YANGON – Myanmar’s Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing has called on Thailand to review the sentencing of his two countrymen to death for murdering a pair of British backpackers after a controversial trial that sparked protests.
General Min Aung Hlaing, head of the country’s influential military, has asked Thailand for a “review of the evidence” against the two men, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Sunday.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun were found guilty on Thursday of killing David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, whose battered bodies were found on a beach in the southern Thai diving resort of Koh Tao in September last year.
The grim killings have sullied Thailand’s reputation as a tourist haven and raised questions over its justice system after the defense accused the police of bungling their investigation and using the men as scapegoats — a charge authorities deny.
The verdicts have sparked anger in Myanmar with daily protests held outside the Thai embassy in Rangoon and at border crossings with the country’s eastern neighbor.
The Thai embassy in Yangon has decided to close its consular section from Dec 28 to 30 because of the protests over the Koh Tao ruling taking place outside.
The demonstration had caused difficulties in accessing the embassy compound, the consular section said.
General Hlaing expressed his concerns about the verdict in a New Year message to senior Thai junta leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan.
“The commander-in-chief expressed his respect for Thailand’s judicial process while stressing the need to avoid a situation in which the innocent… were wrongly punished,” the newspaper reported.
The statement is the strongest suggestion yet that senior Myanmar leaders are unhappy with the Thai court’s decision amid a surge of sympathy for the two accused in their homeland.
Protesters in Myanmar were planning a fresh series of rallies outside Rangoon’s famed Shwe Dagon pagoda on Sunday afternoon.
Thai prosecutors and police insist their evidence against the men — both migrant workers — was rock solid, including DNA found on Witheridge’s body.
But the defense, which has vowed to appeal the verdict, disputed the forensic evidence, saying it was improperly collected and processed.
They also accused the police of torturing their clients into signing confessions, which they later retracted.
Amnesty International has accused Thai authorities of failing to independently investigate those allegations.
Activists say the case reflects a wider trend of low-paid migrant workers from neighboring countries being blamed for crimes in Thailand where the justice system is easily bent by wealth and power.
However the Thai authorities have received an endorsement from Miller’s family who backed investigators after the verdict was announced, saying they believed the evidence against the two accused was “overwhelming”.
Meanwhile, Deputy police spokesman Piyaphan Pingmuang, at a press conference at the Royal Thai Police Office in Bangkok on Sunday, told reporters that protests against the death sentences handed down in the Koh Tao murders might be politically motivated and have ill intentions.
He insisted on there being a standard investigation into the murder, saying that as the case involved Myanmar and British people, police had been checked from the start of their investigation by lawyers, prosecutors, foreign authorities and then the court.
The Thai Foreign Ministry said on its website on Sunday that Myanmar’s foreign ministry had denied reports that people protesting the Koh Tao ruling had been “instigated” into taking to the streets. It had found no evidence to support the claim.
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said the Courts of Justice was arranging the translation of the ruling into English so that the international community could understand it.