorched oil drum dumped in a nearby reservoir containing pieces of a broken skull confirmed to belong to Billy through DNA testing.

According to DSI, Billy's body was put in an old drum, set ablaze, and dumped into the reservoir. It took three years and Mueno's tenacity for the state attorneys to file a criminal charge against Mr Chaiwat in 2022.

Meanwhile, the ex-park chief also suffered a setback in his career. In 2011, the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) found he had gravely violated the code of conduct for civil servants by using arson to drive the forest dwellers out. Despite being Mr Chaiwat's protector, the DNP was forced to dismiss him.

However, the Teflon official petitioned the Administrative Court for reinstatement. The DNP not only welcomed him back but also gave him a promotion.

While officials accused of murder typically receive a suspension, Mr Chaiwat did not, raising questions about the support he had received.

Theories abound. But it is most likely that the DNP wants to protect its hardline forest policy. Learning from his legal missteps, the DNP even introduced a new national park law that gives forest officials the power to destroy forest dwellers' homes to avoid similar power abuse lawsuits.

Like Mueno, the public pinned high hopes on the DSI's DNA evidence. They were then similarly disappointed by the criminal court's decision.

Although Mr Chaiwat received a three-year sentence without suspension for dereliction of duty for failing to report the arrest and hand over Billy to police, the court cleared him and his team of murder-related charges.

Why? Because the suspects' dubious testimonies are deemed insufficient to prove their guilt in a murder case, according to a press release from the Criminal Court. The same goes for the DNA evidence.

What's wrong here?

First, the outdated criminal code of law. Without a corpse to confirm a person's death, that individual is legally classified as missing, not a murder victim.

Second, the judicial system grants judges excessive discretion in accepting or rejecting evidence.

Mueno's hurt was made worse when the DNP leaders declared that Mr Chaiwat's position would remain unchanged despite his jail sentence.

This begs the question of whether the DNP was guilty of negligence. Normally, any public servants accused of murder or given a prison term have their positions temporarily removed until the Supreme Court's decision.

The court decision might have been different if the anti-torture and enforced disappearance law had been in place when Billy vanished. This is because the persons last seen with the victim are held responsible for the disappearance.

Nearly a decade after Billy's disappearance, the courtroom battle is far from over.

From a timid peasant, the legal battle has transformed Billy's widow into a fighter for justice and indigenous rights in the face of power.

"Billy once said to me that if he ever vanished, it meant he had been murdered. He told me to continue living my life to raise our five children. But I was unable to," she recalled. "Justice must be served. Not just for him but also for our people's dignity and rights to return to our ancestral land."

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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