BANGKOK (AFP) - Rights campaigners called Monday for an urgent investigation into the disappearance of a community activist in Thailand helping villagers to seek justice for alleged abuses by national park officials.
Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen - known as Billy - has not been seen since April 17 when he was stopped by local authorities at a checkpoint in a national park in Petchaburi province in southern Thailand.
He was travelling to meet fellow ethnic minority Karen villagers to help them with a lawsuit accusing authorities of destroying the homes of 20 families in Kaeng Krachan National Park in 2011, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
It said the lawsuit is against the national park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksor and two government departments.
Mr Chaiwat told AFP that the activist was stopped by his officials for carrying illegally gathered honey but later released.
"I reprimanded him, but then drove him five kilometres away and let him go... Two days later I received a call from police saying the Karen villagers had complained that Billy had disappeared," Mr Chaiwat said.
"Park officials are looking for him in case he had an accident, but there has been no trace of him so far."
HRW said Billy was carrying files linked to the destruction of the homes and property of the Karen families three years ago.
"The apparent disappearance of this prominent Karen activist demands an immediate government response," said HRW Asia director Brad Adams. "Thai authorities should not stay silent about Billy's case but explain what happened to him."
The Karen are an ethnic group mostly living in eastern Myanmar. Fighting and human rights abuses in their homeland have forced many across the border into Thailand.
Another activist in Billy's network was shot and killed in 2011 by unidentified gunmen after he reported allegations of abuses of Karen villagers in the same park, the HRW statement added.
A human rights lobby group of political figures from across Southeast Asia also urged a swift investigation.
Former Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan, of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) group, said "urgency is the key" to Billy's safe return.
"Hopefully he will be found soon and Thailand can buck the trend in the region of unsolved disappearances," he said in a statement.
"When the state no longer protects those who stand up against corruption and abuse, we are all in trouble," he added.
Thailand is the second deadliest country in Asia for land and environmental defenders, with 16 activists killed between 2002 and 2013, according to a recent report from campaign group Global Witness.