Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Tensions Are Still Running High’

By The Irrawaddy 2 January 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss the controversy over the Koh Tao murder case ruling—whether the two Burmese men, who were given the death sentence, are guilty or are scapegoats, and if the appeal will be considered. Ko Min Oo, who is a member of the investigation committee on the case formed by the Myanmar Embassy to Thailand and The Irrawaddy’s reporter Kyaw Kha will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

This case is quite complicated and protests are going on against the verdict in some major towns in Myanmar including Yangon. Ko Min Oo, you were at the trial when the court handed down the ruling on December 24. What reasons did the court give for the ruling and what do you think of it?

Min Oo: The two were charged for seven cases and two of them are death-penalty cases. They were given the death sentence for those charges. For a year, our committee members and lawyers have pointed out the holes in the prosecution’s process, presenting any evidence available which supports the innocence of the two. But the ruling suggests that our arguments were disregarded and I am totally disappointed with this. On many occasions, they [Thai authorities] failed to keep appointments. For example, the parents of Win Zaw Tun and Zaw Lin officially requested the members of the National Human Rights Commission and the DSI [Department of Special Investigation] of Thailand to review the case. DSI did not re-investigate the case. The human rights commission however took action. We’ve attempted several times to meet the concerned police officers to challenge their assumptions. But they never attended the appointments.

KZM: International newspapers, some Thai organizations as well as Burmese organizations, alleged that the two were tortured during the investigation process and that there were no eye-witness and the evidence was not concrete. To what extent are those allegations true?

MO: They [Thai authorities] acted to the prejudice of those two Burmese workers. Win Zaw Tun and Zaw Lin were not among the suspects when likely suspects were first named. Before they were arrested, two foreign suspects were interrogated.

KZM: Those two were the friends of the British victims, weren’t they?

MO: Christopher is their friend and another one, Sean, was a guitar player at a bar. They were released. They were reportedly interrogated, but details of the interrogation were not released.  We think these two must know something about the murder, and they should be interrogated. Both Britain and Thailand have to seriously consider this.

KZM: There have been protests against the death penalty verdict in Myanmar. And the military chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing has called on the Thai government to review the case and Thai authorities have also issued responses. The case seems to have escalated into a foreign relations issue between the two countries. What is your assessment of the latest developments of the case, Ko Kyaw Kha?

Kyaw Kha: The news of the death penalty ruling spread immediately. Consequently, some people have staged protests in front of the Thai Embassy in Yangon. The protests are ongoing and have intensified. Protests have spread beyond Yangon and reached other towns in Upper and Lower Myanmar including Mandalay and Monwya. The protests have reached border trade towns like Myawady, Tachilek and Three Pagodas Pass. These protests made Thailand respond. Even Thai Prime Minister Prayuth had to speak at a press conference on the case. Tensions are still running high and protests are still going on.

KZM: Ko Kyaw Kha, you went to the scene after the murder to cover the case last year. What did you see then?

KK: The parents of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun arrived after the two were arrested. The two, as their fear was eased by the arrival of their parents, told their parents and the investigation committee formed by the Myanmar Embassy in Thailand that they were not involved in the murder. Later, Thailand’s prominent forensic expert Dr Pornthip said that the DNA of the two Burmese men and DNA found on the victims did not match. When they heard this, parents were extremely happy and believed that their sons would be acquitted. But then, when the two were handed the death penalty, the parents were very surprised and burst into tears. Zaw Lin’s mother is quite a strong woman, but then she could not help crying her eyes out.

KZM: There was a request for secondary DNA testing, wasn’t there?

MO: The result of the first DNA test showed that DNA samples did not match. Then, they [Thai authorities] did the test again and said that the result showed that the DNA samples matched. At the court hearings, our defense lawyers pointed out the holes in the DNA testing, and requested for re-testing of DNA. Judges were changed frequently at the court. At first, the court accepted our request, but then a few days later, they declined our request, giving a number of reasons.

KZM: What did Dr Pornthip say at that time?

MO: She mainly pointed out that there are certain standards in doing DNA tests. The murder took place at the beach and the DNA test was carried out long after the murder. She said Bangkok should send a DNA expert team to examine the evidence and that the examination process should be transparent. She said these things were not done and the result therefore would not be right.

KZM: Another thing is they confessed committing the murder at first. Later, they denied it. Everyone says that they were forced to confess. What did you see?

MO: When we visited them in prison for the first time, at a glance we knew something was wrong. They responded weirdly. We knew that they were hiding something as they did not answer our questions. We assumed that they would tell the truth in the presence of someone who they can trust and rely on. So, we discussed with the Myanmar embassy, and Myanmar government and we brought their parents. As we expected, they said they had confessed because of torture and threats when their parents came.

KZM: There have been protests in front of the Thai Embassy and the residence of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Ko Kyaw Kha, do you see any sign that the protests may intensify? I ask because some people have other grievances not related to the verdict. What else do you see?

KK: I have seen signs that there will be more protests. For example, Ma Ba Tha members have joined the protests. Regarding the protest in front of the residence of Daw Aung Suu Kyi, U Win Htein told the protesters that though the party had won the election, it has not yet assumed power. There are suggestions that rather than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military chief, it is President U Thein Sein who should contact the Thai government.

KZM: Another interesting element is the extent to which the British police force has investigated the case. Do you know how much they have cooperated [in the investigation process] especially with defense lawyers and defense teams? How much information did they share? We heard they didn’t share information.

MO: Yes, a British team came. But they did not directly communicate with us. But they did interact with our defense lawyers. Moreover, the Myanmar Ambassador to Thailand asked the British Ambassador about their findings after that team went back. The ambassador also shared the information he learnt from his British counterpart with us. But, they [the British] did not give any factual information. They arrived and went there [the crime scene] by helicopter and came back within a few hours. Then, they went there again the next day. We heard that the team already sent their members one or two days before they arrived [in Thailand]. We are not clear how many members they had sent. But then, they did not share information after they went back. And we don’t know why. The suspects Sean and Christopher are from their country, Britain. So they should participate in the investigation. I don’t understand why Britain didn’t participate.

KK: The case has become a cause for concern. Thai media agencies have assessed that if the ruling is not reconsidered transparently, it may strain relations between Thailand and Myanmar. As there are protests at the border, some Thai media suggest that the Thai government and detectives from Britain should undertake field investigations and make public the findings, openly and transparently, for the knowledge of Myanmar and Thai people.

KZM: My final question. What can we expect from an appeal to the ruling?

MO: I think the defense lawyers will defend to the best of their ability. They have experience, but we do not know yet what will the result be. We, investigation committee members, will hold meetings with defense lawyers. Defense lawyers have in their mind what arguments to put forward against the ruling. So, with the assistance of the Myanmar government, we’ll try our best when we go back to Thailand.

KZM: Thank you for the discussion.