Mr. Chaiwat reaffirms the group's innocence while giving an interview after the release on bail. Credit: Seub Suan Kwam Jing TV Program FB Page

“Billy” court case begins after years-long probe

The Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases has accepted the case for hearing while agreeing to release the accused on bail worth Bt 800,000 each

After a years-long probe by the police and the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), a high-profile case concerning the disappearance of a Karen community leader, “Billy” Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, has formally entered the court proceedings as the prosecutors have settled the difference in views over the charges with the DSI and decided to forward the case to the court for prosecution.

The prosecutors on Monday received the four accused including a former park chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, following the submission by the DSI and brought the four to the court for prosecution with the charges of joint premeditated murder, unlawful detention, unlawful use of weapons against the person, and concealing the case. The maximum penalty could be an execution. 

The court sets the date for the first arraignment on September 26, suggesting a formal court trial process. No court officials or prosecutors were present to brief the press. 

According to Mr. Chaiwat, the court granted them a release on bail worth Bt 800,000 each. Mr. Chaiwat said this could be because he is a senior official who has never shown signs of offending any previous court orders or tangling with the evidence.

“We are entering the justice process and we have received mercy from the court and the Corrections Department. So, we feel relieved somehow. We are going through the justice process and we too feel that we have received justice,” said Mr. Chaiwat of the bail granted, also claiming he is in fact a victim of intimidation by human rights advocates who side with the Karen community.

He reaffirmed the group’s innocence and stressed that they did not commit any wrongdoings for everything as accused.

His family prayed for Mr. Billy. Credit: Transborder News

The disappearance

According to the DSI, the agency had started to investigate the case after taking it as a special case in 2018 following a petition made by Mr. Billy’s wife. Mr. Billy was known as an emerging community leader of the Pong Luek-Bang Kloi Karen Community located in Kaeng Krachan National Park, where Mr. Chaiwat had been in charge as a park chief since late 2009. The villagers had conflict simmering with park officials under his leadership as they accused them of damaging their properties. (Read: Bangkloi saga)

In mid-April 2014, Mr. Billy was arrested by Mr. Chaiwat and his subordinates for illegally possessing wild honey. Mr. Chaiwat claimed that he had released Mr. Billy but he has disappeared since.

In late 2019, the DSI concluded its investigation, pointing out that this was a murder case. Among critical evidence found by the DSI was the matching of mitochondrial DNAs extracted from one piece of a burnt back skull recovered from the Kaeng Krachan reservoir in the park and those of Mr. Billy’s mother. No direct DNA matching that helps identify a person was established, however.

The DSI then decided to file the charges against the four but the prosecutors decided to drop almost all of the serious charges including the murder, citing insufficient witnesses and evidence. The DSI chief in late 2020 then forwarded his views to the Attorney-General for reconsideration as required by the law. The Attorney-General in the middle of last month decided to indict the four for the four serious charges including the premeditated murder. No further explanations were given to the public.

On the same day of the prosecution of the case, at least 26 human rights and community advocacy organisations issued a joint statement calling on the authorities “to perform their duty independently and professionally to therefore genuinely end the culture of impunity and to bring the perpetrators to justice without delay”. Furthermore, evidence should be corroborated efficiently to ensure the affected communities and society at large that justice will be done, they demanded.

In addition, the group called on the authorities to protect all witnesses, injured parties, and Mr. Billy’s family to ensure they can safely demand justice without external intimidation. All charges against attorneys authorized by Grandpa Ko-I pressed by the Kaeng Krachan Police Station and cases against senior Karen activists and reporters filed with the Phetchabun Provincial Court should be dropped, they added. 

For the media, the group called on them to prudently and impartially monitor and report information concerning the criminal action on the premeditated murder against Mr. Billy. Their coverage should be made comprehensively to ensure the voices and opinions of the injured parties and their family are heard. A further effort should be made to eradicate any racial discrimination in communication and reportage, they called upon.

“An alliance of human rights organizations as listed takes this as a major stepping stone towards justice for not only Billy’s family but also Karen indigenous community of Ban Bangkloy Bon-Jai Phaen Din (the Soul of the Earth),” said the group.

Mr. Chaiwat during the Tenasserim Operation. Credit: DNP/ KKNP

Who is Mr. Chaiwat? (Source: Discharge of former Kaeng Krachan park chief sparks Save Chaiwat campaign)

Possessing a straightforward and uncompromising character, Mr. Chaiwat often finds himself landing in a number of critical situations, both for bad and for good, especially during his term at Kaeng Krachan, the country’s largest national park with nearly three million rai reserved under state protection.

Born in Petchaburi, a province dubbed as the town of “real men”, (Petchaburi was once a hitman town with several hitmen camps flourishing before being suppressed by authorities), Mr. Chaiwat is known among friends and acquaintances as a fearless and confrontational person. He is also said to have a good connection with senior politicians in the province, being adopted as part of one well-known family there.

Graduating from Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty with a Master’s Degree in forest management, Mr. Chaiwat was first tasked to take care of a few forest parks in the province before assuming the chief post at Kaeng Krachan in late 2008.

The park is known as one of the most challenging protected areas in the country due to its size and location, which is next to Myanmar. As a result, a number of illegal acts, ranging from poaching to illegal entry, are regularly reported, challenging chiefs who assume a top post there.

Mr. Chaiwat was first known to the public for his role in solving an invasion of wild vines, which collapsed a huge part of Kaeng Krachan forest. It was the first time that he was complained about his work approach, which landed him into a disagreement with human rights advocates, before a few more cases including plantations for wild animals caused further rifts between them.

In mid-July 2010, he led a rescue team to recover two helicopters and a Blackhawk, which had consecutively clashed in the deep forest of Kaeng Krachan near the Thai-Myanmar border due to bad weather and a mechanical failure.

The incident prompted him to become well-known nationwide, and in that year he was awarded with the ministry’s best civil servant of the year.

But along with good news, the report of the forced relocation of some Bangkloi Karens had emerged out of speculation that it may have been involved with the helicopter crashes. The issue was later investigated by some media members and Mr. Chaiwat’s Tenasserim Operation was made known to the public for the first time, with facts and allegations mixed.

Over the years, the issue escalated into conflict, which had dragged both sides into legal disputes. As many as 11 legal cases were recorded, including the ones with the PACC and the Administrative Court.

Among those were also a murder charge of a contact the Karens trusted and asked for legal support in late 2011, and the disappearance of Billy, Ko-I’s grandson, who was said to push for legal procedures in the occupational land rights conflict with the park, in 2014.

Mr. Chaiwat was implicated in the murder charge, but the court case was later dismissed due to insufficient evidence. He was implicated again by the Department of Special Investigation in the disappearance of Mr. Billy in late 2019. A few pieces of a back skull had been found in the Kaeng Krachan reservoir, but the DNA testing could not directly confirm them as Mr. Billy’s.

The prosecutors decided to drop the severe charges against Mr. Chaiwat, including premediated murder, but the DSI appealed back to the Attorney General.

While entangled in the land dispute with the Karens, Mr. Chaiwat was also encountering heavy poaching in the park, prompting him to have a reputation for illegal wildlife crime suppression.

Mr. Chaiwat was shifted out of Kaeng Krachan in late 2014 following Billy’s case to make way for an investigation. He was later assigned to lead the DNP’s new forest suppression task force called Phaya Suea, making him more well-known as one of the department’s best forest crime suppression officials. He was then promoted as a director of Paro 10 and then Paro 9, based in Ubon Ratchathani province before being discharged by the Environment Ministry last year for his role in the allegedly forced relocation.

Asked why he was embattled with a number of controversies, Mr. Chaiwat replied; “I feared no one (so I confronted everyone, and that’s why I’s attacked)”.

Updated/ September 7: Mr. Chaiwat has recently been reinstalled as a senior park executive at the department pending a new position following his petition to the administrative court against the ministry’s order, which gave an injunction against the order and an order to reinstall him while pending for the court’s ruling.