Thailand has agreed in principle to allow a team of observers from Britain and Burma to observe judicial procedures in the Koh Tao murder case that has sparked a barrage of media criticism in both countries.
The move was approved during a meeting of officials including Thai national police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang, Thai Foreign Ministry deputy permanent secretary Kiattikhun Chartprasert, British ambassador Mark Kent and Burmese ambassador Win Maung. Details of how the monitoring will work in practice are pending further discussion.
The meeting came one day after Hugo Swire, the British minister for Southeast Asia, summoned Thai chargé d’affaires Nadthavathna Krishnamra to raise concerns about the investigation into the 15 September murders of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on Koh Tao.
Mr Swire stressed that “there was a real concern in the UK about how the investigation has been handled by the Thai authorities” and “that it was crucial for the investigation to be conducted in a fair and transparent way”.
He also noted “his concern about the way that the police had engaged with the media on the case, and reiterated that the UK police stood ready to assist with the investigation and subsequent legal process”, insisting the British government and the victims’ families need to receive regular updates on the investigation’s progress.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee said Pol Gen Somyot used the three-hour meeting on Tuesday to assure the two envoys that the Thai government is handling the case with transparency.
“The British and Burmese governments are ready to send a team of observers to monitor the process and the police chief said he was willing to accept,” Mr Sek said.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha meanwhile welcomed the idea, saying the Thai government is willing to explain the full details of the case, since officers have been handling the matter competently. But he denied that the Thai chargé d’affaires in the UK had been “summoned”.
“They did not summon us. We went to provide clarification to them,” he said. “We went to show them how we work.”
He said British authorities may have been surprised that Thai police were able to arrest the suspects, given that reports in the Thai media had implied the force was unlikely to apprehend them.
“Burma and Britain monitor Thai media, including social media, which could have confused them,” Gen Prayut said. “It is quite normal for them to ask for clarification in the case. It doesn’t mean they don’t trust our judicial system.”
In Surat Thani, the Koh Samui Provincial Court Tuesday proceeded with its preliminary hearings involving key prosecution witnesses. Maung Maung, 23, testified against his two friends, Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, who are alleged to have killed Miller and raped and murdered Witheridge.
The two suspects were allowed to attend Tuesday’s hearing and question the witness. A lawyer from the Lawyers Council of Thailand was appointed to represent them in court.
Maung Maung, who works as a waiter at AC Two restaurant on Koh Tao, confirmed that he, Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin were the three men in footage taken from security cameras on the night of the murders.
The prosecution lawyer played the footage in which they went into a 7-Eleven shop at 11.10pm on Sept 14 and bought three bottles of beer. Maung Maung was seen on camera leaving the 7-Eleven to buy cigarettes from a nearby store at 11.12pm.
The three were later caught on another security camera leaving a soi in front of AC Bar, where the two victims were last seen before they were murdered. Zaw Lin was seen driving with Maung Maung and Win Zaw Htun riding pillion on the back of the same motorcycle. Win Zaw Htun carried a guitar.
Maung Maung said he and the two others drank beer and played guitar on Sairee beach that night, about 100 metres from the crime scene. He said he left the others once they finished the beer.
Thawatchai Siangjaew, director-general of Office of Public Prosecution Region 8 in Thailand, said his team is still waiting for the final part of a re-investigation report from police. Prosecutors earlier found that two parts of the investigation report were incomplete.
He added that police investigators have laid an additional charge against the two Burmese suspects. The new charge is of murder with intent to conceal the crime and avoid prosecution.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Times on 15 October 2014