UPDATE: Burmese migrants Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were formally charged at a Ko Samui court today with the murder of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the southern Thailand island of Koh Tao in September.
EARLIER STORY: Prosecutors are expected to charge Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo today with the murder of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, two British travelers who were murdered on Koh Tao. Witheridge and Miller died in September, and their deaths drew international media attention and scrutiny. The suspects who are Burmese migrant workers, were arrested after weeks of an investigation that involved DNA testing of 200 people on Koh Tao.
The two men initially confessed but later said they were tortured into giving their confessions and now swear by their innocence. The men claim they were set up, and witnesses on Koh Tao say there were acting normally and stayed on the island following the murders, rather than fleeing. Workers’ rights activist Andy Hall said he has visited the men in jail several times a week recently and says it is hard to believe they could have committed the murders. He described them as two unworldly young friends who are “almost like little boys”.
“I just don’t believe they could do something like that, not just because of their size but because of their nature,” Hall said.
Hall said that getting witnesses to come forward to testify on the suspects’ behalf has been difficult. Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun wrote a letter appealing for witnesses to speak up for them:
We both wish to request anyone who perhaps can assist to be a witness in our case or has evidence about the crimes we are suspected of to urgently come forward and introduce yourselves to our lawyers and share your information with our defence team. This will really assist us in our defence and ensure justice is done for us, our family and the family of the victims. Please don’t be scared to assist us at our time of need. May you all be happy. Thank you. Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo.
“It’s really challenging getting witnesses for them because everyone’s so scared,” Hall said. He said that Thais living on Koh Tao are especially scared to speak out, because they have names and addresses that can be easily tracked. This is their home, they can’t leave the way migrant workers or Western expats can. People are scared that their businesses will be closed or their lives will be threatened, even that they could be killed, Hall said.
“They can’t go anywhere, and I think they’re used to it, to the system and the corruption,” Hall said. “They have names, they have addresses, everyone knows where they are.”
Foreigners who run businesses on the island don’t want trouble and migrant workers don’t want to draw negative attention. Hall said that while migrant workers on Koh Tao are vulnerable to exploitation, they often have more desirable jobs than those in other parts of Thailand and likely don’t want to jeopardize that.
Despite witness protection options, Hall said people are still unwilling to come forward.
“People don’t want to get involved, maybe they don’t have faith that the trial is going to be fair or that they can provide benefit to the accused,” he said. Foreigners who gave statements and then left Thailand don’t want to come back and get involved again.
But Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo will need witnesses as the case progresses, especially as the prosecution claims its case is “solid”. The Nation quoted a prosecutor working on the case as saying, “Murder charges have been pressed [sic] only after solid evidence emerged against [the suspects].”
Hall said it is difficult for the defense team to prepare because they do not have access to the evidence that will be presented and don’t know exactly what the prosecution’s case rests on. Hall said this is a flaw in the Thai legal system that comes to bear in this and other cases.
Hall has not publicly said whether he thinks Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo are guilty or innocent, and said his main concern is that they receive a fair trial.
“All I’m trying to do is ensure fairness for all sides,” for Witheridge’s and Miller’s parents and everyone else involved, he said.
Hall said he believes the trial will be just, but that the trial is important because it raises the profile of migrant workers’ issues and status in Thailand.
“This kind of scapegoating, abuse, [it’s] something that migrant workers have never really stood up about,” he said.
The international attention and criticism of how the case has been handled has likely helped the two men get more legal support than they would have otherwise.