Missing activist’s family requests court to declare him legally dead

The family of Karen human rights defender Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, along with a lawyer from the Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA) and the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), filed a request with the Phetchaburi Provincial Court to have Porlajee declared legally dead on 27 August, says CrCF. 

Porlajee "Billy" Rackchongcharoen and his family (file)

Pinnapa “Minor” Pruksapan, Billy’s wife, went to the Phetchaburi Provincial Court with Waraporn Uthairangsi, a HRLA lawyer, to file a request to have the Court declare Billy to be legally dead. The Court has set the inquiry for 28 October at 9.00. 

Billy, a Karen environmental activist and community rights defender, was last seen on 17 April 2014. He was arrested by then Kaeng Krachan National Park superintendent Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn and four other officers for allegedly collecting wild honey illegally. 

At the time of his disappearance, Billy was travelling from his village to meet with ethnic Karen villagers about their forced eviction and the burning of theirhouses and possessions, in preparation for a lawsuit which named the national park chief as a defendant. He was carrying documents related to the case, about which he had been planning to submit a petition to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. 

Chaiwat later claimed that Billy was released on the same day as his arrest, but there are no official records of his arrest or detention. Pinnapa filed an emergency trial request to the Appeal Court on 16 September 2014 after the Court of First Instance ruled that there was insufficient evidence of his unlawful detention. On 27 February 2015, the Appeal Court dismissed the request, citing lack of evidence. 

On 6 August 2015, Pinnapa submitted a letter to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) for the agency to take up the case of Billy’s disappearance. However, DSI ruled that Pinnapa cannot petition the department on the grounds that they were not legally married, and stated that the investigation could only proceed if his body is found. Four years later, DSI announced that it will re-open the investigation. 

Pinnapa said that she is requesting to have Billy declared legally dead in order to receive the benefits of Billy’s life insurance policy and other legal issues. Pinnapa has been fighting for the past five years about Billy’s case and the land rights of the Karen villagers from Pong Luk Bang Kloy, the village where she now lives. She is now worn out by the difficulties she cannot avoid facing, from travelling out of the village for legal proceedings to her daily life, where she has to take care of her five children and elderly mother. She also feels unsafe. 

As for members of Billy’s family, Pinnapa said “The children want their father back. Billy’s older relatives want the case to become clear. Everyone wants to know the truth, wants to know what happened. They also want the problem with land rights for their fellow ethnic Karen in the Kaeng Krachan area to be solved quickly.” 

Billy’s family, along with Waraporn, who has been Pinnapa’s lawyer since Billy’s disappearance in 2014, hope that the case will progress quickly and that the family will receive justice. 

Thailand is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. However, according to the report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances from 30 July 2018, Thailand currently has 86 outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearance. Amnesty International also reported that at least 59 human rights defenders have been victims of enforced disappearance since 1998. Notable cases of human rights defenders’ disappearance included those of labour activist Tanong Po-arn, land rights activist Den Khamlae, and human rights activist and lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit. 

Several political activists in exile have also disappeared, including Wutthipong “Ko Tee” Kochthammakun, who went missing in 2017, and Surachai Danwattananusorn, who went missing in December 2018. Two other refugees who went missing along with Surachai were later found dead. In May 2019, a report surfaced that Siam Theerawut, Kritsana Tupthai, and Chucheep Chiwasut were arrested in Vietnam and extradited to Thailand. However, the authorities have denied knowledge of their supposed arrest and extradition, and they have yet to be heard from. 

Thailand currently lacks legislation criminalizing torture and enforced disappearance. The Working Group had recommended that the draft act on prevention and suppression of torture and enforced disappearance be swiftly adopted, but the draft had already fallen through. When the Working Group requested to visit Thailand in 2018, the government did not accept their request.

Pinnapa said that she wants Billy to be the last case and that she does not want this to happen to anyone else. Waraporn, her attorney, said that “ordinary people are still not aware of the issue of enforced disappearance, probably because they still see it as irrelevant to them, that it has never happened to them or people close to them. It is possible that a lot of people still don’t know the terms ‘enforced disappearance’ even though there is a chance that it will happen to everyone, but it should not happen to anyone. Having a legal mechanism and safety procedure that can protect every person’s life that is also seriously enforced is something that should happen quickly.”