Mr. Chaiwat gave a brief interview after being released on bail worth Bt 800,000.

“Chaiwat” gets 3-year jail term for negligence of duty but cleared of murder in “Billy” court case

He and the plaintiffs will appeal to the court within 30 days

The Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases yesterday delivered a verdict on the long-running murder-related charges against Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, a former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park and now a director of the National Parks Office, and his three subordinates accused of detaining and murdering a Karen community leader, “Billy” Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, during their interception in mid-April, 2014.

The court ruled that Mr. Chaiwat was found guilty of negligence of duty under Section 157 of the Criminal Code applied to state officers for mishandling Billy during the detention at a checkpoint in the national park he supervised at that time. He was sentenced to three years without suspension, but along with his subordinates, they were cleared of other four serious charges including premeditated murder. The maximum penalty for these serious charges is an execution.

The four officers had found out that Mr. Billy was carrying some honey while travelling out of his mother’s village of Bang Kloi in the midst of the park. The amount of the honey in a sack was varied based on different witnesses’ testimonies, between five to 30 kilograms, and there were also some additional seven to eight bottles of honey in his carry bag, according to the court. However, Mr. Chaiwat always insisted that the confiscated honey was relatively small and as such he decided to release him shortly afterwards without charging him any offences. 

The court had interrogated the witnesses and investigated testimonies and evidence given from both sides based on its power under the law for one year and 23 days since the case was first accepted for its deliberation on September 5 last year before it came up with the ruling yesterday. 

The court said Mr. Chaiwat did not report the arrest nor handed over Mr. Billy and the confiscated honey to the police. His subordinates, however, did not show any intentional signs of jointly committing the offence, so they were cleared of this charge.

The court then found that the testimonies on their detention were dubious. For instance, they claimed to have released Mr. Billy but they had no witnesses to confirm the point. The testimonies of their witnesses on this aspect were also inconsistent; they had said they saw Mr. Billy after the release at one time and said otherwise at another time.

In addition, the time the witnesses claimed was also inconsistent with the time recorded by some closed-circuit cameras by the roadside examined by the police. The defendants’ claims, the court considered, were weak. The cameras had also captured a vehicle the four officers were driving moving towards Khao Sam Yod checkpoint and this was against the route they had testified. 

However, the court stated that it could not base its ruling on any dubious claims or testimonies. Proof of guilt must be clear and solid enough to rule that the four officers were guilty. The records from those closed-circuit cameras could only suggest that their claims were dubious but could not pinpoint the guilt (of taking Mr. Billy on the route to the Khao Sam Yod checkpoint). So, the police witnesses and evidence provided did not carry sufficient weight to rule they were guilty of forced detention.

The court had also looked into the murder charge and learned about Mitochondrial DNAs, which normally contain their small chromosomes and are generally inherited only from the mother. But this type of DNA cannot help identify a person.

According to the mitochondria extracted from a temporal piece recovered from a reservoir in Kaeng Krachan, it belonged to a child of Mr. Billy’s mother, Ms. Pholajee. The bone’s owner was aged 20 or so but the DNAs could not help identify his or her gender, height, and nationalities_the elements which are critical for the identification of an individual, the court stated.

When the investigators tried to narrow down their search for the owner of the bone by checking on all possible individuals under the family tree of Ms. Pholajee, the court noted that the finding was too broad to locate the owner of the bone and could carry some errors in an attempt to identify the person through this evidence. (At least seven children under her family tree were identified as dead and buried, and two of them died during the same period of Mr. Billy’s disappearance.) In addition, no forensic scientists confirmed that the bone belonged to Mr. Billy, the court stated.

“It is not conclusive to say that the bone belonged to Mr. Billy. Therefore, it cannot be conclusive whether Mr. Billy was already dead,” the court cited, ruling accordingly that the guilt of the murder of the four officers could not be established.

As it could not be proved that the bone belonged to Mr. Billy, and there were no witnesses to establish a link between an oil tank found in the reservoir and the four officers’ accused acts, the court could not rule against them on a charge of destroying and concealing Mr. Billy’s body.

The four officers were therefore cleared of all serious charges as such.

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

The disappearance

According to the Department of Special Investigation, the agency started to investigate the case after taking it as a special case in 2018 following a petition made by Mr. Billy’s wife, Mue Nor or Pinnapa. 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 (temporal) 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 last August decided to indict the four for the four serious charges including the premeditated murder. (Read: “Billy” court case begins after years-long probe)

Ms. Pinnapa gave a brief interview after the court ruling, saying she had nothing to say more.

The Cross Cultural Foundation’s lawyers representing Mr. Billy’s family said they would consider filing an appeal in the case.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, the foundation’s director, said despite the court’s ruling, the matter of facts is Mr. Billy was under state officers’ custody and has been disappearing since. So, the state is still responsible for his disappearance and the fact-finding.

She added that the team needed to study the context of forced disappearance to move forward with other possible charges following the new bill on forced disappearance as grounds for charges would be different. The new act, she said, will shift the responsibility to prove innocence or guilt in the court to state officers instead.

“It’s such a huge impact on the family’s minds and feelings. Things have gone back to square one, it’s huge because they would never know once again where he is,” said Ms. Pornpen.

Ms. Pinnapa, Mr. Billy’s wife, just briefly said with tears in her eyes after the court ruling; “I have nothing to say more. I just want to know where he has been in all those years but have never got any answers.”

Mr. Chaiwat reaffirmed the group’s innocence after the court accepted the case for deliberation last year. Credit: Seub Suan Kwam Jing TV Program FB Page

The defendants

Mr. Chaiwat, meanwhile, insisted that they were not involved with Mr. Billy’s disappearance in the first place. Since they were accused of those charges, he and his family and those of his subordinates were all in pain as well for the charges they did not commit. These, he added, were hard to bear as there was no place for them to stand in society.

The former chief insisted that he was never mean or had an ill-will against the villagers. Several of them, he added, are still his acquaintances.

Mr. Chaiwat said park officials or park rangers in the past hung in a balance of being charged with negligence of duty as the law was strict against forest inhabitation and there were no clear guidelines nor regulations to help guide how to deal with forest dwellers and their living in the forests. Now there is a new national parks law that allows forest dwellers to live in the forests and this offers an opportunity for forest officials to work with them without breaching any laws or regulations.

“It will help reduce conflict between us and allow us to be with one another in peace. This is the lesson for us all,” said Mr. Chaiwat, who said he will appeal to the court too and hoped it will be merciful and allow him to work for the forests again.

He was released on bail worth Bt 800,000.

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 several 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, several 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 premeditated 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 gain 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 in 2021 for his role in the allegedly forced relocation.

Last September, Mr. Chaiwat was reinstalled as a senior park executive at the department and then the Parks Office’s director following his petition to the administrative court against the ministry’s order, which gave an injunction against the order and an order to immediately reinstall him while pending for the court’s ruling. 

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