Plot twists abound in an ongoing murder investigation on the idyllic Thai island of Koh Tao. Police have questioned two British backpackers and nine Burmese migrants in connection with the crime, but with each update the case’s prime suspect seems to change.
Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24 (both of the UK), were visible on footage taken late Sunday night from a CCTV camera. On Tuesday police released stills from the camera, which was positioned at a local establishment called the AC Bar. The images show the young pair leaving the bar, holding hands and walking toward the beach where their bodies were eventually found. According to a Bangkok Post article published this morning, a man shown in a later still, who appeared to be Asian, was dubbed the main suspect.
“We are focusing on migrant workers because of the surrounding witnesses and evidence, including the video footage,” Major General Kiattipong Khawsamang said in a public statement yesterday. That evidence includes a bloody hoe that was left near the bodies. The farming tool was most likely the murder weapon — police said the victims suffered brutal injuries, with Miller being cut on the back and side of the head, while Witheridge sustained cuts to her face. Their bodies were found partially naked on the beach.
The Post’s depiction of the incident differed greatly from that of The Guardian. In a story that ran yesterday, the British publication said the authorities had begun a manhunt for a “third British backpacker whom police suspect of carrying out the attack before fleeing the island.” A few hours after that, The Phuket News published a story titled “Koh Tao murder investigation switches to 3 Burmese.” It went on to quote police Lt Gen Panya Maman as saying that three migrants from Burma (Myanmar) were being investigated, before adding: “A second officer said police were not looking for a British man who had travelled with Miller, contrary to UK media reports. ‘All of the British nationals are now on their way home,’ provincial police chief Maj Gen Kiattipong Khawsamangsaid, adding that they had been ‘cleared’ as suspects.”
However, the narrative switched again this afternoon, when the Guardian published a follow up story saying the third British backpacker had indeed been held and questioned. The story also said that six Burmese workers arrested at the resort remained in custody.
The Bangkok Post also reported this afternoon that a British backpacker was being question, saying that Miller’s “fare haired” roommate Christopher Alan Ware was now being questioned again after blonde hairs were found in Witheridge’s right hand, and “a pair of Ware’s blood-stained pants from in (sic) Miller’s luggage and an Apple iPhone with long blonde hairs snagged on it.” The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, reported that a cut was visible on Ware’s hand during his latest interrogation. An AFP report said another British man, who remains unnamed, was told to not leave Thailand until the investigation is complete.
Khun Win, a spokeperson for a local human rights NGO called the Pa-Oh Education Project, told Asian Correspondent that the police’s public accusation of Burmese migrants was premature, especially when the third British backpacker was still a potential suspect.
“This action will surely lead to discrimination or scapegoating in general,” Win said of the blame placed on migrants, who are all too frequently marginalised in Thai society. He added: “The wording was ill, and it cannot be accepted by Burmese migrant workers. The real murderer must be found first.”
Win went on to question why the police were so quick to indicate that Burmese workers were the prime suspects, before saying that these migrants do not have a major history of violence or criminal behaviour.
Saw Khu, another local activist who has worked with Burmese migrants in Thailand, added that: “The attitude of the police is always on the negative side. For serious crimes affecting the nation’s image, the foreign workers are always blamed first. But I think the Thai people’s attitude toward migrant workers has improved. They understand the situation of migrant workers more and more, and they know that migrant workers rarely attack locals or tourists.”
The Koh Tao police refused Asian Correspondent’s repeated requests for an interview before press time.
Witheridge and Miller were not thought to be a longtime couple, instead meeting recently on Koh Tao, which is a popular diving destination. That article quoted Witheridge’s father, Tony, as saying that the incident was “the most devastating news” imaginable for him and the family. A story published in The Telegraph, another UK newspaper, quoted police Maj. Gen. Kiattipong Khawsamang as saying that Witheridge and Miller met while staying at a seaside hotel after arriving separately at the island beforehand.
British news site itv.com reported that 100 people attended a candlelit vigil on Monday evening for the victims. The “Koh Tao Community board” Facebook page featured photos and comments about the vigil. One commenter, who went by the moniker Kohtao RoyalResort, wrote on the community board: “The Thai people held a service of prayer at the site of the incident. Many thai (sic) people were there, together with police and Koh Tao Rescue.”
The community board also featured rampant speculation and heated comments about the murder. One commentor named Emilie Paintendre wrote, “SHAME on the people who take and post on social network the pictures of the dead bodies!” after links to pictures of the crime scene appeared on that forum and other websites. David Lumley, another member of the Facebook group, wrote: “just hope they (sic) police have their facts and don’t just jump to conclusions and make sure somone (sic) is held accountable to make it look ‘good’ and put it to bed.” Kohtao RoyalResort later posted another comment: “Today is a sad day for Koh Tao and Thailand, and I think everybody has been effected by this sad news but we must let the police do their work and release facts as and when they are ready to be released.”
A Facebook memorial page was posted in tribute to Witheridge on Monday.