Thailand’s Migrant Worker Woes Exposed in Koh Tao Murder Case

The case is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem.

Thailand’s Migrant Worker Woes Exposed in Koh Tao Murder Case
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

Migrant workers in Thailand are discriminated against, scapegoated, vulnerable to exploitation, and human rights abuses. One illustration of this is the tragic murder of tourists Hannah Witheridge and David Miller British which took place on September 15, 2014 on Koh Tao Island. On December 24, two Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin and Wei Phyo, were found guilty by the Samui Provincial Court and were sentenced to death. Both men could be put to death. Though Thailand has not executed anyone since 2009, there are more than 450 prisoners on death row.

The murder investigation was criticized due to the alleged torture of both Myanmar migrant workers and mishandling of evidence by Thai police. Koh Tao is a famous tourist destination and the island is especially popular among backpackers and scuba divers. The police and authorities had been under immense pressure to solve the case quickly because it threatened the country’s tourism industry.

Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) has been part of the team helping the two Myanmar migrants in the Koh Tao murder case. Their work has led to the awareness of systematic and serious violations of labor rights and protection of migrant workers on Koh Tao and its neighboring islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. On Koh Tao, MWRN found cases of migrant workers who were physically abused by law enforcement officials. Migrants were taken to the police station for extortion and abused by hotel supervisors during working hours.

Andy Hall, international Advisor to MWRN and apart of the Koh Tao defense team, told The Diplomat on January 5 in an interview that the “conditions in the [Thai] tourism industry are very abus[ive] towards migrants.” “There is systematic abuse…it’s a complete mess,” he went on to add.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, a Thai forensic scientist and head of the Thai Forensics Institute, testified that there was mishandling of the DNA evidence. She told judges the DNA samples found on the murder weapon, a hoe, did not match the defendants’.

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A source that wished to remain anonymous also told The Diplomat that Thai DNA experts have questioned weather the police lab responsible for testing had its ISO17025 certification (general requirements for the competence of testing) at the time of analysis of the forensic samples. The source went on tell The Diplomat that the British government and the investigation team was not properly “briefed on the nature of the DNA and forensics paperwork and irregularities behind them.”

“The Thai authorities cannot just wish away the uninvestigated allegations of torture by police and serious concerns about the DNA evidence used to convict these two men and sentence them to death,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told The Diplomat in Bangkok.

The verdict of the Koh Tao case was met with criticism and protest. The street protest in Myanmar kept the embassy closed on January 5, with a statement released saying that it “remain closed due to ongoing demonstrations.”

Hacker group Anonymous released a video on January 3 condemning the Koh Tao verdict. The 40-minute video accuses the Thai police of “scapegoating” 22-year-old Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun. In the video, Anonymous called on tourists to boycott Thailand. The Thai police website was also hacked and shutdown on January 5, an act allegedly perpetrated by a Myanmar hacktivist group coordinating with Anonymous.

In their video, Anonymous said that the group “has learned that the Thai police have accused innocent people before, and would rather blame foreigners or migrants for such crimes so as to protect their tourism industry”. According to the Bangkok Post, hacked websites showed an image of a white mask and said, “Blink Hacker Group, Failed Law, We want Justice and Greetz Myanmar Black Hats”.

Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand Win Maung appointed the Lawyers Council of Thailand (LCT) to launch an appeal in a higher court. The government of Myanmar has also offered to fund the council, even though LCT does not take money for pro bono cases. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar military, urged Thailand to “review the evidence.”

“This is now coming closer to home as those in the international community and media who have been raising serious doubts about this verdict have now been joined by key leaders in Burma, including the NCPO’s erstwhile ally, Burma army commander Gen. Min Aung Hlaing,” Robertson told The Diplomat.

More broadly, this case, and others like it, shows the lack of justice and agency migrants have in Thailand. There are over four million migrants living in Thailand today, with the majority from Myanmar, Cambodia, and the Laos. Migrants make up around 10 per cent of Thailand’s workforce including construction, agriculture, manufacturing, fishing and tourism. Yet some 400,000 migrants are at risk of deportation and trafficking in Thailand.

While the environment in Thailand has long been dangerous for migrants, it has become even more so under the current government National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Thai premier Prayut Chan-o-cha was furious when asked about protests in Myanmar against the verdict, according to The Nation.

The NCPO has had harsh polices toward migrant workers in Thailand. In 2014, after the NCPO took over in a coup d’état, the Migrant Working Group (MWG) released a joint statement calling for the government to “stop the crackdowns, arrest and suppression of migrant workers.” Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a representative for MWG, told The Diplomat in an interview that the government should let migrants form labor unions (Thai law does not let migrants form unions themselves to collectively organize or voice grievances).

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The Thai government is also blocking content that is critical of the authorities handling of the murder case. For example, the website and articles by Andrew Drummond, a British independent journalist covering Southeast Asia, on the Koh Tao murder case and others has been censored by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.

The Koh Tao murder case clearly shows clearly that Thailand has a long way to go when it comes to upholding migrant worker labor rights and protection. “It is deeply disturbing that this case came to trial without an independent investigation of the two Burmese men’s claims that they were tortured by police into ‘confessing,’” Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told The Diplomat.

“It’s also important to remember that this case is just the tip of the iceberg – torture in detention in Thailand is rife….It is high time for Thai authorities to make a genuine effort to stamp out this abhorrent practice” Patel added.

John Quinley III is a Bangkok-based researcher focused on human rights, refugees, migrants, and development in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar and Thailand.