BANGKOK - The United Nations human rights office this week called on the Thai Government to speed up investigations into the disappearance a year ago of a Thai ethnic minority environmental activist. Activists say the case marks another worrying sign for rights under the country’s military government.
Ethnic Karen activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen disappeared in April last year after park officials said he had been briefly detained, questioned and released by the Kaeng Krachan National Park chief.
But Porlajee — better known by his nickname “Billy” has never been seen again.
Thai police insist they are continuing to investigate the disappearance of the activist who had been helping Karen living in Thailand’s largest national park to report illegal activity.
Thai authorities transferred the park chief from his post to help the police investigation, but courts have rejected attempts by Billy’s family to link his disappearance to park officials.
Rights groups also have turned to the Thai National Human Rights Commission, Thai courts and international agencies in a bid to locate the activist, without success.
During this week marking the one-year anniversary of Billy’s disappearance, the United Nations human rights office called on the Thai government to speed up the investigation and carry out a transparent probe into the case.
Rights activist Angkhana Neelapaichit, who has supported Billy’s wife and his five children, said many in the Karen ethnic community now live in fear since Billy’s disappearance.
“Nobody’s seen him since," she said. "And he never returned home. Everybody knows that he was arrested and when he disappeared all the people, all the Karen people are very scared. Nobody wants to talk; nobody wants to fight for justice. For Billy, only his family who have to do their duty to fight for justice, to ask for justice.”
Angkhana, whose husband Somchai Neelapichit, a human rights lawyer, disappeared in 2004, said most defenders killed or those who disappear are dealing with issues linked to community or land rights aimed at protecting the natural resources.
She said the Thai government should respond to international recommendations to protect rights activists. But that is unlikely under Thailand’s military government, which is already under criticism for suspending democratic rule and sharply curtailing political freedoms.
Rights groups also have called for the release of 17 student activists arrested in Southern Thailand on April 2 without charge and taken from their university dormitories in Narithiwat Province. All are reported to be members of a network of ethnic Malay Muslim Students.
In Thailand, many non-government groups are increasingly wary about the military government’s tough stance on public comment and criticism.
Evelyn Balais-Serrane, a director of the rights group Forum Asia, said "for some time there was if you call it, democracy in Thailand."
"But we realize in the recent development that people are really afraid," she added. "Even coming up with statements and participating in some activities, they really do not want to be identified and to take the risk. So the culture of fear is very prevalent at the moment and it is understandable no?”
In 2014 a U.N. independent expert on human rights and the environment warned that campaigners working on land rights and development of natural resources were the second largest group of defenders at risk of being killed.
Human Rights Watch said Thai authorities have failed to give priority to more than 60 cases of enforced disappearance over the past more than a decade.