New Thai parks chief raises alarm

New Thai parks chief raises alarm

  • After playing a key role in an anti-corruption sting operation that toppled the head of Thailand’s department of parks and wildlife, senior forest officer Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn was promoted to head of Thailand’s office of national parks.
  • Human rights activists say the appointment raises serious concerns, citing a string of abuses that occurred while Chaiwat was head of Kaeng Krachan National Park.
  • Cases against Chaiwat during this period include two murder charges and a corruption investigation.
  • Chaiwat’s tenure in his new post will likely be short: He faces mandatory retirement in less than two years, as well as a reopened murder case and an ongoing corruption investigation.

The controversial whistleblower who helped expose corruption in Thailand’s parks department has gained a major promotion — and increased scrutiny of his own checkered history, which includes two murder charges, a corruption investigation, and multiple allegations of human rights abuses.

Senior forest officer Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn arrived with the bait money for a December 2022 sting operation that led to the arrest and dismissal of Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya, director-general of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). And while Rutchada faces prison, and perhaps even the death penalty, for bribery charges, Chaiwat has received a major career boost, having been appointed director of the DNP’s Office of National Parks, a position he’s expected to take up officially on March 1.

The job will see Chaiwat overseeing 155 national parks and 91 reserved forests, covering 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles), accounting for 14% of the country’s total land area.

Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand, where Chaiwat served as cheif from 2008-2014. Chaiwat will soon be overseeing 155 national parks and 91 reserved forests, covering 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles), accounting for 14% of the country’s total land area. Image by Peter Prokosch/GRID-Arendal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Human rights concerns

Human rights groups in the country have expressed alarm at Chaiwat’s promotion, pointing to a string of deaths and abuses that occurred during his tenure as chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park from 2008-2014.

“He has a long history of aggression and being harmful to the people in various ways,” says Pornpen Khongkachonkiat, director of Cross Cultural Foundation, a human rights organization that works with victims and survivors of torture and enforced disappearance.

Since the establishment of Kaeng Krachan as a national park in 1981, Indigenous Karen people living within the park’s boundaries have fought for the right to remain on their traditional land, bringing them into conflict with park authorities.

Violence in the park escalated under Chaiwat’s watch. In July 2011, park authorities evicted and burned a Karen village, with Chaiwat publicly claiming the village had been constructed illegally and was being used by smugglers bringing drugs from nearby Myanmar.

Months later, Karen rights defender and politician Tatkamol Ob-om was shot dead shortly after helping Karen villagers report on abuses and misconduct by park officials. Chaiwat was charged with masterminding the murder, but walked free four years later after the court ruled in his favor due to a lack of concrete evidence.

A Karen house being burned.
In July 2011, park authorities evicted and burned a Karen village, with Chaiwat publicly claiming the village had been constructed illegally. Handout image.

In April 2014, Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a prominent Karen human rights defender, disappeared after being arrested by Chaiwat and his staff for alleged illegal possession of wild honeycomb and honey. The activist, who was helping Karen villagers prepare a lawsuit against park authorities, was never seen again.

Five years later, charred bone fragments were found inside an oil drum in the park, and authorities were able to establish a genetic link between the bone fragments and Billy’s maternal DNA. Chaiwat and three other officials were charged with illegal confinement, murder and concealing the victim’s body, but the charges were later downgraded to minor malfeasance offenses after prosecutors argued there was no concrete evidence Billy was dead. At the time, no law existed specifically criminalizing enforced disappearance.

Chaiwat also currently faces corruption charges over the alleged misappropriation of funds connected to a $400,000 reforestation program in Kaeng Krachan, and was temporarily stripped of his post following an investigation into the burning of the Karen village in 2011. He was temporarily reinstated by a court order in 2022.

“The legal mechanism in the country has let him walk free and allowed deaths to happen,” Pornpen says “That’s happened in only one forest. Imagine that he is now oversees all … and to promote him to this job, it means the DNP and those above agree with his practices. For me it’s a grave human rights concern.”

Chaiwat has stated everywhere that he is protecting forests, Pornpen says. But he has to stop looking at Indigenous people as the enemy and instead see them as partners in maintaining the forest. “To protect the national forest, you don’t need to kill people,” she says.

Chaiwat, however, maintains that he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, attributing the multiple accusations against him to people who feel threatened by his work to defend Thailand’s forests.

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen.
Activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who was helping Karen villagers prepare a lawsuit against park authorities, disappeared after being arrested by Chaiwat and his staff. Image courtesy of Billy’s family.

A short tenure and a long charge sheet

In an interview with local media, Chaiwat vowed again to improve the condition of the country’s forests and those working in them.

“Smart patrolling would be prioritized alongside biodiversity research to develop the country’s biodiversity database. I would also see better benefits for the forest rangers, who deserve better living and working conditions. In doing so, all tourism revenue generated in national parks will be better managed.”

Chaiwat’s tenure, however, will be short. He’s now 59 years old, and Thai government officers face mandatory retirement at 60. “My final 19 months in office will see me do my absolute best for the forest,” Chaiwat said.

Whether he will keep his post even that long remains in question. The statute of limitations on the corruption case against Chaiwat expires this March. The other two parties in the case have already been found guilty and dismissed from office, and the investigation against Chaiwat continues to build ahead of the deadline. In the latest twist in the case, following a Feb. 23 court hearing, Rutchada — the DNP director-general Chaiwat helped topple — told reporters that he was responsible for ordering the corruption investigation to be intensified ahead of the deadline. This, Rutchada said, created a motive for Chaiwat to attack him.

In addition, the case of Billy’s murder has made it back to court after years of pressure from human rights groups and the relentless fight of the family.

In a trial that begins in April, Chaiwat will face charges for five serious offenses, including the capital crime of first-degree murder.

A law that came into effect in October 2022 finally creates legal recourse for victims of enforced disappearance. Pornpen says her organization already plans to take up Billy’s case under the new law, which she says could provide his family with some recourse even if Chaiwat and his colleagues are cleared in the murder case.

Banner image: Karen men walk with their elephants. Image by Frédéric Gloor via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Corruption scandal in Thai parks agency has far-reaching impacts, activists say

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