BANGKOK -- Thai law enforcement officials said Tuesday they have found the remains of an ethnic Karen community activist who disappeared five years ago in suspicious circumstances.
Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, known as Billy, was last seen in the custody of Kaeng Krachan National Park officials in western Thailand on April 17, 2014. His case is one of several involving the killing or disappearance of community and environmental activists, a problem in Thailand and many developing countries.
Porlajee had been leading the Karen community in a lawsuit against park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn over his efforts to forcibly evict them by burning their homes inside the park — where they had lived for generations — along with their possessions.
Chaiwat acknowledged that Porlajee had been arrested for illegally collecting wild honey, but said he had been released with a warning before disappearing.
Thailand's Department of Special Investigation — Thailand's FBI — announced Tuesday it had discovered a 200-liter (53-gallon) oil drum sunk in a reservoir at the park with a bone fragment near it that matched the DNA of Porlajee's mother. Both the drum and the bone had been burnt. More bone fragments were later found nearby and are still being tested.
"The result of the forensics confirmed his death. But as media have asked about the circumstances of the death, investigators are still gathering evidence to answer that question," DSI chief Police Col. Paisit Wongmuang said at a news conference. "Now that we have found parts of the body — that means we now have a murder case. We are still investigating and collecting further evidence, to determine whether the murder involved torture or other elements."
Porlajee, who was 30 years old when he disappeared, is survived by his wife, Phinnapha Phrueksaphan, and their five children.
Porlajee's case has been on a list compiled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights of 82 victims of forced disappearance in Thailand since the 1980s, which includes activists critical of state policy or officials.
"None of these cases have been resolved, and no one has been prosecuted," the New York-based group Human Rights Watch noted on Aug. 30, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. "A key reason for this is that Thailand's penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense. Thailand has signed but has yet to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance."
The DSI had initially rejected taking on the case, but in June last year said it would investigate. In April this year, they began looking around the area where Porlajee apparently disappeared, and with the help of a high-tech sonar system, discovered the oil drum in May.
"It has been five years. Now that we have evidence of a crime, Chaiwat should be called in to give a statement on what happened," said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, which advocates for minorities and has been following the case. "He was a suspect in the society for a long time, but the government has never treated him as one because there was no evidence of the murder until now."
In an email, she said the foundation commended the DSI and all agencies involved for finding the evidence that Porlajee had died as a result of "this brazen crime."