Karen Human Rights Murder Victim Found in Phetchaburi River

Karen human rights defender Polajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen was killed and his body stuffed into and burned in a 200-litre oil drum, which was later dumped into a river in Kaeng Krachan national park in Phetchaburi province to cover up the crime, the Department of Special Investigation announced at a news conference held Tuesday afternoon at the DSI head office.

DSI director-general Pol Col Paisit Wongmuang confirmed that the human bones found in the river bed under the hanging bridge inside the park belong to Billy, after laboratory tests matched the DNA from the bones with the DNA of the victim’s mother, Mrs. Pairohjee.

However, he admitted that officials did not yet know how he was killed, but confirmed that Billy was a victim of pre-mediated murder and enforced disappearance.

The breakthrough in this case came between April 26th and May 24th when DSI officials, with the cooperation of King Mongkut Institute of Technology’s Bangkok North campus, employed drones and a submersible to scan the river bed near and under the hanging bridge with sonar. They found suspect objects scattered at 3-4 spots under the water.

Later, divers from the Border Patrol Police continued the search and found a perforated 200-litre oil drum, two steel wires, four pieces of charcoal and part of the oil drum lid.  Two pieces of bone were found inside the oil drum. They were tested and were found to have been exposed to heat of between 200-300 degrees Celsius.

About 20 more bone fragments were found by divers during subsequent searches of the river on August 28-30.

DSI deputy director-general Pol Lt-Col Korawat Panprapakorn told the news conference that all the items retrieved from the river bed were sent to the Central Institute of Forensic Science for examination.

He said that DSI officials had some clues about the identities of the suspected perpetrators, but asked for time to collect more evidence in order to nail them for pre-mediated murder and enforced disappearance.

Billy was arrested for allegedly collecting honey illegally inside the park on April 17th, 2014. Then Kaeng Krachan park chief Chaiwat Limlikhikt-aksorn claimed that Billy was released on the same day of his arrest. At the time of his arrest, he was helping his relatives, a group of ethnic Karen, to sue the former chief for setting fire to their bamboo huts and rice barns during a series of forest evictions.

The next morning, the Ban Bang Kloy village head filed a complaint with Kaeng Krachan police reporting the disappearance of Billy. On April 21st, Ms. Pinnapa Prueksapan, Billy’s wife, also lodged a complaint with the Phetchaburi provincial governor about her missing husband.

On September 2nd of the same year, the Supreme Court dismissed the complaint filed against Chaiwat for illegal detention of Billy on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

June 28th, 2018, the DSI accepted the case as a special case and began its probe into Billy’s mysterious disappearance, leading to the breakthrough in April and May this year.

The Chief of the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department has given an assurance that he will not protect any of his officials if they are implicated. 

Former member of the National Human Rights Commission, Mrs. Angkhana Nilapaichit, said that the discovery of Billy’s remains will enable his family to hold a proper funeral, albeit a painful experience for the family to learn about the manner of his death.

She said that the breakthrough in the case is the first step toward justice for Billy, adding that the government should solve the ethnic peoples’ land problems in the Kaeng Krachan national park within one year, as urged by the World Heritage Committee.