Suspect in disappearance of Karen activist appointed park protection chief

The former chief of a National Park has been appointed head of a new park protection unit despite the fact that he is the prime suspect in the enforced disappearance of a Karen rights activist.

The Daily News reported on Tuesday, 3 May 2016, that Thanya Netithamkul, Director-General of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), announced that the Department recently established a new forest and wildlife protection unit called the Tiger Corps Operation Unit.

Thanya added that the unit will be headed by Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, who is currently Director of 1st Region Water Source Protection Unit in central Prachinburi Province.

Chaiwat, a former Superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park in western Phetchaburi Province, is the prime suspect in the enforced disappearance of Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, aka Billy, a Karen human and community rights activist.

Porlajee went missing on 17 April 2014 after he was arrested and unlawfully detained by Chaiwat and four other park officers regarding a wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey allegedly found in his possession before he disappeared.

The Karen activist’s disappearance came three years after he assisted Karen villagers of Pong Luk Bang Kloy of Phetchaburi to file a lawsuit against Chaiwat in the Administrative Court for ordering the eviction and burning of their homes in the village in May 2011.

When asked by the media if the appointment of Chaiwat as head of the new national park protection unit will cause dissatisfaction among Karen ethnic communities, the DNP Director-General said that some Karen are supporting Chaiwat as he is a hardworking person.

On his appointment, Chaiwat was reported in the Daily News as saying that people who are not lawbreakers do not have to be afraid of the Tiger Corps Operation Unit.

Chaiwat, the DNP and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment were earlier accused under Article 157 of the Criminal Code (malfeasance in office), for the eviction and burning of the Karen village in May 2011. However, the Administrative Court in February dismissed charges against the two public agencies, reasoning that under Article 22 of the 1961 National Parks Act, the DNP has the authority to remove any structure built in national parks.

After Porlajee’s disappearance, Pinnapha Phrueksapan, Porlajee’s wife, in 2014 requested the court to hold an emergency trial under Article 90 of the Criminal Procedure Code to investigate his alleged unlawful detention. However, the Court of First Instance later ruled that evidence of the unlawful detention of Porlajee was insufficient.

Investigation officers of the Royal Thai Police Region 7 in early 2015 also filed charges of malfeasance in office against Chaiwat and four other park officers for the alleged unlawful detention of the missing Karen activist.

The case is also under investigation by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). However, no progress has been made on the case since last year.