Army chief questions Thailand backpacker murder verdict

The head of Myanmar’s military joined growing criticism yesterday against the death sentences handed down to two men from Myanmar for a double murder on a Thai resort island, calling on Thailand’s military government to review the case.

A Buddhist monk delivers a speech at a demonstration over the Thai court verdict on the murder of two British backpackers. Picture: AP

General Min Aung Hlaing’s comments, carried prominently by state media, came three days after the men were convicted of murdering two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao last year. The verdict has sparked daily protests in Myanmar and attracted global attention.

The army chief urged Thailand to “review the evidence” that led to the convictions of the two migrants, Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, both 22, who say Thai police tortured them into confessing.

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The men were found guilty of killing David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, whose battered bodies were found on a Koh Tao beach on 14 September, last year. Autopsies showed the pair, who met on the island while staying at the same hotel, had suffered severe head wounds and that Witheridge had been raped.

The general urged Thailand to “avoid a situation in which the innocent ... were wrongly punished,” according to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which carried the statement on its front page.

The brutality of the murders tarnished the image of Thailand’s tourism industry and raised questions about police competence and the Thai judicial system after the defence accused police of mishandling key evidence and using the two men as scapegoats. Police deny any wrongdoing.

Since the verdict, protests have been held in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon – outside the Thai Embassy and at the famed Shwedagon Pagoda –and at the Myanmar-Thai border. Yesterday the English-language Bangkok Post reported that Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand also expressed objections to the verdict.

“Even though we do not wish to meddle with the justice system of Thailand, we would like to request the prime minister review and reconsider the case,” the Bangkok Post quoted the ambassador, Win Maung, as saying in a statement.

Human Rights Watch called the verdict “profoundly disturbing,” citing the defendants’ accusations of police torture that were never investigated and questionable DNA evidence linking them to the crime.

The general’s statement was part of a New Year’s message to his Thai counterparts, including deputy prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a fellow general who is also Thailand’s minister of defence.

However yesterday police in Thailand defended their investigation.

Thai police spokesman Dejnarong Suthicharnbancha said: “I would like to reassure that the investigation process of police was transparent and of a standard that is acceptable.”

The deputy police spokesman Piyaphand Pingmuang said: “We cannot undo the investigation.” He asked Thai and Burmese nationals not to join demonstrations against the verdict.

“Some groups are trying to make this a political matter and about diplomatic ties, but there are no issues because Thailand has communicated with the Myanmar government to create understanding on this matter,” Mr Piyaphand said.