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Porchalee case demands urgent attention

Practice of forcibly "disappearing" defenders of human rights is growing in Thailand

With the mystery over the disappearance of a Thai Karen human rights activist growing deeper by the day and the story becoming more entangled, agencies involved must step up their efforts to discover the truth.

Porchalee Rakcharoen, also known as Billy, was detained by park officials in Kaengkrachan National Park, in Petchburi province bordering Myanmar, on April 17. Park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksor said Billy was detained and questioned after being found in the park in possession of wild honeycomb and six bottles of wild honey.

According to Chaiwat, the Karen ethnic leader was released after brief questioning. But he hasn't been seen since. Local and international agencies are urging Thai authorities to put more effort into discovering what happened to Porchalee.

The concern is that the disappearance is related to Porchalee's long-term role in the struggle for recognition of indigenous land rights for his fellow ethnic Karen villagers in Kaengkrachan National Park.

Porchalee was at loggerheads with the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry as well as park chief Chaiwat himself over the demolition of a local Karen village in 2011. More than 100 houses and rice stocks belonging to 20-plus Karen households were burned down by park officials for their alleged encroachment into the park.

Arguing that they had been living in the area for generations, long before the national park was established, the Karen filed a case against the authorities, charging them with violating their rights and demanding compensation for the damage to their properties. The case is under consideration at the Administrative Court and Billy is a key witness scheduled to give his testimony on May 18.

Kaengkrachan National Park has been at the centre of a number of controversies over recent years, including the shooting death of human rights defender Tassanakamol Aobeaom in September 2011. Tassanakamol was part of Billy's civil society network. A senior official at the park was accused of masterminding the alleged assassination but remains at his post, to the dismay of the local Karen villagers.

The Porchalee case demands urgent attention from all officials and agencies concerned, as the growing practice of forced disappearance in this country and in the wider region has become a serious threat to citizens who stand up to protect their rights.

The disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit while he was representing Muslim defendants in the insurgency-hit deep South a decade ago has left a deep and enduring stain on the reputation of Thai authorities. That individuals are still being "disappeared" merely for defending human rights proves we have learned little from Somchai's case.

The government, the opposition, the red shirts and the whistle-blowing protesters might be busy fighting for political gain, but police and other agencies responsible for upholding the law should perform their duty and get to the bottom of what has happened to Porchalee. Time is running out. We must do everything possible to prevent another Thai defender of public rights from being "disappeared".


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