CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Questions linger over the controversial police investigation into the murder of two British tourists on Koh Tao that led to the arrest of two Burmese migrant workers last week.
The Burmese government is monitoring the case and President Thein Sein will raise the issue with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha—who is scheduled to visit Burma from Oct. 9—according to President’s Office Director Zaw Htay.
“That issue [the detention of the two Burmese migrants] will be in the discussion,” Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy, adding that Burmese government representatives were now trying to meet with the two migrants who are currently being detained on Koh Samui.
“It is important that the suspects dare to tell us the truth without fear when we meet them,” Zaw Htay said.
According to Thai police, the two Burmese migrants, identified as Win and Saw, confessed to the murders of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on the island in Thailand’s Surat Thani province on Sept. 15. Thai police also said that DNA samples taken from the two suspects matched DNA found on one of the deceased.
Burma’s Ambassador to Thailand Win Maung told the Irrawaddy on Friday that he had asked a group of Thai and Burmese lawyers to find out from the two murder suspects whether or not the allegations were true.
“We don’t know what really happened,” Win Maung said. “Now, it is just a police finding. [The] case can be changed in court.”
“We will make sure [before taking any action]. Otherwise, it will be our mistake if our side is wrong. We worry for all our people [migrant workers] and we are trying to help them as much as we can,” he added.
Andy Hall, a British migrant rights activist based in Thailand, has also helped organize an independent legal team to undertake a fact finding mission, beginning yesterday, to ensure the two accused migrants receive a fair trial.
“It is very important that independent legal assistance is given to the [two detained] workers to ensure they get a proper trial,” Hall said. “We will be trying as much as we can.” The two suspects were reportedly kept without legal representation during their interrogation.
Hall also voiced concern over the treatment of other Burmese migrants during the investigation. According to the Burmese community on Koh Tao, some migrant workers were abused while being questioned by police, Hall said.
“We have a lot of suspicions about the whole process in which they questioned the migrant community,” said Hall. There are approximately 3 million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, most of whom work in low-paid jobs where they are vulnerable to abuse, arrest and extortion by Thai employers or authorities.
Than Hlaing, one of six Burmese migrants who were questioned by Thai police last Thursday in connection with the Koh Tao murders, alleged that the group was beaten under interrogation. “They [the police] beat all of us while interrogating us. Three of us were seriously injured. But some got minor injuries,” Than Hlaing said. “They detained us for one night. They collected our records and took pictures of us. [Then] they finally told us that we were not guilty and released us.”
After hearing the news that two Burmese migrants were suspected of committing the murders, migrants living and working on Koh Tao expressed fears for their safety.
Sithu, a Burmese migrant worker on Koh Tao who was questioned by Thai police, said, “Burmese people here live in fear [after] police said that Burmese migrants committed the killing. If it is true, the situation will be more tough for the Burmese workers.”
Kyaw Thaung, director of the Bangkok-based Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT), a labor rights group that helps Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, expressed doubts over the police investigation.
“The killing on Koh Tao is directly linked to the image of Thailand. So I think they [Thai police] will try to make it that Thai are not committing the crime because it will damage the image of the country,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kyaw Kha and Lin Thant.