Thirty days to shore up Thai justice after conviction of Myanmar workers: The Nation

People protest against the Thai court's death sentence for two Myanmar migrant workers in Myanmar on Dec 27, 2015.
People protest against the Thai court's death sentence for two Myanmar migrant workers in Myanmar on Dec 27, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

The appeal period for the Myanmar accused in the Koh Tao case affords a chance to overcome public suspicion.

Myanmar commander in chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has taken the unusual step of asking Thai authorities to re-examine the case against two Myanmar nationals convicted of rape and murder on Koh Tao, in what amounts to another blow to international confidence in the Thai justice system. It also provides a test for relations between these two countries, at a time when both are engaged in a process of democratic reform.

It is rare for leaders in Naypyitaw to express concern over the fate of citizens who find themselves in trouble abroad. Thailand is home to about three million workers from Myanmar, many of them undocumented migrants, but little attention has been paid to their plight at the hands of our justice system.

So it came as a surprise when General Min wrote to Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Supreme Commander Sommai Kaotira over the weekend. He urged a review of the sentencing of the two Myanmar nationals to death for the attack on two British backpackers. The verdict met with widespread anger in Myanmar.

Last Thursday (Dec 24) the Samui Provincial Court found the two men - Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun - guilty of killing Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on Koh Tao in Sept 2014. Witheridge was also sexually violated.

The case had been dogged by controversy, with the accused claiming their confessions were obtained under torture, and renowned forensic pathologist Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand calling into question DNA evidence and police investigative procedures. After the verdict, thousands of protesters besieged the Thai Embassy in Yangon, claiming the convicted men had been made scapegoats.

Migrant workers often have a precarious legal status in Thailand and, as such, find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous law-enforcers and court officials. This dismal fact only fuels suspicions over the verdict whenever a foreigner is convicted of a serious crime here. 

General Min expressed respect for Thailand's judicial process, but stressed the need to avoid a situation in which innocent men might have been wrongly convicted.

Myanmar's top military commander also expressed a belief that justice will be eventually done thanks to the mutual respect and friendly relations between the two countries.

He could have delivered his message in private to Thai top brass, with whom he enjoys friendly relations. That he chose to make his plea public, via his Facebook page and the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar Times, indicates just how seriously Myanmar authorities view this case.

Bangkok must not take the signal from Naypyitaw lightly. Justifications for the verdict offered so far by the Thai Foreign Ministry, the embassy in Yangon, the police and the Samui court have not cooled tempers in Myanmar.

Police spokesman Pol General Dejnarong Sutticharnbancha insisted that the investigation had been fair and transparent and that checks and balances in place meant the public could have confidence in the judicial process. 

His words are not enough to restore public faith badly damaged by the police's failure to effectively refute allegations of torture during interrogation and an absence of legal representation for the convicted men during the preliminary stages of the probe.

Samui court spokesman Suebpong Sripongkul has said the death sentence can be appealed and is not a final ruling. The defence team has 30 days in which to launch an appeal. What happens during that period will be crucial to the credibility of the Thai justice system and also to continuing friendly relations with our neighbour to the west.