Thai PM Prayuth 'sorry' for bikini remark after British murders

Family members of Hannah Witheridge, one of the two British tourists killed on Koh Tao island, react as they meet officers at the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok on Sept 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Family members of Hannah Witheridge, one of the two British tourists killed on Koh Tao island, react as they meet officers at the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok on Sept 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
This combination of handout images received from Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Sept 16, 2014, shows British students Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, whose battered bodies were found on the southern resort island of Koh Tao on
This combination of handout images received from Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Sept 16, 2014, shows British students Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, whose battered bodies were found on the southern resort island of Koh Tao on Monday. -- PHOTO: AFP/FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures in a traditional greeting before reading out his government's policy at the Parliament in Bangkok on Sept 12, 2014. Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Thursday apologised for comments su
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures in a traditional greeting before reading out his government's policy at the Parliament in Bangkok on Sept 12, 2014. Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Thursday apologised for comments suggesting tourists in bikinis could be more vulnerable to attack, just days after the murder of two British holidaymakers. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand’s junta chief apologised Thursday for suggesting tourists in bikinis could be more vulnerable to attack, comments which caused an international outcry following the brutal murder of two British holidaymakers.  

Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also prime minister, on Wednesday drew condemnation after questioning the safety of female tourists in the kingdom in off-the-cuff comments to government officials.  

“They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prayuth said. But “can they be safe in bikinis... unless they are not beautiful?” The remarks came just two days after the battered bodies of British tourists David Miller, 24 and Hannah Witheridge, 23, were found on the southern resort island of Koh Tao.  

In a rare public moment of contrition from the tough-talking army chief, Prayuth said he did not mean to cause distress.  

“I’m sorry that it hurt people,” Prayuth said at a hastily convened press conference in Bangkok.  “I didn’t intend to insult or criticise anyone. I just warned that sometimes people have to be careful... today Thailand is safe except there are some bad guys – like anywhere in the world.”

Thailand’s image as a tourist haven was battered by months of political protests that ended in May’s army coup and has been further damaged by the murder of the Britons.  The incendiary words from Prayuth, who seized power from the elected government in May, prompted the British Embassy in Bangkok to ask for a “clarification” raising its “concerns” over his remarks.

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, branded the comments ‘demeaning’.  

Speaking before Prayuth's apology, Sifton said: “Prime Minister Prayuth’s off the cuff remark unfortunately implies that women victims of violent crimes are somehow responsible for the abuse they suffered because of what they were wearing.  

“This sort of statement demeans women – and if that was not his intent, then he should issue a statement clarifying matters.”

Distraught relatives of Witheridge broke down in tears and hugged each other ahead of a police briefing in Bangkok on Thursday, as the hunt for the killers of the British pair continued to draw a blank.  

On Thursday, police continued to hunt for clues on the small, normally laid-back diving island of Koh Tao as post-mortem examinations of the victims’ bodies in Bangkok did not find any DNA links to 12 people they have questioned so far.  

Those include two of Miller’s British friends who were asked to stay in Bangkok pending forensic results – and several Myanmar migrant workers. The British men were now “free to return home,” regional police commander Panya Maman told AFP.  Experts tested traces of semen and a hair found at the crime scene but could not find a match.  

With no arrests and an apparent lack of new leads, it is unclear where the police investigation can turn after nearly four days scouring sparsely populated Koh Tao.  

Thailand’s key high season for tourists is just two months away and the kingdom is desperate to reassure visitors after a year which saw takings slump because of political turmoil.

The governor of Surat Thani province – which covers Koh Tao – said the island would no longer host spin-off parties of the “full moon” beach raves which draw backpacking hordes to neighbouring Koh Phangan.  “We don’t want any more crimes,” governor Chatpong Chatraphuti told AFP, adding hotels and resorts would have to install new security cameras and lighting.