Prior to British tourists Hannah Witheridge and David Miller’s heinous murders last September, migrant workers’ presence and everyday lives on Koh Tao were not publicly discussed. This situation abruptly changed once migrants were identified by case investigators as key suspects behind the killings.
For the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), this spotlight on migrants created opportunities to better understand the significant challenges these workers face across Koh Tao and the neighbouring islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. This exploration supplemented work of the legal defense team for Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun (a.k.a. Wai Phyo), the two 21-year-old Burmese men eventually prosecuted for the killings.
As the trial of Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo approaches, considering the history of discrimination against and exploitation of migrants in Thailand and how this may have influenced the murder investigation and subsequent prosecutions is worthwhile. These considerations have ramifications on the potential to realise justice for the deceased, accused and their families as well as for migrant communities who are following the case closely.
Ongoing engagement with the smiling, youthful faces of Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo during humanitarian visits at Koh Samui prison and during hearings at Koh Samui court creates difficulty for observers to reconcile the horrific crimes the two are accused of with the diminutive, friendly people they appear to be.
Understanding the powerlessness and vulnerability of migrants across Thailand, when combined with widespread criticism of this murder investigation and allegations of powerful actors influencing developments, continues to produce deep distrust or suspicion that the real people responsible for the killings have yet to be apprehended.
For over a decade, migrants have contributed significantly to tourism, construction and service sectors on Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. In return, accommodation and food provisions sometimes provided free of charge as well as tips and service charges can enhance migrants saving potential at work across these islands.
Yet these workers continue to regularly face systematic rights violations at work including: payment below the national minimum wage of 300 baht (US$10) a day and 56 baht an hour for overtime; working seven days a week without leave; no paid annual leave; and no benefits on public holidays. Employers often ignore compulsory social protection and health schemes whilst child or youth employment still exists.
Migrants frequently do not possess official documents to ride motorbikes, sell goods or provide certain services. Corruption has become the norm as workers are frequently extorted for this weakness. Migrants could however previously purchase protection cards thereby allowing them to live relatively undisturbed island lives at a cost.
Migrants previously navigated unwritten rules of remote island culture which existed alongside the official yet rarely enforced state systems of migration management. Officially, employers must register all migrants working for them and these workers must possess work and immigration documents. In reality, monthly protection fees were commonly paid by workers in lieu of this bureaucratic requirement.
This unsanctioned yet generally accepted employment and protection system of migrants on these islands was undisturbed even after the May 2014 coup. Whilst the military government rapidly pushed for migrant regularisation across Thailand, in part because of potential impacts on trade from trafficking allegations, many migrants on Koh Tao and neighbouring islands remained undocumented. Protection cards continued to be used.
During the early days of the investigation into the murders of Hannah and David and following the arrest of ‘irregular’ migrants suspected of the killings, the government sought to swiftly address perceived risks of ‘illegal’ migration to tourist safety and the resulting negative impact on the country’s reputation in response to the media frenzy surrounding the killings that revealed many undocumented migrants working on Koh Tao.
Genuine migrant regularisation was finally undertaken on Koh Tao and neighbouring islands in October. More stringent application of regulations and increased presence of law enforcement officials resulted. Protection cards disappeared but informal payment systems and extortion still remain. Whilst such changes had some positive effects, most law-abiding and hardworking migrants now live in fear under heightened surveillance.
Two weeks into the murder investigation, police had yet to charge anyone with the killings. Amid conflicting statements regarding evidence and suspects, the investigation appeared increasingly disorganised. Case investigators were criticised for alleged mishandlings of forensic evidence, abuse of suspects and intimidation of witnesses. A shadow was being cast not only over the safety of tourists but also the reliability of the criminal justice system in Thailand to hold someone responsible for the high-profile killings.
Under pressure to make an arrest, officials frequently suggested the murders were committed by migrant workers. Blanket DNA testing of this community was then undertaken which led to fears migrants would be persecuted as scapegoats, given the community’s relative powerlessness to fight back. Equally concerning, Koh Tao’s migrant community revealed instances of alleged torture during investigation questionings.
In early October, authorities finally detained Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo as suspects for the murders. Both were working on Koh Tao to save money to support their families in impoverished Arakan [Rakhine] State in Burma. The two allegedly confessed to the murders during questioning; officials claimed the men’s guilt was also established by ‘solid’ forensic evidence linking them to the crime scene and Hannah’s body.
Yet several days after being arrested, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo told human rights monitors at Koh Samui prison that they were tortured following detention, prior to being handed over to investigation officials. A week later, both pleaded innocent to rights lawyers organised for them. Both alleged their heads were covered with bags to imitate suffocation while they were threatened with electrocution, burning and execution to elicit confessions. Misconduct of translators assisting investigators was also alleged.
A request from the families of the deceased to minimise potentially inaccurate and sensationalistic reporting of the murders reflected concerns of a trial by public opinion for the accused and the Koh Tao murder investigation teams based only on information from media sources. However, as Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were officially charged last December, judgement on the case is now for Koh Samui court in an 18-day trial that starts this month.
Genuine justice in this case can be achieved through ensuring a fair and transparent trial. Within the context of the challenges of the Thai justice system to achieve justice more broadly, the pride and reputation at stake in a closely watched trial and the historical position of powerless, discrimination and exploitation faced by migrant workers in Thailand, a fair and transparent trial is perhaps not a simple task, however.
One means to ensure genuine justice in this case is through ensuring equality of resources for both the prosecution and defense teams. The defense team, made up of pro bono lawyers, faces an exceptional challenge with over a hundred witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence, particularly forensic in nature, to be examined, understood in liaison with forensic and crime scene experts, and then challenged.
Furthermore, difficulties are enhanced as the trial takes place on Koh Samui, an expensive and hard-to-reach island, and proceedings must be translated into three languages. Further financial and practical constraints are faced in identifying, reaching and then protecting witnesses now residing outside of Thailand.
Ultimately, if the defense does not have time and resources to prepare their case, or if their work is unfairly obstructed, there is a serious risk two innocent young men could be convicted and possibly executed for the murders while the real perpetrators live freely. In such case, there would be no justice for Hannah and David and those who loved them, but only two more victims in this disturbing and increasingly important case.
*Andy Hall is international affairs advisor to the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) and State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation of Thailand (SERC). He can be contacted at email@example.com, on twitter @atomicalandy and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andy.hall.3110