CHIANG MAI, Thailand—Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has asked Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha to help seek a reduction in the death sentence imposed against two Myanmar migrant workers convicted of murdering two British backpackers in 2014.
The military chief conveyed his request during a trip to Thailand on Tuesday.
On Aug. 29, Thailand’s Supreme Court upheld the convictions and death sentences of Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun for the murders of two British nationals on the island of Koh Tao. The Koh Samui Court convicted Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin—both in their early 20s at the time—of the September 2014 murders of tourists Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, and sentenced them to death in December 2015. They were also convicted of raping Witheridge. The pair remain detained at Bang Kwang Prison near Bangkok.
“In consideration of the existing friendly ties between the governments and the armed forces of the two countries,” the Myanmar military chief on Tuesday “asked for a [reduction in] the degree of punishment imposed on the two Myanmar citizens whose death sentences were upheld, and [to ensure] protection under the legal framework,” according to the Office of the Commander-in-Chief.
Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, accompanied by his chief of staff and other senior military leaders, was in Bangkok to attend the 7th Thailand-Myanmar High Level Committee Meeting in Bangkok. The two sides discussed “bilateral cooperation in connection with the territorial waters of the two countries, anti-terrorism measures, cooperation in education, health, agriculture and economic sectors and further promotion of the existing friendship between the governments and the armed forces of the two countries.” The Myanmar military chief also stressed “the need to effectively take anti-terrorism and anti-drug measures through cooperation at all levels between the armed forces and the police forces of the two countries.” The Myanmar Navy is also participating in the ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) held in the Gulf of Thailand from Sept. 2-6.
In December 2015, following the Koh Samui Court’s verdict against the pair, the military chief also requested “Thai authorities to proceed fairly with the case in accordance with the law,” in his New Year greeting message to then Thai Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan.
In Myanmar, groups supporting the two men have staged multiple protests since the case first emerged. At demonstrations in front of the Thai Embassy in Yangon soon after the original verdict was announced in 2015, protesters said the pair were scapegoated for the brutal crime. They have been detained for more than four years since their arrest in October 2014. Both have consistently denied the charges and claimed Thai police coerced their confessions.
The investigation was criticized for failing to properly gather DNA from the victims’ clothes, and experts have said the convictions were based upon flawed forensic evidence.
On Monday, Myanmar’s Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population U Thein Swe vowed that the government would continue to support the process of seeking a royal pardon from Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn for the two migrant workers.
General Mya Tun Oo, Chief of the General Staff (Army, Navy and Air) of the Myanmar military, visited the men at Bang Kwang prison near Bangkok on Tuesday afternoon,
Gen. Mya Tun Oo told the men the Myanmar government is cooperating in the effort to seek a royal pardon from the Thai king, and that Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was also talking to Thai leaders seeking their help with the case, according to a statement from the military.
The statement said the director of the Bang Kwang Central Prison told the general that the Myanmar prisoners “are being treated well. Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin are in good health and they follow the prison rules.”
Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who has very good relations with Thai officials, has long supported the two convicts, first taking an interest in the Koh Tao case when a committee to help them was formed in late 2014, and donating US$5,000 (7.6 million kyats) to it.
U Htoo Chit, the director of the Foundation for Education Development, which has been helping to assist the two men, told The Irrawaddy that, “whoever helps in this case and goes to meet with these young men, it is good for them and we hope the Tatmadaw’s help will also create an opportunity for them to be released.”
In the week since the verdict and death sentence were upheld by the Thai Supreme Court, efforts have been launched to seek a pardon from the Thai king.
U Aung Myo Thant, a member of the pair’s legal defense team, said Myanmar Ambassador to Thailand U Myo Myint Than is also helping the pair on behalf of the government.
He said the ambassador and the labor attaché at the embassy in Bangkok planned to visit the pair in prison on Thursday, Sept. 5. The minister counselor from the embassy also met the pair last Thursday during their appeal hearing.
“As we’ve got two months [to submit an appeal for a royal pardon], we will consult further with our partners from the Thailand Lawyers Council of Thailand,” U Aung Myo Thant said.