Thai PM defends investigation into Britons’ murder

Prayuth Chan-ocha says correct culprits have been caught, after Burmese president demands fair trial for suspects

Peter Walker The Guardian, Friday 10 October 2014 17.05 BST

Thailand’s prime minister has defended the police investigation into the murder of two British tourists last month, saying the UK and other nations should “understand” that the correct culprits had been caught.

The comments by Prayuth Chan-ocha came on his return from a visit to Burma, the home of the two migrant workers arrested for allegedly killing Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the island of Koh Tao.

The suspects have said they were beaten by police and threatened with electrocution to confess, and a Burmese embassy-appointed lawyer said the confessions had now been retracted.

While Prayuth was in Burma he was lobbied by the country’s president, Thein Sein, to ensure the suspects were treated fairly. “If they are guilty, action should be taken according to the law. However, the investigation needs to be clean and fair,” the Burmese leader told Prayuth, according to a Burmese official quoted by Agence France-Presse.

To coincide with Prayuth’s visit, a small crowd of demonstrators gathered in Burma’s biggest city, Rangoon, to demand a fair trial for their compatriots. The Burmese official said Prayuth had promised to give special consideration to the case.

When Prayuth returned to Bangkok, however, he defended the police case and said overseas critics were misinformed. “I would like the media to stop speculation and let investigators do their work,” he told reporters.

“We must build foreign confidence and make Britain and other foreign nations understand. They might be a little surprised why the criminals were caught so quickly. I myself was excited. I want all Thais to stop and think that authorities have procedures in place. Nobody would dare catch the wrong person because this is a case of big international interest.”

His comments follow widespread alarm from rights groups and others that the Burmese suspects could have been made scapegoats for the Britons’ killings on 15 September.

According to police, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21, encountered the Britons on a beach and allegedly struck Miller on the head, leaving him to drown in the surf, before raping and killing Witheridge. Witheridge’s funeral took place on Friday in her home village of Hemsby, in Norfolk.

A senior policeman in the region said the retraction of the suspects’ confessions was not unexpected. “The suspects have every right under the law to retract their testimony,” Colonel Prachum Ruengthong, chief of police for Koh Pha Ngan island, whose jurisdiction takes in Koh Tao, was quoted as saying by Thailand’s Khaosod newspaper. “In many other cases, suspects also recant their confessions during trial. It’s normal.”

The father of one of the suspects has asked to be allowed to see his son, saying he does not believe he is guilty. U Tun Tun Hteik told the Burmese Mizzima news agency that he hoped for a fair trial for Win Zaw Htun, the Bangkok Post reported. “I do not believe that my son would commit murder. I think he will be released if the investigation into this case is fair and systematic,” he said.

Up to four million Burmese migrants work in Thailand, and groups representing them say it is not uncommon for them to be wrongly accused by police. There was particular pressure on officers to swiftly solve the Koh Tao murders for fear that it might harm the country’s economically vital tourism industry.

Witheridge’s funeral was billed by her family as a celebratory “party” to mark her life, and hundreds of mourners attended wearing bright clothes.

A statement released by her family late on Thursday said the weeks following her death had been “unimaginably difficult”. It added: “As we continue with our plans for our beautiful Hannah’s ‘party’, our thoughts are with David Miller’s family who are suffering the same indescribable agony.

“Hannah was a fun, vibrant and beautiful young woman who will be sorely missed by all who knew her. She was dedicated, ambitious and would have made an amazing difference to the lives of many families through her chosen career as a speech and language therapist. As a family we hope that the right people are found and brought to justice.”