Murder, Scapegoats, and a Coup d'État


Prayuth_Jan-ocha_2010-06-17_Cropped On October 9th, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, traveled to the neighboring Burmese capital of Naypyidaw for a meeting with President Thein Sein. First on the agenda was strengthening economic cooperation. Second on the agenda was murder.

Three weeks before the former generals met, the bodies of British tourists David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, were found on the beach of Koh Tao, an idyllic island off Thailand’s southeastern shore. This gruesome event shocked the local community of Surat Thani, and indeed the nation, but it’s been the ensuing police investigation that has proved truly appalling. Initial blunders included failure to cordon off the crime scene, elimination of Thai suspects on the assertion that “Thais wouldn’t do this,” and victim-blaming in Prime Minister Chan-ocha’s suggestion that only those who were “not beautiful” should feel safe walking about in their bikinis. But when two Burmese migrants were taken into police custody on suspicious grounds, the situation not only got worse—it got political.

Tensions between the Thai government and its vast and mostly undocumented migrant community have been running high since the country’s latest coup on May 22nd. Almost immediately after the military took control, rumors the junta planned to crackdown on “illegal” immigrants and their employers spread, spawning a mass exodus of mostly Cambodian workers. By June 26, an estimated 250,000 of them had fled.

Workers from Burma, who make up the majority of undocumented migrants in Thailand, have traditionally fared worst. They are often the first to be blamed for any crime indicative of social depravity, from sexual assault to drug trafficking. Accounts of hate campaigns and forced labor capture the harsh realities of life that migrants from Burma face when they arrive on the other side of the border. While the general situation in Burma is improving, gains in the economy have mostly gone to the top decile of society, and unemployment was last reported at 40 percent. This leaves many no choice but to pursue “dirty, dangerous, and difficult” jobs in Thailand, where they become, in the words of Bangkok-based risk analyst Paul Quaglia, “favorite targets.” Thus, the arrests of 21 year-olds Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun on October 3 were viewed—at least by English-language media—as being only too convenient.

Police obtained confessions from Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, but it wasn’t long before the statements were clouded by claims of physical coercion. “A police officer hit the side of [Win Zaw Htun’s] face and the interpreter also hit him four times,” said Aung Myo Thant, a lawyer sent by the Burmese embassy to represent the accused. “Then the police threatened to electrocute [both suspects] and said no worse thing would happen to them if they confessed. So, they finally confessed as they saw no hope.” The suspects have since retracted their confessions.

At the beginning of this month, concerned American Christopher Harkins took to and set up a petition calling for an independent (British...) investigation. “The Thai authorities [sic] insensitive obsession with tourist figures and the police’s notoriously corrupt reputation around the world, has [sic] been in the forefront [sic] of these concerns.” The litany continues:

“From a completely destroyed crime scene, racial slurs and finger pointing against foreigners, victim blaming from the General turned Prime Minister, police posting pictures of the dead victims [sic] bodies on their [Facebook] accounts (with no regard for the victims [sic] friends and families), countless releases of unnecessary and highly conflicting pieces of information/evidence to the media, reports of investigators beating and offering bribes to false witnesses (and then still being allowed to work on the case), reports of torturing of suspects, suspicious and insensitive re-enactments of the crime, and the well known fact that citizens of Myanmar are the usual choice of scapegoats in Thailand.”

Such vehement criticism might have been effective. By October 17, the petition had 100,000 signatures and it was announced British detectives had been dispatched to Koh Tao.

The internationalization of Witheridge and Miller’s double homicide is putting intense pressure on Thai authorities, who are still adamant about maintaining control of the investigation. It’s probably safe to assume that a significant amount of this pressure is being applied by the Chan-ocha government, which is still adamant about maintaining control of the country. The disintegrating situation is laying bare cracks in Thailand’s judicial system, lack of faith in the government, and souring regional/international relations. In May, supporters hailed Chan-ocha’s reformist intentions, and skeptics held their tongues in wait-and-see fashion. However, if bureaucratic incompetence continues to impede state functionality, Thailand may find itself facing coup number thirteen.