Instead of a hoe, used to kill Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in a pair of killings that attracted sweeping international attention, pictures show the accused carrying plastic dust bins. Then the re-enactment drew on two onlookers to play the parts of the killed. A foreign tourist acted as Miller and a Sky News reporter, who “jumped into her own story,” portrayed Witheridge.
It was just one more disturbing aspect of a murder case getting more disturbing by the day. Now the two Burmese migrants, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, claim the re-enactment was a sham. A Burmese official said they told him they didn’t kill Miller and rape and murder Witheridge, as Thai police say they confessed. They said they were tortured by police into lying, which activists said shows Thailand’s disinterest in human rights since the military seized power in May.
On Thursday, the Guardian reported Burmese official Aung Myo Thant said the confessions were “beaten out of them. … They told me that they were on the beach that night drinking and singing songs. They said they didn’t do it, that the Thai police beat them until they confessed to something they didn’t do. They’re pleading with the Burmese government to look into the case and find out the truth. They were a really pitiful sight. Their bodies had all sorts of bruises.”
Then one of the suspect’s mothers said she thought her son was the victim of deception. “I do not believe that my son would commit murder,” the Bangkok Post quoted U Tun Tun Hteik saying. “I think he will be released if the investigation into the case is fair and systematic.”
If Thailand either rushed its investigation or framed two innocents, it would substantiate mounting criticism of its justice system since the junta took over. Not only are Thai authorities often accused of framing Burmese and Cambodia migrants for local crimes, but Thai officials are also embroiled in other allegations of torture.
In August, Amnesty International voiced “serious concern” over “continuing allegations of the widespread practice of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by military, police and prison officials. … The right to a fair trail is currently in jeopardy.”
A brutal example the report cited involved the alleged treatment of 27-year-old Kritsuda Khunasen, who claimed she was stripped, sexually harassed and tortured while in the custody of authorities. “The worst that I experienced was when they placed a plastic bag over my head, tied up the ends and put a cloth over my head,” she told Amnesty International in a report Thai authorities dispute. “This knocked me unconscious and I was brought back by throwing water on me. They then put me in a body bag.”
Now, Amnesty International says such abuse has likely been repeated — this time in a situation fraught with international implications. Last month, the two British tourists, who didn’t know each other before arriving on the Thai island, reportedly left a late-night party together and were later found murdered. Miller was bludgeoned and had inhaled large quantities of ocean water.
Initial reports said Witheridge was raped, then later reports said she hadn’t been, then later reports said she had. More inconsistencies and oddities marred the investigation as it lurched from one misstep to the next. The fracas hit its zenith when Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, commenting on the murders, said only ugly women were safe wearing bikinis in Thailand. Police then arrested multiple suspects, and at one point collected DNA samples from hundreds as tourism plummeted on the island.
They finally focused their inquiry on the Burmese migrants Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, who were in the vicinity that night and worked nearby. According to the Bangkok Post, they “pushed through DNA tests in record time, obtaining results in just hours, instead of the usual days.” In short order, after claiming their DNA matched semen collected from the scene, the national police chief announced that “two Myanmar suspects have confessed to killing the pair.”
But had they? Thai authorities admitted no forensic expert oversaw the collection of evidence. “A case of two murdered people certainly needs a forensic physician,” the head of Thailand’s forensic science institute said, according to the Guardian. Now there’s confusion over the condoms. In the migrants’ purported confession, they said they hadn’t used a condom when sexually assaulting Witheridge — despite the fact police said their sperm was found on a condom linked to the scene.
It’s now unclear what happened, when it did and who did it. “The Thai authorities must initiate and independent, effective and transparent investigation into mounting allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by police,” Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Director Richard Bennett said in a statement. “The pressure to be seen to be solving an appalling crime that has garnered considerable attention should not result in the violation of rights, including to a fair trial.”