BANGKOK — Relatives and human rights groups urged Thai authorities on Monday to investigate the disappearance of an environmental activist who has worked to help ethnic Karen villagers report illegal activity at Thailand's largest national park.
Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen, known as "Billy," was detained briefly in Kaengkrachan National Park last Thursday for possessing illegal wild honey but was released and has not been seen since. At the time he was heading to meet villagers and activists to prepare for a lawsuit accusing park officials of burning and destroying the homes and property of more than 20 families in the area.
There are serious concerns about Billy's fate, partly because Thailand has a record of deadly violence directed at land and environmental activists, with perpetrators rarely brought to justice.
Police Col. Woradet Suanklaai said his office was investigating but Billy's whereabouts remained unknown. Billy's wife and a group of villagers met Monday with police and the provincial governor to urge them to solve the case.
National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwachara also called on authorities to find the activist.
"Billy is not an ordinary villager who simply went missing. He is a key Karen activist who is fighting in a case in the Administrative Court, and it's the job of the government and the administrative officials to find out where he might be, whether he is being tortured or even killed," Niran said.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern for Billy's disappearance and said the park chief, Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, was being investigated on suspicion of planning the killing of an activist from Billy's network in 2011 who had helped ethnic Karen villagers report abuses, violence, illegal logging, and poaching allegedly committed by park officials.
Chaiwat has not been suspended from duty as is required for officials under criminal investigation, Human Rights Watch said. "Chaiwat's presence at the national park has been a cause of fear among local activists and villagers, particularly those involved in lawsuits against him," it said.
Asked Monday if he was involved in Billy's disappearance, Chaiwat told The Associated Press: "That's quite an accusation. I think it's rather a game because I filed a lawsuit against his people about trespassing in the forest, so this might be an attempt to try to frame me."
Kaengkrachan National Park, which neighbors Myanmar in Petchaburi province, is mostly rainforest with a variety of bird and mammal species. It has had problems with illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
Chaiwat said Billy was released because the honey he was allegedly carrying was deemed a petty offense.
A park intern, Issara Seuksahet, said by phone from Chaiwat's office that Billy was seen riding a yellow motorcycle in the rain after he was released.
A report released last week by the London-based environmental watchdog group Global Witness said killings of such activists worldwide increased sharply between 2002 and 2013, with at least 908 people known to have died during that period. Brazil accounted for many of the deaths with 448, but Thailand with 16 had the second highest total in Asia, after the Philippines with 67.
The report said impunity for the killers of land and environmental activists was common, with convictions known to have been obtained for only 10 perpetrators out of the 908 killings.