The family of David Miller, one of the UK backpackers murdered in Koh Tao in September 2014 have strenuously defended both the case prepared by the Royal Thai police and the verdict and death sentence handed down by a Thai court in Koh Samui on Christmas Eve 2015. They have urged the public and campaigners not to underestimate the Thai authorities.

The two migrant workers convicted of the murders of David Miller and UK women Hannah Witheridge lodged an appeal against that court’s verdict with a Thai appeal court this week. The main focus of the appeal is to question that DNA evidence which linked the two convicted men to the murders. In a 198 page document prepared by an extensive legal team, many working pro-bono, a range of issues are raised questioning the admissibility of much of the evidence used to convict the two Burmese migrants in December 2015.

Migrant workers from Myanmar convicted of the murder of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller launch appeal against their conviction and death sentence.
The two Burmese migrants, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, who were convicted on Christmas Eve 2015 of the murder of Hannah Witheridge and her young UK companion David Miller, have lodged an appeal against their conviction and death sentence with a Thai court this week. ( Source: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

Koh Tao’s Mayor defends the paradise island

It comes just weeks after a UK TV documentary on the murder of the British and men and women on the island of Koh Tao and other murders on the island in the intervening period. The idyllic island is so popular that it is estimated that 750,000 UK people from the UK alone visit the island this year. The Mayor of Koh Tao has defended the island warning foreigners that it is dangerous to live according to their own culture in a foreign country. Chaiyan Turasakul said: ‘When these foreigners live according to their culture, this leads to accidents and risks to their lives.’ He went on to refer to foreigners driving too fast and failing to take precautions when diving on the island. He also pointedly brought up the subject of alcohol abuse. ‘However, most of the incidents I come across, the foreigners were dead drunk and cannot even recall what happened. This is one of the main problems.’

Koh Tao murders still in the public’s eye

Since the murder in September 2014, the brutal murders have never been far from the public’s mind. The murders have thrown Thai authorities a difficult hand. In their efforts to protect Thailand’s tourist industry and reputation while also making sure that justice takes its course, they have managed quite well if viewed objectively. In today’s social media age and with Thailand under the rule of a military junta, it has been easy for the country’s detectors to mount criticism. Now with attention moving to the fate of the two migrant men sentenced to death, it is easy to forget the brutal murder itself as well as the two victims and their families.

Hannah’s mother: she was originally going to visit Europe or Australia

The pain and suffering of the Witheridge family were quite apparent earlier in the year when an inquest in Norfolk returned a verdict of death by unlawful killing following harrowing evidence from Hannah’s mother Ms Susan Witheridge. In it, Ms Witheridge revealed that she had pleaded with her daughter Hannah not to travel to Thailand on holidays in 2014. In a written statement to the inquest, Ms Witheridge said that her twenty-three-year-old daughter had originally intended to visit Europe or Australia. Her change of heart and decision to holiday in Thailand was vigorously contested by her family. ‘The family had always been against Hannah going on the trip and tried to persuade her out of it, none of the family was happy with her going there but he had made her own mind up.’

Even before the murder, mother out of her mind with worry

In the poignant statement, Ms Witheridge revealed that she kept in contact with her daughter through social media while on her visit to Thailand and was updated every day with messages. Hannah Witheridge had been attending a cookery course in Bangkok before her tour around Thailand. Mrs Witheridge, who is 58 years old, is separated from Hannah’s father who is 59. She told the inquest, that during Hannah’s trip to Thailand, she was very anxious for her safety. ‘I was out of my mind when she did all this.’

‘It was like a bad dream’ as husband stormed into the kitchen

However, when the mother of the UK women learned that Hannah was on the picturesque and idyllic island of Koh Tao, she felt more at ease thinking that this was a safer location where Hannah would be swimming and sunbathing. She recalled the day after the murder when Hannah’s bloody body was found alongside the young UK man she had met on the night of her murder. She told the inquest that the day had changed her life and that of her family forever. ‘September 16th was the day which changed our lives forever, my husband burst into the kitchen and collapsed crying and sobbing, it was like a bad dream but my dreams were never like this,’ her statement to the inquest said.

Family flown to Thailand and briefed by the British embassy

Ms Witheridge revealed to the inquest that her family was flown to Thailand and were briefed by staff at the British embassy about how Hannah and her friend, David Miller from St. Helier in Jersey, met their death. ‘The facts were brutal and too much to bear,’ the young woman’s mother told the hearing. It was subsequently revealed that Hannah had been murdered with repeated blows to the head consistent with a blunt instrument or a hoe which was found at the scene. David Miller was beaten unconscious and left to drown in the sea. It was also confirmed during the trial of two Myanmar men convicted for her murder, that Hannah had been raped.

Hannah Witheridge: Beautiful and fun-loving woman

At the inquest in Norwich, Ms Witheridge described her daughter: ‘She was a beautiful and fun-loving woman who filled the room with love and happiness just be sitting there. There wasn’t a bad bone in her body. She achieved so much and had so much ahead of her. Our family is broken and will never be the same again.’ Ms Witheridge described the lasting impact on the family following the murder of the young woman. ‘It will never make any sense the fact that she is not here affects us every day.’

Hannah ‘rapidly’ succumbed from severe head injuries

A pathologist from the UK Home Office, Dr Nat Carey, conducted a post mortem on Hannah Witheridge. He confirmed to the inquest that she had succumbed to severe head injuries. Dr Carey said that the young UK woman had suffered severe head injuries with wounds that were consistent with blows from the blade of a hoe wielded with force as a weapon. He also told the inquest that Hannah would have died ‘rapidly.’ The pathologist also revealed that there were indications that Hannah had been dragged and moved about as well as being sexually assaulted. Dr Carey said he found no evidence that Hannah had suffered injuries in an attempt to defend herself. A conclusion was reached at the inquest that Hannah Witheridge had been unlawfully killed and the coroner for Norfolk Jacqueline Lake recorded such a conclusion.

Migrant workers sentenced to death for murder and rape

Two Burmese migrants, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, were convicted on Christmas Eve 2015 of the murder of Hannah Witheridge and her young UK companion David Miller.  At the hearing, which was the conclusion of a lengthy trial in Thailand, the two Burmese accused were sentenced to death. The two Burmese were later been moved to a detention centre near to Bangkok to facilitate interaction with their lawyers for the purposes of their appeal. One of those lawyers Nakhon Chompuchat told the media recently that he was confident that the appeal that the two would put forward would ‘carry enough weight.’ In addition to two counts of murder, the duo were also convicted of raping the British woman. When the death sentences were handed down on Christmas Eve, the Thai Prime Minister and other Thai officials asked that people respect the judicial process in Thailand and pointed out that the two Burmese nationals had recourse to an appeal process.

Appeal focuses on clarity of evidence and DNA

It is understood that one basis of the appeal concerns a lack of clarity in relation to the evidence presented to the courts at Koh Samui. The legal team for Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo have in the past highlighted the fact that there were no witnesses who saw the crimes taking place on the tropical island. The defence team are also reported to be putting forward the fact that the charges involve the death sentence as a reason to expect a far higher evidentiary standard. A key and controversial aspect of the conviction was the fact that Thai police found an iPhone which belonged to David Miller at the home of two defendants. The iPhone was identified by information supplied the British National Crime agency who liaised with the Royal Thai Police in the course of the investigation. This evidence, in itself, has now become a source of controversy as rights groups suggest that evidence supplied by the British police and authorities should not have been used in a case involving the death penalty. As part of the convicted men’s appeal, it was expected that their lawyers would point out that the fingerprints of neither men were found on any of the cell phones owned by the victims. The defence legal team are also highlighting the lack of fingerprint evidence on the hoe, which has been accepted as the murder weapon used in the killings.

Legal team question the confessions of the two Burmese men

The defendant’s lawyer, Nakhon Chompuchat, has also suggested that the confessions presented to the court by Thai police were flawed. ‘The arrests might have led them initially making a confession out of ignorance, problems relating to an interpreter and threats they faced,’ he told reporters. The legal team for the two Burmese men have also highlighted the fact that the confession was taken by the Royal Thai police without the presence of a defence lawyer.

During the course of the trial in Koh Samui, a number of international jurists attended and gave interviews to the media. They questioned the confessions made by the convicted men as well as the protection of their human rights in the course of the investigation. This was repeated to the media by their lawyer when they were moved to Bangkok prior to making their appeal. ‘The maximum punishment of their case is death so we see the lack of a lawyer to support them as an apparent violation of their rights,’ Nakhon Chompuchat told the press. It is understood that the defence legal team are also questioning the standards of the DNA testing involved with the case, pointing out that the police did not test the clothes of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge as evidence. The defence team has also found fault with the fact that pictures of the two victims were not provided to them prior to or during the trial.

David Miller’s family robustly defend Koh Tao verdict

The family of David Miller have stated that they were ‘completely satisfied’ that the conviction achieved by the Thai authorities as a result of the Royal Thai Police investigation. They have warned the public not to underestimate the efficacy of the investigation by the Thai police. The family has also warned against campaigners and the media against making use of stereotypes in relation to Thailand and the Thai police to undermine confidence in the convictions that were achieved on Christmas Eve. The Thai police themselves have also defended their investigation which led to the conviction. Police General Jarumporn Suramanee, who worked for the National Police Office in relation to the case, told the media recently, that the investigation was conducted on a systematic basis. He pointed out that the police investigation involved the monitoring of 360 security cameras in the area where the murder took place on September 15th 2014.

The Police General told the media that from this footage the police had identified the defendants. He also suggested that the DNA traces found on Hannah Witheridge’s body was conclusive as regards the guilt of the defendants.

UK police involved in Koh Tao murder investigation

The involvement of the UK police in the investigation into the Koh Tao murders has become a source of controversy. It has emerged, that at a meeting of international leaders in Italy in the immediate aftermath of the murders that the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan ocha agreed that the police forces of both countries should co-operate in relation to the matter. It is understood that the request for access to the investigation came from the UK Prime Minister. A Scotland Yard team flew to Koh Tao ostensibly as a liaison unit between the Thai authorities and the families of the victims in the UK. In the course of this co-operation, it has emerged that, the UK National Crime Agency provided the identifying details of David Miller’s iPhone to the Royal Thai Police.

David Miller’s iPhone crucial to evidence at Koh Tao murder trial

At the trial of Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo in Koh Samui, the phone’s serial number was used as evidence since it was shown that a damaged iPhone was found at a property associated with the Burmese migrants. The prosecution showed that the damaged iPhone belonged to David Miller. Since the conviction, rights campaigners have unearthed court papers suggesting that an Assistant Commissioner in Scotland Yard, Cressida Dick, had warned the UK authorities that any assistance to investigations by the UK police should not be subsequently used as part of an ‘evidential change’ as any prosecution of the accused men could lead to the death penalty. This was because the UK government, as part of its own law enforcement policy is prohibited from supplying assistance to foreign nations without the written permission of ministers.

UK police sharing of intelligence with Thai police confirmed

Following press scrutiny and questions to the UK National Crime Agency, it has been confirmed that intelligence was shared with the Royal Thai Police in furtherance of the investigation and that the information was supplied verbally. Significantly, they did not confirm whether written ministerial approval had been obtained for this process. It is also understood that the British police briefed the victim’s families in the course of the investigation. The family of David Miller have been quite categorical in their confidence in both the investigation conducted by the Royal Thai Police and the subsequent conviction by the court in Koh Samui.

Protests against the verdict in Myanmar

Since the verdict on Christmas Eve 2015, there has been opposition to the verdicts of the court including an outbreak of protests against the decision in Myanmar or Burma as it was formerly known. There were also reported to have been smaller and sporadic protests in Thailand. The protests prompted the Thai Prime Minister to comment and call for those opposing the verdict to respect the judicial process in Thailand. Prayuth Chan ocha pointed out that the convicted duo have legal recourse to an appeal: ‘they have the right to appeal, right, laws all over the world have this, why should Thai law not have this. Is it the case that we should release all people when pressurised,’ the Prime Minister told reporters.

Thai PM unhappy at the public protest against the court’s verdict

The Prime Minister seemed unhappy at the reaction to the verdict and the authorities have taken a consistent line in defending the police investigation and the Thai judicial process. The protests, which were mostly confined to Myanmar, included some smaller protests in Sri Lanka and Japan. The main protests were centred on the Thai embassy in Yangon, which is Myanmar’s largest city, but there were also protests in other centres in Myanmar nearer to the Thai border as well as reported protest by Myanmar residents in Thailand at key centres throughout the country.

Myanmar armed forces head sends message to Thai authorities

At the height of the protest, the Head of Myanmar’s military also called for a review of the evidence in the case. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is reported to have said that it was more important an innocent person should be not convicted rather than a guilty person not be punished. In a message that was sent in a New Year Greeting for 2016 to the Thai Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and Deputy Prime Minister, the Myanmar leader called for a review of the evidence in the case.

Social networking protests against the murder verdict in Koh Samui

Many of the protests centred on social network activity in relation to the police investigation and the court case in Koh Samui. During the court case, the Myanmar men claimed that they were tortured into signing a confession. The judgment in the case specifically refuted this claim saying that there was no evidence. Protesters against the verdict both on the streets in Myanmar and online claimed that the two illegal migrants were arrested and prosecuted as scapegoats. They allege that the Thai police came under pressure to solve the crime in which two British Nationals had been murdered. Many of the protests in Myanmar involved Buddhist monks carrying placards denouncing the verdict and protesting the innocence of the two men.

Thai police: protests were orchestrated for political purposes

In response to the outbreak of protests, the Royal Thai Police claimed that a subversive group was orchestrating the campaign for political purposes. The Royal Thai Police Chief,  Chakthip Chaijinda, instructed Thai police officers to identify a prime mover behind the protest against the judgment of the Koh Samui court. The national police chief described a ‘shadowy group’ as instigating the protests in Myanmar. There were denials from the Foreign Ministry in Myanmar that such a group existed or that there was no evidence to suggest that the protests were being coordinated. However, the Thai police were adamant that the protests were not spontaneous and were being used for political purposes.

Online hackers group oppose the conviction of the two migrants

The position of the Thai authorities and the Royal Thai Police was further complicated by a campaign led by hackers linked to the anonymous cyber collective.  The hackers targeted Thai court and government websites as a protest against the death penalty which the court in Koh Samui had imposed on the Myanmar duo. This coincided with a bizarre outburst by the sister of one of the victims, Laura Witheridge, the sister of Hannah Witheridge. The young UK woman appeared to criticise the investigation by the Royal Thai Police and the conduct of the Thai authorities. Miss Witheridge’s comments came in a Facebook post which was later retracted. In it, she made references to other fatalities on the island of Koh Tao and described the police investigation was ‘bungled’. Her comments were vehemently rejected by the Thai authorities.

Thai authorities in a strong response to the victim’s sister

A spokesman for the Thai Court of Justice quickly responded pointing out that the Office of Judiciary in Thailand had conducted a preliminary investigation of the post by Miss Laura Witheridge. Ms Witheridge and also referred to alleged comments made by Thai officials to her family which were, she claimed. offensive. She seemed to describe a bizarre incident where it is understood, that Miss Witheridge claimed she was followed. The post, which was extensively reported in British and Western media suggested that some Thai officials had suggested to her parents that Miss Witheridge parents that they could replace the murdered girl. The bizarre post by the sister of the victim also mentioned offers of compensation as well as a claim that the women had been followed by a car in the UK. The response from the Thai authorities understandably was quite strong and robust.

Thai authorities defend their conduct in relation to Koh Tao murders

‘Throughout the trial, neither complaint nor any improper conduct was brought up for immediate action to be taken against,’ said the spokesman for the Court of Justice in Thailand. ‘Moreover all judges and court officials are consciously aware of the rights of the victim  and her family afforded by the law, we are under a legal duty to ensure those rights will be protected and that they  will not be undermined by any action or person.’ The spokesman invited any relatives of the murdered woman to submit a formal complaint through the British Embassy and promised that any complaint would be fully investigated. The comments by the sister of the murder victim, Hannah Witheridge, were also strenuously denied by Thai police officers. The Thai National Police Chief General Chakthip Chaijinda even ordered the Thai police through its legal affairs unit to examine the denunciations and if necessary take legal actions against her.

Emotional trauma and cultural differences blamed for the outburst

One commentator in Bangkok believes that the outburst by Miss Witheridge must be seen in the context of the emotional trauma by the British family as a result of the murders and the subsequent trial and the aftermath of the verdict. He also points out that the comments by the British woman may be the result of a lack of understanding of Thai culture. ‘It is normal in Thailand to offer compensation to victims of crime and it is quite probable that any comments made by officials may well have been intended to be of support to the family during what must have been a strenuous process. Since the murders occurred in September 2014, the internet and social media have been swirling with rumours and counter rumours and I think it is quite easy to underestimate the validity, the professionalism of the investigations and subsequent legal process. At this stage, it is in the interests of all concerned that comments on the matter are confined to legal forums. Both families have been briefed from the outset by both the Thai authorities and British officials. Officially both families have not voiced any dissent, indeed the family of David Miller have come out very strongly in support not only of the police investigation but also of the verdict handed down by the Thai courts,’ says Joseph Anthony.

Thai PM apologised for remarks about western and attire

In the immediate aftermath of the murder and the sensation that it caused on social media, the Thai Prime Minister was criticised for comments he made suggesting that western women in Thailand should proceed more carefully when it comes to attire. The Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan ocha later apologised for his statements in which he appeared to suggest that attractive women dressed in bikinis might have some responsibility if they were to become the victims of violence in the country.

Thailand increasingly popular with young western men and women

Thailand has become increasingly popular for younger western tourists who visit the country in large numbers. However, a more recent phenomenon has seen younger western women travelling to the country alone. The murder of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller occurred on the island of Koh Tao, an idyllic spot which is very popular for tourists seeking the unique experience of Thai island life and water-based pursuits such as diving. The Thai leader General Prayuth Chan ocha is well known in Thailand for his abrasive, no-nonsense style and his often politically incorrect pronouncements by western standards.

His apologies should be understood in the context of Thailand’s continued efforts to promote the country as a tourist destination and the essential difference between Thai and western culture.

Thailand’s environment and culture are different to western countries

Thailand last year recorded a record year for tourism with international traveller coming from all over the world to the kingdom. Some agree with the Prime Minister’s comments and see them as common sense advice. ‘In the last few years, there are more and more western women coming to Thailand on adventure holidays. Thailand offers the comforts of western countries but it is  also a uniquely exotic experience with so many natural wonders including islands like Koh Tao. However, there has been an ongoing series of accidents and events involving young western women in Thailand in recent years. Quite recently a number of British women were injured riding mopeds in Phuket. Thailand is a laid back and very friendly country. However, it is wrong to assume that both the environment and culture is similar to western countries. One key environmental example is the safety standards on Thai roads compared to European or UK roads. Thailand has been so successful in offering western foreigners the comforts of western life that the foreigners forget the difference.

Thailand under pressure in the aftermath of the Koh Tao murder

It is understandable why the Thai authorities were put under so much pressure when the news of the murders emerged. The murders must also be seen in the context of the vast numbers of foreigners including westerners who travel to Thailand each year. Thai authorities are particularly sensitive to the needs of tourists and even have a tourist police service to support tourists who visit every part of the country.

Family of UK man murdered on Koh Tao strongly support murder verdicts

The family of British man David Miller have come out strongly in defence of the investigation conducted by the Royal Thai Police. They also endorse the verdict handed down by the court in Koh Samui in which the two suspects, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, were convicted of the murder of both David Miller and Hannah Witheridge and the rape of Hannah Witheridge.

Speaking to the media after the verdict was announced, David Miller’s family described it as a ‘correct verdict’ and the family went further and issued a statement saying that he respected the court in Koh Samui and its decision completely. ‘It is our opinion that the evidence against Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo is overwhelming. They raped to satisfy their selfish desires and murdered to cover up that fact. They have shown no remorse during the trial,’ the family said.

David Miller’s family also went out of their way to defend the case presented by the Royal Thai Police and the investigation that had taken place. They pointed out that the investigation is not the ‘shambles that it was made out to be in some sections of the media and social media.’

Michael Miller, David Miller’s father, even admitted that at the beginning of the investigation he was unsure that the police had arrested the two men. ‘Like many people, we initially were unsure what to think when Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were detained as suspects. We saw images of two innocent-looking men surrounded by a tough policeman. It was easy to conclude that they might be convenient scapegoats,’ he admitted. However, following the completion of the police investigations, the progress of which the family were briefed, and the subsequent trial, the Miller family formed their categorical conclusion that the two men were guilty. They have specifically endorsed the investigation conducted by the Royal Thai Police. ‘We believe that after a difficult start the Royal Thai Police conducted a methodical and thorough investigation.’

Miller family warn against the campaign to undo Koh Samui verdict

The Miller family also seemed to voice concern in relation to the campaign which has been launched to contest the verdict handed down by the court. The family pointed out that they were aware that there was concern for the two men convicted of the crime including a petition being orchestrated and funds being raised for their benefit. They asked that those campaigning for the two Burmese men should respect the process of law in Thailand and the decision of the court. While paying tribute to the family of Hannah Witheridge and what that family had had to endure given the nature of the crime, the Miller family pointed out that David Miller would never come home. ‘Our lives have been changed forever, nothing brings David home, no last hugs no Goodbyes.’

Migrant workers represented by migrants rights group

Following the announcement of the verdict in Koh Samui on Christmas Eve last year, the mothers of the two accused rushed from the court in tears. The defendants were represented by the Migrant Workers Rights Network. A spokesman for the group, Mr Andy Hall, International Affairs adviser, told reporters that the defendants accept the decision but where pursuing the judicial process in the hope that one day the truth will come out It is understood that a decision on the appeal may take six months to a year to be handed down.

Thai police confident about the strength of their case

Royal Thai Police and prosecutors are adamant in the strength of the prosecution’s case including DNA evidence from cigarette butts, a condom and the bodies of the victims that linked the two migrant workers to the killings. Lawyers for the Burmese men are taking up DNA inconsistencies and lack of evidence in some key areas. They have also in the past claimed that the defendant’s confessions were the result of torture and ‘systematic abuse’ of the two Burmese migrants while in detention. The defendant’s lawyers have also criticised the reenactment of the murders staged by police in Koh Tao for the media.