Confusion developed over the weekend when some media reported that both Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo had been pardoned. This drew a clarification from a lawyer acting on their behalf explaining that their death sentence had simply been commuted. The two men will now serve life sentences in prison but may be eligible for further sentence reductions in the future.

A comment by the brother of one of the two Myanmar men who had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment through a  royal decree issued by the Thai King on Friday, may have given rise to some media reports that the pair were pardoned. The two men, along with all those on Bang Kwang prison’s death row, including a former MP, had their death sentences instead commuted to life imprisonment.

A lawyer for both Myanmar men, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, issued a statement over the weekend that pointed out that both men had not been pardoned and instead had received clemency from the Thai King through a royal decree which commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment for the murders in 2014 of UK backpackers, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller (inset left).

A lawyer for the two men who last week had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment through the clemency of the Thai King, have issued statements to clarify that Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo had, contrary to some media reports that the pair received a pardon, their sentences commuted.

The lawyer pointed out that this would have required his clients to admit to their guilt for the crime that they were convicted of by a court sitting on Ko Samui on Christmas Eve 2015.

‘To clear up any misunderstanding, this is what has been requested in the appeal letter to the King of Thailand. Some people have been under the impression that a pardon has been sought, which would require the convicted to admit their guilt. This is not the case. In the appeal letter, we requested that the death sentence be commuted, as the two are young and supporting their widowed mothers,’ said lawyer U Aung Myo Thant who was appointed to assist the pair by the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok.

Brings an end to the case following the murders in September 2014 which shocked the world

This brings an end to the legal process in a case that began in September 2014 on the idyllic island of Ko Tao when two young British tourists were attacked and beaten to death in a secluded spot on the island.

23-year-old Hannah Witheridge, who attended the University of Essex in Norfolk in the UK, and 24-year-old David Miller from Jersey, were beaten to death by a blunt instrument near the seashore of the island.

The incident provoked a massive police investigation which led police to the two Myanmar men, both low paid migrants who were working on the island.

The murders generated a frenzy of media coverage amplified by the exotic nature of the location and the youthful good looks of the victims, both with their lives ahead of them

Debate over the guilt or innocence of the pair

The has been some debate, over the years, as to the guilt of the pair 

The conviction continues to be a source of controversy and when first announced, generated riots in Myanmar and even some protest activity in Thailand itself.

Critics of the case against the men have argued that, as impoverished migrant labourers from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the two were scapegoats identified by investigating police officers as international coverage and interest in the case mounted.

Nonetheless, the family of David Miller, who observed and sat through the trial in 2015 on Ko Samui, were entirely satisfied as to their guilt in the murders which included the rape of Ms Witheridge.

However, they have always called on Thai officials to show leniency to the men and not to carry out the death sentence.

Pair were being held on Thailand’s death row

Both Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo have been held since their conviction in Thailand’s notorious Bang Kwang prison in Nonthaburi province where the kingdom’s last execution, by lethal injection, was carried out in June 2018.

The decree followed the Monarch’s birthday on July 28th and has also been extended to other high profile individuals serving long prison sentences including former minsters as an act of ‘clemency’. 

Among those benefiting from the move is former Pheu Thai MP, Nawat Tohcharoensuk, sentenced to death last year for the murder of an official in Khon Kaen who he suspected of having an affair with his wife. 

The Myanmar pair may now also be eligible, with good behaviour, to future sentence reductions and with their young age, may at some point, hope to be released.

Convictions and death sentences were upheld by Thai courts on appeal in 2017 and 2019

The convictions and sentences imposed on the two men were upheld by the Thai Court of Appeal in 2017 and later by the Supreme Court in 2019 which reaffirmed the death sentence for the pair.

Another lawyer for the two men on Friday, Nadthasiri Bergman, said that the decree commuting their sentences applied to all inmates being held at Bang Kwang on death row and was effective immediately.

Brother may have sparked the mix-up

A brother of Win Zaw Tun, Ye Zaw Tun, may have contributed to the confusion when he joyfully welcomed the development by mistakenly referring to it as a pardon for his brother.

Speaking with the AFP news agency, he said: ‘I can’t find words to express how thankful we are. We knew this case was totally unfair, and we sometimes feel bitterness, but we want to say thanks for the royal pardon.’

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Further reading:

Convictions of Burmese Koh Tao murderers and death sentences upheld by Thai Supreme Court

Koh Tao victim’s family endorse the conviction of Myanmar migrants

Koh Tao claims by UK teenager questioned by Thai police – arrest warrants indicated for some media

Australian man pleads for help for his son and Thai wife sentenced to death for failed drug trafficking plot at sea

Police to re-arrest Australian death row inmate after he is released under court order at Bangkwang prison

93% of Thai people want to see the death penalty put to use to curb shocking murders and drug gangs