A judgement is scheduled to be delivered on Thursday in the trial of four national park officials charged with the enforced disappearance and murder of indigenous rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen nine years ago.
The case against Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, the former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, and three others is being heard by the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases, and is being closely watched by human rights groups.
Billy was last seen on April 17, 2014, when he was detained — reportedly for illegal possession of wild bee honey — by Mr Chaiwat and other park officers at a checkpoint at the entrance to Bang Kloi village in Kaeng Krachan district of Phetchaburi.
At the time of his arrest, Billy was travelling to meet with indigenous Karen villagers in preparation for a hearing in their lawsuit against park officers for forced evictions and burning of Karen homes. Billy was also carrying case files related to the lawsuit that have never been recovered, according to Amnesty International Thailand.
An investigation into the disappearance made little progress until 2019, when the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found burned human remains and a skull in an oil drum in the park.
The DSI attempted to press murder charges but prosecutors rejected as unreliable a DNA test that appeared to establish the remains as those of Billy. Prosecutors dropped all the charges recommended by the DSI in January 2020.
The DSI subsequently appealed the decision to the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG), which finally moved in August 2022 to indict the four suspects on five charges, including abducting and murdering Billy. The four men deny the charges.
Mr Chaiwat was sacked over his alleged role in the burning of Karen villagers’ homes in the national park nearly a decade ago but he challenged the decision. The Phetchaburi Administrative Court in September last year reinstated him as a civil servant.
He subsequently emerged as an unlikely hero when he accused Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya, the sacked former chief of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, of abusing his authority by transferring officials who refused to pay him hefty bribes.
In February this year, Mr Chaiwat was appointed the new chief of the National Parks Office under the Department of Natural Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
Mr Chaiwat and his co-accused in the case — Bunthaen Butsarakham, Thanaset Chaemthet and Kritsanaphong Chitthet — have been free on bail on condition that they not leave the country without permission or intimidate witnesses.
- Commentary: No justice in sight for Billy or his people