YANGON – The chief of the Myanmar Army has called on Thailand to review the sentencing of two countrymen to death for murdering a pair of British backpackers after a controversial trial that sparked protests.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, head of the country’s influential military, has asked Thailand for a “review of the evidence” against the two men, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported Sunday.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun were found guilty Thursday of killing David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, whose battered bodies were found on a beach in the southern Thai diving resort of Koh Tao in September last year.
The grim killings have sullied Thailand’s reputation as a tourist haven and raised questions over its justice system after the defense accused the police of bungling their investigation and using the men as scapegoats — a charge authorities deny.
The verdicts have sparked anger in Myanmar with daily protests held outside the Thai Embassy in Yangon and at border crossings with the country’s eastern neighbor.
The Global New Light of Myanmar said Hlaing expressed his concerns about the verdict in a New Year message to senior Thai junta leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan.
“The commander-in-chief expressed his respect for Thailand’s judicial process while stressing the need to avoid a situation in which the innocent … were wrongly punished,” the newspaper reported.
The statement is the strongest suggestion yet that senior Myanmar leaders are unhappy with the Thai court’s decision amid a surge of sympathy for the two accused in their homeland.
Protesters in Myanmar were planning a fresh series of rallies outside Yangon’s famed Shwe Dagon pagoda Sunday afternoon.
Thai prosecutors and police insist their evidence against the men — both migrant workers — was rock solid, including DNA found on Witheridge’s body.
But the defense, which has vowed to appeal the verdict, disputed the forensic evidence, saying it was improperly collected and processed.
They also accused the police of torturing their clients into signing confessions, which they later retracted.
Amnesty International has accused Thai authorities of failing to independently investigate those allegations.
Activists say the case reflects a wider trend of low-paid migrant workers from neighboring countries being blamed for crimes in Thailand where the justice system is easily bent by wealth and power.
However, Thai authorities have received an endorsement from Miller’s family who backed investigators after the verdict was announced, saying they believe the evidence against the two accused was “overwhelming.”
The court in Koh Samui also dismissed the defense’s torture allegations.
On Saturday Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun were moved to a high security prison in Nakhon Si Thammarat on the southern Thai mainland where many death row inmates are held.
Although Thailand retains capital punishment, executions are rare.