AUTHORITIES in Thailand are trying to change Koh Tao’s image as a “death island” and dispel claims it is run by mafia gangs, following relentless headlines in foreign media highlighting the deaths of foreigners there in recent years.
The island off the central Gulf coast of southern Thailand earned the image thanks to reports on these deaths, with many travel bloggers cautioning tourists against planning holidays there.
A recent article in UK daily Independent by a former Thailand resident claimed the island is held in the iron grip of a mafia family who allegedly demands protection money, controls the local police force and isn’t above committing violence against those who cross them.
Another UK daily, The Sun, then followed up with a story quoting a young man who corroborated the claim, saying he personally had a run-in with that so-called mafia family and they threatened his life.
As a proactive measure to stop the bad press, Koh Tao police and administrative officials held a briefing this week to provide details on six investigations involving the deaths of foreigners that occurred in the island over the past three years.
According to Bangkok Post, the briefing by senior officers was also attended by the police liaison officer of the Belgian Embassy as the latest death, the seventh case in recent years, involves a Belgian female national.
The case of Elise Dallemagne has been the subject of screaming international headlines of late, some even saying the body of the young backpacker was found half-eaten by lizards. Dallemagne’s distraught mother Michele van Egten has been challenging police conclusion that her daughter had committed suicide on Koh Tao.
Explaining the six other cases, Surat Thani police chief Pol Maj Gen Apichart Boonsriroj said five have been solved.
The police chief’s explanation on the cases is as follows, as reported by Bangkok Post:
- The first involves Briton Nick Pearson, 25, who was found floating near the beach at the Hillside Resort Koh Tao on Jan 1, 2014. According to forensic doctors, Pearson drowned after falling into the sea while drunk. His family did not request an autopsy or press for further investigation.
- The second involves British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, both 24, who were found bludgeoned to death on a beach on Sept 15, 2014. Two Burmese nationals – Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo – were charged with murder based on DNA results, and were convicted and sentenced to death.
- The third case involves Dimitri Povse, 28, from France, whose body was found from the beam of a rented house on Jan 1, 2015. A suicide note was found at the scene and police said although he had both hands bound behind his back, he could have done it himself due to the way the rope was tied.
- In the fourth case, British woman Christina Annesley, 23, was found dead in her room at the Touch Resort on Jan 21, 2015. There were no signs of struggle, rape or any other human DNA. Her cause of death was said to be circulatory failure due to her consumption of drugs and alcohol.
- The fifth case is that of Briton Luke Miller, 26, who drowned in a swimming pool at Sunset Bar on Jan 6 this year after striking the diving board from which he was jumping.
- The sixth case is of Russian Valentina Novozhyonova, 24, who disappeared on Feb 16 this year with her diving gear. She was last caught on camera walking to Chaloke Hin Kao bay but was not seen returning. According to police, Novozhyonova wanted to break a deep diving record at more than 24 metres.
In Dallemagne’s case, police found the body of the 30-year-old backpacker hanging from a tree on April 27. Investigation is ongoing with 14 witnesses hauled up for questioning so far and four more to be interviewed,
Pol Maj Gen Apichart said there have been no indications so far to show she had been murdered. Unconfirmed UK media reports claim the police believe Dallemagne committed suicide but her mother is disputing this, insisting a third party was likely involved.
Pol Maj Gen Pornchai Sutheerakhun, Institute of Forensic Science at the Police General Hospital in Bangkok said the Belgian’s body has been sent for autopsy.
“There were wounds around the neck due to the hanging and some non-fatal bruises in the head and no drugs were found in the body,” he was quoted saying.
Pol Lt Gen Thanate Pinmuangngam, acting chief of Police Region 8, meanwhile said Dallemagne’s cause of death was suffocation.
“There were no signs of fighting or a struggle, nor were foreign objects or substances that could cause loss of consciousness found in the body,” he said.
He also sought to debunk claims of mafia gangs ruling Koh Tao island, saying the allegations were wrong.
“Some news reports pointed to a ‘mafia gang’ on Koh Tao but I assure you, after cooperating with the governor, military and police who have taken part in maintaining order here, there is no such gang on the island, nor are there conflicts of interest.
“If anyone has proof to the contrary, please contact the governor or me.”
Surat Thani governor Auaychai Innak similarly dismissed the talk. He also said the reports claiming Dallemagne’s body was found half-eaten by lizards were untrue.
Tourist security on Kok Tao is good, he insisted, according to Bangkok Post.
“We will recheck all closed-circuit cameras to make sure they are in order,” he said.
Meanwhile, local authorities said this week that they will file a defamation case and computer crime charges against news website Samui Times for first running the story on Dallemagne’s death and calling Koh Tao a “death island” after citing previous cases of foreigner deaths on the island.