The oil drum used in Billy's case being brought up from Kaeng Krachan Dam (Source: Banrasdr Photo)

The Red Drum: from the killing of Thanom-era Communist suspects to Billy, and the culture of impunity

On 3 September 2019, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) held a press conference on the progress in the investigation into the disappearance of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, an environmental activist and community rights defender from the Pong Luk Bang Kloy Karen community, who disappeared mysteriously on 17 April 2014.

Left: a diagram showing how the victims of the Red Drum were burned. 
Right: A DSI official showing a picture of the oil drum found in Kaeng Krachan Dam

Among the evidence found were a 200-litre oil drum, 2 steel rods, 4 pieces of charcoal, and fragments of the old drum lid, along with 2 pieces of bone, which were found underwater when special investigating officers using an underwater vehicle and a team of drivers searched the area under the suspension bridge over the Kaeng Krachan Dam on 22 – 24 May 2019.

The bone fragments were tested by the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS), which found that they were pieces from a human skull, which was burned, cracked, and shrunk due to exposure to heat of 200-300 degrees Celsius. Genetic testing found that the mitochondrial DNA matched that of Billy’s mother. The special investigating officers therefore concluded that the bones were Billy’s, and that his body was burned to conceal the crime.

The oil drum used in Billy's case being brought up from Kaeng Krachan Dam (Source: Banrasdr Photo)

Prajak Kongkirati, a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, observed on his Twitter account that during the era of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963-73), burning bodies in an oil drum was a method used by government officials to get rid of people suspected of being involved with Communism. Suspects were placed in an oil drum with about 20 litres of oil and burned. Some were tortured and some were already dead before being burned, while some were burned alive.

Meanwhile, former human rights commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit pointed out that during the search for her husband, the human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, who went missing in 2004, 4 200-litre oil drums along with 2 steel rods were also found. Angkhana speculated that the steel rods were for keeping the lid closed while the body is being burned. 

In the article “Crime of the State: Enforced disappearance, killings and impunity,” Thaweeporn Kummetha wrote about the “culture of impunity” which enables enforced disappearances, giving the example of the mass enforced disappearance, torture, and killing of communist suspects in Phattalung during the Cold War, nicknamed the “Red Drum” killings, which took place under the anti-communist dictatorship of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.

A proposed design for a memorial for the victims of the Red Drum. The picture on the top right shows how the victims are burned. 

The name derives from the method of killing communist suspects. Thousands of communist suspects are believed to have been killed by being burned alive in 200-litre oil drums. While the bodies were burning, truck engines were revved to mask the screams of those who were being murdered. According to Tyrell Haberkorn’s article “Getting Away with Murder in Thailand: State Violence and Impunity in Phatthalung,” it is estimated that about 3000 people were killed in this manner in 1972. 

Even though the atrocities were committed under a military dictatorship, the exposure of such crimes was made possible by student activists during a brief period of democracy in 1975, two years after the 14 October 1973 uprising.

Haberkorn wrote that the exposure stirred heated debate in Thai society. The media widely reported the Red Drum cases and the public called for the civilian government to prosecute the perpetrators. The Ministry of Interior set up a committee to investigate the case in mid-1975. About a month later, the Minister of Interior concluded that innocent citizens had been killed, but only seventy or eighty people were involved, rather than thousands. Regardless of the number, no one was punished, and the state agency held responsible for the killings continued working as usual.

“[Impunity and enforced disappearance] are directly related. I am routinely astounded because there have been so many cases of disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killings, a massacre, but it's extremely rare that anyone was held to account,” Haberkorn said.

The Red Drum memorial at Phattalung

Thaweeporn’s report emphasized that, since no one was held accountable, the repeated practice of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings has become normalized and even flourishes in a culture of impunity.

And since the DSI has already come this far, let’s hope that Billy’s case will become a precedent which sets a new standard.