Thai villagers seek answers to disappearance of land rights activist

Reuters News
|
Posted: May 10, 2016 1:40 PM

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Villagers from northeast Thailand traveled to Bangkok on Tuesday to demand that police and human rights groups investigate the disappearance of a prominent land rights activist who went missing last month.

Villagers and campaigners fear for the safety of 65-year-old Den Kamlae who was fighting for his community to be awarded legal title to land they occupy in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary.

Authorities in Chaiyaphum province where the sanctuary is located deny any knowledge of his whereabouts.

"We believe that if something happened, if (he were hurt by) animals, or if he was sick, then we would have found him," said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a Bangkok-based rights group that provides legal assistance to marginalized populations.

"Now it's abduction or disappearance that we are thinking about," Pornpen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone while taking the villagers to meetings around the capital.

The villagers, including Den's wife, brought to Bangkok bones they found in the forest on May 6 and wood stained with blood, which they hope to present to the Justice Ministry.

"They have found something that is in need of verification - they have bones. Is it animal bones or human bones?" she said.

Wichanon Saengmala, the assistant chief of the Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, said the authorities believe Den may have been hurt by an animal - possibly an elephant, bull, bear or buffalo - as has happened with hunters in the area.

Local police captain Wuttichai Yermsungnern said an arrest warrant for Den and his friends was issued last week, charging them with hunting in a protected wildlife sanctuary.

Wuttichai said there was "no information" to suggest the authorities were involved in any way in Den's disappearance.

Thailand has a history of land rights activists disappearing or being killed.

Last month, a land rights campaigner was shot and wounded by an unidentified gunman in Klong Sai Pattana, a community fighting eviction in southern Surat Thani province where four other villagers have been killed in recent years.

Den has lived for more than four decades in the Khok Yao community, an area inside Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary that is home to about 30 other families, Pornpen said.

Three days before he went missing, Den had gone hunting with two friends near his home, and brought back a deer they sold for 8,000 baht ($230), said Wichanon, the Phu Khieo official.

Den's wife Supap Kamlae, 62, said early April 16 her husband went foraging for bamboo shoots with his two dogs, both of whom returned home later that day but her husband did not.

Wichanon said authorities have scoured the area and "found no trace of him".

Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based rights group, lists Den's status as "disappeared" on its website. It says his community is facing forced eviction from the land they have occupied for 45 years, and Den has been leading the network of villagers trying to re-establish their rights over this land.

"It remains unclear who is responsible for Den's abduction, but the government must be held accountable for its apathy towards disappearances and killings of land rights defenders in Thailand," Erin Kilbride, Front Line Defenders spokeswoman, said by email from Dublin.

(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)