Remembering Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen

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Remains belonging to Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, last seen on April 17, 2014, were found in an abandoned oil drum in a reservoir in Thailand last week. Billy was an ethnic Karen land rights activist. At the time of his disappearance, Billy was representing his community–the Karen people–on legal complaints against Kaeng Krachan National Park officials for the destruction and burning of houses and farms of families who have lived in the area since before it was declared a national park. 

Billy’s death and the subsequent discovery of his remains come at a time when those protecting their forest, lands, communities, and resources are facing increasingly violent opposition. In 2018, more than three people were murdered each week globally, with countless more criminalized, for defending their land and our environment. 

“I talk about Billy’s legacy a lot because his disappearance shows that there is still a very high risk for the community leaders and community members who stand up to raise their voices,” said Da, a Bertha Justice Fellow. “I don’t want to see another case like Billy’s again. I demand that our country adopts a mechanism to protect local communities, especially minority people.”

Billy’s absence is a constant reminder of the kind of threat and risks that earth rights defenders all over the world face for the work they do–defending land, forests, and the natural environment they have always known. Forest defenders the world over, from diverse professional, ethnic, and gender backgrounds have fought for the right to a clean and healthy environment. Like Billy, they are often punished for their activism.

“We all work on the land rights issue. We bring problems to light, we protest, but we never think of the risk of getting hurt due to the activities we are involved in because for us it is the right thing to do. So, we thought the same about Billy. It never occurred to me that he could be at that kind of risk,” says Neung, Mekong Legal Coordinator for EarthRights. 

In response to the threats and risks faced by forest defenders, EarthRights joined forces with Not1More (N1M) and the Cambodian Youth Network to hold the 2018 Forest Defenders Conference with a regional focus on South East Asia. During the conference, over 90 defenders and allies worked together to develop the Environmental Defenders Declaration for South East Asia with recommendations to different authoritative bodies to address the crisis of violence facing all who resist evictions and dispossession of their lands, forests, seas, and rivers.

However, the latest development is evidence that more needs to be done to protect activists who are trying to uphold the rights of the people and the environment.

Billy is survived by his widow and five children. He is remembered by his friends for being very active in leading negotiations for Karen people with the government.

“His family and community experienced the same challenges, which he was trying to address— seeking justice for communities who were being evicted from the only land and environment they have ever known,” explains Neung. 

Billy was a friend to many at EarthRights and his loss has been deeply felt here and within the region’s activist community. 

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The sun sets on the Mekong River on the Thai-Lao border near Chiang Khong, Thailand.