BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human Rights Watch has said it is seriously concerned about an ethnic Karen activist who apparently disappeared after being temporarily detained last week at a national park southwest of Bangkok, and has urged Thai authorities to provide information about him.
Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen, known as Billy - who had been preparing a lawsuit against the authorities for destroying the homes of ethnic Karen living in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Petchaburi province - was detained and then released on Thursday at a checkpoint in the park, but did not return home afterwards and has not been seen since.
Local authorities have not disclosed information on Billy’s detention or evidence of his release, “raising grave concerns” for his safety, HRW said on Monday, noting that Billy was involved in a lawsuit against park officials, including the park chief who has been charged with involvement in the killing of another activist in 2011.
“The apparent disappearance of this prominent Karen activist demands an immediate government response,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
Billy was detained while travelling from his village in Kaeng Krachan district to meet ethnic Karen villagers and activists to prepare for a forthcoming court hearing of a lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, HRW said.
The villagers allege in the lawsuit that in July 2011, the authorities were responsible for the destruction and burning of houses and property of more than 20 Karen families living in the villages in the national park. When Billy was detained, he was carrying case files and related documents.
The head of the Kaeng Krachan National Park Office, Chaiwat Limlikitaksor, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that Billy had been taken for questioning on Thursday evening about an unlawful wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey alleged to have been found in his possession, but was released after questioning.
“I didn’t think it was a big offence, so I just let him go. There were witnesses, people saw me release him,” Chaiwat told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Villagers and local activists have tried unsuccessfully to contact Billy, and on April 19 his family filed a missing person’s complaint with local police.
HRW fears Billy has been “forcibly disappeared” – the term used in international law when state officials take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts.
According to HRW, Chaiwat was charged in a separate case with masterminding the 2011 killing of Tatkamol Ob-om, a Thai activist from Billy’s network who had been helping Karen villagers report on alleged violence, illegal logging and poaching by park officials.
Chaiwat accused the activists of hounding him: “They are linking me to every single case. I can prove where I was and what I was doing. If I really did do wrong, then I would be in jail.”
Referring to the charges in the case that Billy had been preparing, Chaiwat defended the burning of the villagers’ homes.
“They trespassed on state property, chopped down trees that were hundreds of years old, and planted marijuana,” he said. “Come and see for yourself how they chopped down my trees, how they were planting drugs.”
HRW’s Thailand representative Sunai Phasuk said the use of excessive violence by park officials was not acceptable.
“We understand the duties of park officials to protect forests and animals, but they are using excessive violence against the ethnic Karen who lived in the park hundreds of years before the enforcement of the national conservation laws,” Sunai told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We have very serious concerns that Kaeng Krachan National Park has become a dangerous area for people who speak up for the rights of Karen villagers. One of them was gunned down and now we have another who has disappeared.”