RANGOON — Hundreds of people gathered outside the Thai Embassy in Rangoon on Friday to protest the sentencing of two Burmese migrant workers to death for the 2014 murder of two British backpackers on a Thai resort island.
On Thursday, Koh Samui court found Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo guilty of the murder of David Miller and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge on Koh Tao in September last year, a verdict defense lawyers have vowed to appeal.
The handling of the high-profile case by Thai police has drawn significant controversy, with the accused pair alleging they were tortured into a confession and the defense team contending key evidence was mishandled.
Protesters, including Buddhist monks, congregated outside the Thai Embassy in Rangoon from around 10.30 am, with numbers swelling over the next few hours.
Police erected barbed wire barricades on Thursday ahead of a smaller demonstration and on Friday, the road in front of the embassy was blocked where protesters gathered with placards and chants demanding justice.
One protester told security police, “Let us get in front of the embassy. We will not do anything bad. We just want to kneel down and ask the Thai king to release our men.”
When police held firm, the man said, “Why are you guys blocking us? Why don’t you care about your citizens?”
Many protesters held hand-made signs saying “Release Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo.” Others held up pictures of the two migrants and at least one demonstrator held aloft a photo of the Thai King and Queen.
Some protesters cited the centuries-long history of bad blood between the two neighboring territories.
“Thailand did bad things to our citizens for a long time,” said Than Htike, a taxi driver who chaperoned protesters at a discounted rate to the embassy on Friday, which was officially closed for the Christmas holiday.
“Our citizens try to avoid having problems with the Thais… But our country has a better political situation now and we can fight for our rights this time. Thailand needs to understand this.”
The two accused migrants are both Arakanese and many ethnic Arakanese joined the protest on Friday. One protester was overheard expressing concern that what he thought would be a demonstration to request justice from the Thai king would devolve into jingoistic rhetoric.
“I was worried this protest would turn into a nationalist protest and only focus on nationalism,” the young man told his friend on the fringes of the demonstration. “We came here just to ask for justice, not for nationalist issues.”
The Thai Embassy had earlier issued a warning letter to Thai citizens after many Burmese took to social media to express their outrage at Thursday’s verdict.
“For your safety, we urge all to be extremely vigilant and to avoid identifying yourselves as Thai nationals if not necessary,” the statement read, according to a translation by Thai newspaper The Nation.
On Thursday afternoon, a Thai official emerged to greet protesting monks.
Prominent Buddhist monk Rakha Wontha said a small group was granted a one-hour meeting with Thai officials in the embassy on Thursday, where they submitted a letter calling for a review of the “unjust judgment.”
Rights Groups, Officials Respond
Following the court ruling on Thursday, international rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a statement calling on Thai authorities to investigate allegations the defendants were tortured by Thai police during their interrogation.
“Thai authorities must ensure that any alleged confession or other statement obtained as a result of torture is not admitted as evidence in court in any retrial of the case, unless against those accused of torture to prove that the statement has been taken,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in the statement.
British labor rights activist Andy Hall, who has been working with the defense team, counseled for calm in a Facebook post on Friday.
“I believe it’s really important all our attention and energy is focused not on protests against Thailand/Thai people and/or emotional anger at the verdict,” Hall wrote.
“But instead all our energy should be used in supporting the legal defense team to launch a credible and effective appeal to the Appeals Court and then even perhaps contesting a Supreme Court appeal in this case.”
Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were charged for seven crimes including theft, illegal entry into Thailand, murder and rape.
Burmese officials also took to social media following the verdict vowing ongoing support for the accused.
“There is a lot of work to do. It is not yet finished. We will keep supporting the Burmese Embassy and cooperate with Burmese rights groups and legal organizations,” President’s Office director Zaw Htay wrote on Facebook.
Information Minister and presidential spokesperson Ye Htut posted that the government would support the migrants’ appeals process.
“We hope that we can review evidence and show proof that the two accused are not guilty,” he wrote on his Facebook account.
Saw Yan Naing reported from Chiang Mai, Thailand