Billy's death should not be in vain

By Sanitsuda Ekachai

Last week, the mystery was over.

As it turned out, Karen land rights activist, Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, did not go "missing" after he was arrested by the former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn five years ago. He was murdered. His remains were burnt in an oil drum and later dumped in a waterway close to the park office.

For Billy's wife, Pinnapa "Mueno" Prueksapan, his death was not unexpected. But the intense pain she felt last Tuesday, when she watched a live broadcast of the Department of Special Investigation's (DSI) press conference on its investigation results, was just as paralysing.

The burnt-up oil drum, wherein Billy's body was torched. The iron rods to contain his remains from shooting out of the drum as the fire raged. The bits and pieces of bones that could belong to her beloved husband and the father of their five children. She felt a lump in her throat. She could not breathe, she could not speak. She felt as if she was hit hard in the chest.

Then, she exploded in a torrent of tears.

"How on earth could they possibly do that to Billy? Are these people still humans?" she asked in pain.

Although the DSI investigation rekindled her hope for justice, it was too early to be sure that justice will be served. Not only for Billy and his family, but also for the indigenous Karen forest dwellers he was fighting for.

The conflict began in 2011, when Mr Chaiwat led a team of forest rangers and soldiers to set fire to the homes and rice barns of Karen indigenous forest dwellers in Jai Paen Din, meaning "heart of the land", deep in the heart of Kaeng Krachan.

The violent evictions occurred the same year the forest agency moved to enlist the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a Unesco Natural World Heritage Site.

Mr Chaiwat accused the indigenous forest dwellers of being a threat to national security. Describing them as illegal immigrants, forest destroyers, drug peddlers and sympathisers of the Karen rebel army in Myanmar, he forced the indigenous Karen forest dwellers out of their ancestral land to struggle with hunger and poverty -- and no dignity -- in a resettlement village.

Local politician and advocate of the indigenous people's rights, Thatkamon Ob-om, exposed the violence to the public and sought legal help from the Lawyers Council of Thailand. A week later, he was shot dead while driving. Police charged Mr Chaiwat with his alleged involvement in the murder, but he walked free for lack of hard evidence.

Billy then came in to fill in the gap. As a Karen with Thai education, he compiled evidence for the court case and planned to file a royal petition. However, on April 17, 2014, Mr Chaiwat arrested him for possessing wild honey. He was never seen again.

During last week's press conference, the DSI insisted it has gathered enough evidence to issue arrest warrants against certain individuals on charges of abduction, torture, murder, and destruction of evidence, but the agency refused to elaborate.

However, it is believed the DSI has the CCTV footage and witness testimonies to challenge Mr Chaiwat's claim that he released Billy after his arrest.

But problems remain. Thailand does not have a law on enforced disappearances, which holds accountable the person last seen with the victim.

Last year, the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly dumped a bill against torture and enforced disappearance.

It's obvious why. Most perpetrators are state officials themselves. The culture of impunity aggravates state crimes and human rights abuses.

Following the extensive media coverage on Billy's murder, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation moved four officers last seen with Billy out of Kaeng Krachan to facilitate the murder investigation.

However, the transfer does not include the man at the centre of the controversy.

Questions also arise as to why the prime suspect has not been temporarily suspended from duty during the investigation.

Mr Chaiwat is dogged with a series of court cases and petitions concerning abuse of power and other scandals during his tenure in Kaeng Krachan.

Apart from allegedly possessing a huge wooden mansion in the forest, his close aide was convicted for keeping a tusk of an elephant. Yet, like his boss, he continued to receive promotions.

Without Billy, his grandfather and Karen spiritual leader Ko-ee Mimee continued the legal battle to demand customary land rights for indigenous people and dismantle public misunderstanding about their rotational farming system, which has been reviled by forest authorities as nomadic slash-and-burn cultivation.

"We just want to return to our forest home and simple way of living," the centenarian begged.

After seven years of legal wrangling, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the evicted Karen are natives to the land, dismissing Mr Chaiwat's claims about them. The court also found him and his team abused power by torching the indigenous people's huts and ordered the forest agency to compensate the losses.

The court also told forest authorities to respect a Aug 3, 2010 cabinet resolution which allows indigenous people to stay on their ancestral lands and prohibits eviction until land rights conflicts are resolved.

Instead of facing disciplinary measures, Mr Chaiwat continued to climb up the forest agency's ladder, confirming the strong backing from his bosses.

Instead of following the Supreme Administrative Court's guidelines on land rights conflicts, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation learned from the Kaeng Krachan court case defeat by issuing a more oppressive national park law, which allows forest officials to evict and set fire to villagers' homes on a whim. The violent law sailed through the junta-appointed parliament.

The patronage system aside, Mr Chaiwat's violent measures were in sync with his organisation's disdain for forest dwellers and its holding on to centralised power.

We should not forget that all forest laws are written by forest officialdom to give itself sole ownership and power over all national forests. Under the draconian laws, indigenous peoples and local communities are criminals to be subjected to eviction and imprisonment, despite having lived in the forest before the areas were demarcated as national forests.

To legitimise the oppression, forest dwellers and local communities are portrayed as destroyers and national security threats. By doing so, forest authorities shift the blame for deforestation to the forest poor while the key destroyers -- widespread corruption in the organisation and top-down state projects, such as forest clearance to counter the southern insurgency, logging, road construction, mining, tree plantations and dams -- remain untouched.

For the forest mandarins, villagers' demands for land rights are a direct challenge to their power, which must be nipped in the bud at all costs.

This militaristic approach to forest conservation is not only obsolete, but also extremely harmful in the face of a climate crisis.

Research from various parts of the world confirm indigenous people and local communities are the best forest custodians -- not park officials and bureaucrats. The world needs them and their knowledge to save the forests from future catastrophes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top climate science body, agreed. Last month, it stressed the need to accord land rights to indigenous people and traditional farmers to slow down the climate crisis.

Yet indigenous people and local communities in Thailand are routinely criminalised and intimidated -- even murdered -- because the officialdom would not let go of their powers.

Now that we know what happened to Billy, get the murderers and pass the law against torture and enforced disappearance. If criminals still walk free, Billy's death and the indigenous forest dwellers' quest for justice will be in vain. It will send a message to the world that Thailand is a lawless country where raw power reigns.

Equally important, fulfil Billy's mission. Fix oppressive forest laws to recognise indigenous people and local communities as the forest's guardians. Respect their customs and rights. If not, the cycle of abuse will continue, and Billy will not be the last to suffer from abduction, torture, and murder by the state.

The climate crisis is staring at us in the eyes. If we fail to protect those who protect our forests, it will soon be too late to protect ourselves.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender, Thai Buddhism and the environment.

Source: Bangkok Post

Related to SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions and SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

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