The disappearance of Karen activist "Billy" has prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) to condemn the "pattern of killings and forced disappearances of environmental activists in Southeast Asia" and to urge authorities to conduct thorough and independent investigations.
We are concerned about the lack of progress with an investigation into the disappearance of a prominent human rights defender in Thailand," UNHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville said in a statement released on Friday.
"Pholachi Rakchongcharoen, known as 'Billy', has been working to promote the land rights of indigenous people in Thailand. He was last seen on April 17 after he met with community representatives to discuss an upcoming lawsuit related to the burning of the homes and properties of Karen villagers by Kaeng Krachan National Park officials in Phetchaburi province in 2010 and 2011.
"The chief of the park has said that he had arrested and interrogated Billy on April 17 for possessing 'illegal wild honey', and that he had later released him, but he has not been seen since.
"This case illustrates a disturbing pattern of killings and disappearances of environmental activists in Southeast Asia," Colville wrote.
In recent years, environmental activists known for campaigns against large-scale mining projects were killed in the Philippines, including Marcelo Monterona, Juvy Campion and Jimmy Liguyon. In Laos, Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader and advocate against land grabbing, disappeared on December 15, 2012 and has not been seen since.
The same year, Chut Wutty, an activist known for exposing illegal logging and corruption in Cambodia, was shot dead, the statement said.
The UNHCHR called on authorities in each of these nations to protect all human rights defenders, including those working on issues related to the environment.
The Karen Network for Culture and Environment, the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand and allied non-government groups earlier issued a joint statement saying they would petition to the UNHCHR if there was no progress in the investigation.
They suspect that Billy's role in filing a lawsuit against Kaeng Krachan park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation may have something to do with his disappearance. Three years ago, officials set fire to the homes of Karen villagers living in Kaeng Krachan, and Billy helped the villagers take their case to the Administrative Court. Billy had been scheduled to testify in court on May 19.