On Thursday 24th December, the verdict in the Koh Tao murder trial will be announced at the Koh Samui Courthouse. It’s been 15 months since British holiday makers, Hannah Witheridge (23) and David Miller (24) were brutally murdered on the holiday island of Koh Tao, and for the families of the deceased, there is hope that the end of this trial will offer some closure. However, the investigation and trial have been the subject of much controversy and there remains a possibility that Thursday’s proceedings will leave many questions answered.
The island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, which was originally a penal colony, has in recent years acquired a dubious reputation for its infamous beach parties and this image has made the island a popular destination for young backpackers travelling across Southeast Asia.
The murder of two young British travelers at this popular destination quickly made international headlines and it wasn’t long before correspondents from international news networks had descended on the small island. Being thrust into the global spotlight, Thai investigators were under pressure to successfully find the perpetrators of this violent crime and restore confidence in the country’s lucrative tourist industry.
In what may have been an attempt to protect the island’s tourist-friendly image, a senior police officer on Koh Tao assured the international media the culprits could not have been Thai: ‘No Thai could possibly commit such a crime’.
Despite the local police’s belief that the perpetrators were not Thai, reports that the two victims had been involved in an altercation with islanders on the evening of their murder, led to suggestions that influential island residents may have been involved in the incident. This rumour made headlines in the UK after a British man, Sean McAnna, who had known the victims, fled Koh Tao claiming he had received death threats from the local mafia.
But the public’s attention was soon directed towards the island’s migrant workers when the police got a break in the case with the arrest and confession of two Burmese migrant workers – Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo (Win Zaw Htun), from Rakhine state in Myanmar.
Following these confessions, the police conducted a bizarre reenactment of the crime with members of the international media asked to play the victim’s roles. During the reenactment, the accused looked bewildered and at times needed directions from the police to reenact the events correctly. If the reenactment was publicly staged to reassure the international community that the murderous culprits had been apprehended, it missed the point, instead raising concerns and prompting American news magazine Time, to label the investigation ‘a farce’.
Responding to criticism surrounding the investigation, Police Chief Somyot Pumpunmuang told journalists that the police had done a “perfect job”. However, the ‘perfect’ case ran into complications on 14th October 2014, when Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo retracted their confessions. The defense lawyers later reported the confessions were made after the accused had been beaten and tortured, allegations which prompted Amnesty International to demand an independent and thorough investigation into the treatment of the accused.
In an attempt to calm the growing controversy Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced he had full faith in the police investigation and that the British Government had “no doubts regarding the murder case”. A subsequent statement from the UK indicated that this wasn’t entirely accurate with Junior Foreign Minister Hugo Swire announcing “there was a real concern in the UK about how the investigation has been handled by the Thai authorities”.
Days later, British Prime Minister David Cameron met with Prayuth at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan and arranged for a team of investigators from Scotland Yard to visit Thailand. The team from Scotland Yard arrived in Thailand and on 25th October visited Koh Tao. The final report from the Scotland Yard investigators was never released to the public and despite the defense’s legal team petitioning for the report to be made available, its contents remain confidential.
“the evidence against them presented to court by the prosecution and police was collected, stored, analysed and reported in an unreliable manner and didn’t comply with international standards.”
The trial at Koh Samui Courthouse finally got underway in July 2015 and further irregularities came to light including the inadequate translation provided to the accused during their interrogation, which was initially performed by a Rohingyan roti seller. Furthermore, the accused signed confessions which they were unable to read or understand.
Thailand’s premier authority on forensic science Dr Porntip Rojanasunan criticised the handling of the case and the collection of evidence, which she claimed had “contradicted the principles of forensic science”. Dr Porntip, later testified that DNA samples taken from the murder weapon did not belong to the two men who were standing trial.
Andy Hall, International Affairs Advisor with the Migrant Workers Rights Network, was also critical of the handling of evidence during the case: “the evidence against them presented to court by the prosecution and police was collected, stored, analysed and reported in an unreliable manner and didn’t comply with international standards.”
Finally, after 21 days of witness hearings involving 34 witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence, the trial ended on 11th October 2015, with the verdict scheduled for 24th December.
Now, with the verdict just days away, and much of the controversy still unresolved, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the court’s ruling will bring a definitive close to the case. As Andy Hall explained, “Whoever loses this case will almost certainly appeal.”