‘Billy’ shines light on plight of Karens

A network of artists organised an exhibition aimed at calling for justice over the death of Karen rights activist Porlajee ‘Billy’ Rakchongcharoen at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre on Sept 7 after the Department of Special Investigation started treating the case as a murder.  (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The brutal murder of Karen rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen is a major blemish not only on the Kaeng Krachan forest conservation process but also Thailand’s bureaucracy.

Billy mysteriously disappeared on April 17, 2014, while in custody of then park chief Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn who later claimed he found six bottles of honey in the activist’s possession. The official, who is now chief of Protected Area Region 9, insisted that he freed the activist after “briefly detaining him”, slapping him with a warning.

It so happened that the police bought Mr Chaiwat’s theory as their investigation resulted in no further action.

However, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) made a breakthrough in May when they discovered key evidence including skull fragments. DNA tests matched the skull with Billy’s mother and suggested the activist was killed and his body was burnt in a cover-up. This week, the DSI pointed the finger at Mr Chaiwat and his team as the murderers.

After the court granted arrest warrants for Mr Chaiwat and co, permanent secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Chatuporn Buruspat on Nov 11 stunned observers by saying there was no need to suspend the suspected murderer from work, nor would he be transferred. Instead, he insisted that Mr Chaiwat would continue working as the ministry allows “the justice process to run its course”.

Moreover, there were reports on the same day that Mr Chaiwat turned up at the Kanchanaburi-based Srinagarindra national park where Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon chaired a meeting. Does his journey suggest a strong connection Mr Chaiwat has with the powers-that-be?

Mr Chatuporn is not wrong to cite “allowing justice to work”. Such a statement is, however, misleading as the heart of the problem in this tragic case is power abuse on the part of the authorities in pushing Karen villagers out of the Ban Bang Kloy Bon village to lower areas. How can the system allow abuse of power that results in a tragedy? Who should be held responsible? What can the state do to heal those Karens?

The Kaeng Krachan saga began in 1996 when the National Park evicted 391 Karen villagers to a lower area, known as Ban Bang Kloy Lang, with a promise to find adequate farmland for every family. Yet, the park failed to keep the promise — the land was not appropriate for farming and hardship escalated. Some Karens decided to return to the old village.

Fast forward to 2010, when park officials resumed the eviction, pushing the Karens back to the barren relocation site. They reported to the ministry that “more Karen migrants had encroached upon the forest, occupying a vast area.” Such reports which gave an impression that Karens are trouble-makers were to justify a brutal crackdown the following year in what was known as “Operation Tanao Sri” with combined police and military forces headed by Mr Chaiwat. They burned down the huts and rice barns as the old, women and children fled for their lives and were forced to return to the Ban Bang Kloy Lang relocation site. This is just the beginning of the Kaeng Krachan tragedy.

There was a big loss on the part of the authorities as they carried out the crackdown. Three helicopters crashed in eight days amid turbulent weather, killing 17 officers and reporters.

The Tanao Sri operation report that was submitted to the ministry stated that a man named Nor-e Mimee was arrested during the four-day operation starting on May 5, 2011, as altogether 98 huts were burned down. The authorities alleged that they found “slashed-and-burned” farm areas that supplied food sources to armed Karen fighters. They claimed to have seized some ammunition including eight sickles, 10 axes, 25 knives, two homemade guns, three animals’ traps and some carcasses, including the head of a bark deer, a wild boar’s head, a turtle and some cash.

Take a quick look at the list of seized ammunition. The officials’ claims that those items were used by armed Karen fighters who sneaked into the country over the border are just ridiculous. The “slashed and burned” farming discourse is disputable. The Karen way of farming is recognised for its sustainability. More importantly, there is evidence that Karens at Ban Bang Kloy Bon had settled in the area a hundred years ago, long before it was designated as a national park, and clearly before the national park law was issued. What right did the state have to evict these indigenous people?

I doubt whether the ministry has ever examined the violent operation, comparing it with the end results, to ascertain whether its actions were justifiable. After their “success”, there emerged heavy criticism for blatant breaches of human rights. This is one of the reasons that the Unesco’s World Heritage Committee refused to endorse Kaeng Krachan Park as a World Heritage Site.

In 2013, Karen spiritual leader Kor-ee Mimee filed a complaint with the Administrative Court which ruled six years later ruled that the violence against the Karens was excessive and since the authorities failed to observe Section 22 in the national park law in pushing the villagers, Operation Tanao Sri was not lawful and those involved must compensate the affected villagers. To this day, the Natural Resources and the Environment Ministry still distances itself from the case as no compensation has ever been paid. In fact, the court verdict should have alerted the ministry to the extent of the problems and prompted it to launch a fact-finding committee to look into the case. But the agency has done nothing. Even when the Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Chaiwat and Co, the ministry still refused to step out of comfort zone, sticking to its meaningless “justice process running its course” rhetoric.

Today, Karens at Bang Kloy Lang relocation village are living a hard life as the state promises about farmland evaporate. The land in the relocation site is too barren, there is no water source. Many of working age have abandoned the village for mundane, low-paid jobs. Family bonds have been torn, dreams of the elderly to return to their own land have been shattered.

There are so many truths in the Kaeng Krachan saga for those in the ministry to examine. There are many urgent tasks that the ministry should take care of before things get worse. Don’t forget that the revised national park law makes lives more difficult for forest dwellers, disregarding their ancestral rights. The revised law authorised state officials to take over forests that have been nurtured by local people.

Under such a harsh law, there is really no place for Karens to live and survive. In showing no for ancestral rights, the Thai state has sunk to a new low in handling indigenous people.

Those six bottles that Chaiwat alleged he found with Billy might just be the “little drop of honey” that caused irreversible damage to this country.

Paskorn Jumlongrach is the founder of www.transbordernews.in.th.

https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1795324/billy-shines-light-on-plight-of-karens