Friday, November 22, 2019

‘Missing’ Karen activist Billy is dead, DSI confirms

Sep 03. 2019
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By THE NATION

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Karen environmental and community activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who went missing in suspicious circumstances more than five years ago, was confirmed as dead on Tuesday.

Senior officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) said they had found some of his remains that had been disposed of in a submerged 200-litre oil drum near a bridge connecting Kaeng Krachan Dam in Phetchaburi province.

The DSI officials told a press conference that the human bones found inside the drum matched the DNA of a close relative of Billy's biological mother. The probe had already established that none of his maternal side relatives were missing except him. 

Billy’s alleged forced disappearance would now be treated as a murder and a case of body concealment, the DSI officials said. They added that they already had some suspects in mind but would need more time to gather solid evidence. Billy's mother and his wife were brought into the witness protection programme.

DSI chief Pol Colonel Paisit Wongmuang explained that after DSI took up the case last June as a special case, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) with its capacity to probe alleged wrongdoing by state officials had sent the case report to the DSI. Probe into the case followed two tracks: one against park officials for dereliction of duty as they had reportedly released Billy without charging him with illegally collecting wild honey-comb, and the other focused on Billy's disappearance.

Paisit said the DSI was helped in the investigations by the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS), the Border Patrol Police, the Provincial Police Region 7, as well as lawyers and special case advisers who are experts from the Faculty of Engineering at King Mongkut's University of Technology North Bangkok. They followed some clues given by witnesses and conducted an underwater search using a robot in a focused area which led to the discovery of the bones, especially a part of a skull that proved vital and led to the confirmation of Billy’s death, he added.

DSI deputy chief Pol Lt-Colonel Korrawat Panprapakorn explained that Billy went missing along with his motorcycle. The underwater robot's sonar scanning and aerial drones were launched from April 22-24 to look for both the vehicle and Billy's bodily remains.

After narrowing the target to several spots at the dam, a subsequent six-hour underwater search on April 26 led to the discovery by border police scuba divers and the retrieval of the 200-litre oil drum, which was partially burnt and had holes. The drum had two pieces of a bone and two metal bars (from a bridge pillar) while several more pieces were found outside the drum within a 30-metre radius, all suspected to be human remains. They are currently being tested.

One of the two bone pieces inside the drum was a part of the left-side lower skull with some burn marks and cracks caused from being exposed to heat in the range of 200 to 300 degrees Celsius, he said. The mitochondrial DNA test result showed they were Billy’s bones as it matched the DNA of Billy's biological mother. So it was concluded that Billy had been killed although investigators are yet to determine how the alleged crime was committed, Korrawat said. He said DSI investigators had some suspects in mind, but they needed time to gather solid evidence to link those involved.

CIFS director Dr Worawee Waiyawuth confirmed that the skull piece connecting the back of the head to the back of the ear was a crucial evidence in drawing the conclusion that Billy was dead. He said the fact that the bone was burnt and cracked made it more difficult and took the experts longer to extract DNA samples for the test, which eventually proved they were Billy's through maternal connection.

Earlier on Tuesday, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa told reporters that his agency was ready to cooperate with police and ensure justice for all sides no matter what the outcome.

Former National Human Rights Commission member Angkhana Neelapaijit posted on her Facebook page, prior to the DSI press conference, that the discovery of the bone, although a bitterly sad truth, was the first step towards following the justice procedure in the Billy case, as he could no longer be deemed "missing". Also, his family would have a closure from the previous ambiguity and could hold religious rites for him. She said that besides uncovering the truth in Billy's case, the Thai government also must resolve the issue of ethnic people's habitat in the Kaeng Krachan Forest, as a Unesco committee had deferred inscribing Kaeng Krachan National Park as a World Heritage Site over human rights concerns and Thailand has been given one year to resolve them.

Billy was last seen in Kaeng Krachan National Park on April 17, 2014 when he was apprehended by then park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn and his four colleagues at a park checkpoint for alleged illegal collection of wild bee honeycomb and honey from the forest. Billy was known to have had a dispute with Chaiwat, as the activist encouraged ethnic Karen people living in the park to file a complaint against the official over alleged abuses. Park officials have consistently insisted that they had detained Billy for questioning only briefly and had released him without a charge.

Billy's wife Pinnapa Prueksaphan, however, had lodged complaints with several agencies holding park officials responsible for her husband’s disappearance, resulting in investigations which did not make any significant progress in the case. 

In 2017, Pinnapa received an official letter from the DSI informing her that the agency had resolved not to accept the disappearance of Billy as a special case. Korrawat, then head of the DSI Bureau of Regional Operation Centre, later confirmed to media that such a letter had been sent to Pinnapa and noted that a fresh investigation would be opened only if new evidence were found. The DSI suggestion that investigation could only proceed if Billy's body was found led to criticism of Thailand's lack of a statute on forced disappearance. The DSI last June announced that it would reopen investigations into Billy's disappearance.

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