BANGKOK — Locals on the resort island of Koh Tao were left stunned by yesterday's grisly murder of two British tourists, as other foreign travelers reportedly leave the island in droves.
The two victims, David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, were found dead on Hat Sai Ri beach early Monday morning with “gruesome” injuries on their heads and faces. A bloodied gardening hoe was found nearby.
The murder appeared to take place a short distance from the bungalow where the pair was reportedly staying. Police believe the two tourists met on the island and left a party late Sunday night to take a stroll on the beach, where they were presumably ambushed and murdered.
The immediate reaction from residents on the island, whose serene beaches are a popular draw for foreign tourists, was shock and anger.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a staff member from the resort where the two victims were staying. “This is very bad for Koh Tao.”
He added that all of the other guests have left the resort, and many appear to be leaving the island.
Chaiyan Thurasakul, the mayor of Koh Tao, said the murder has gravely damaged the image and reputation of Koh Tao.
"In the past, Koh Tao has been named as one of the top ten diving destinations of the world," the mayor said. "But I don't know what will happen to the future of Koh Tao from now on."
Over 100 locals gathered near the crime scene for a vigil organised by the mayor yesterday evening. They laid flowers and lit incense at the nearby statue of King Rama V, praying for the perpetrator to be apprehended soon.
Businesses on the 21 km2 island rely almost solely on tourism, which has already been hampered over the past year by months of political unrest and a military coup in May.
According to Wannee Thaipanich, chairwoman of Koh Pha Ngan Tourism Promotion Association, business owners on Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao islands plan to wear black for three days to mourn the two Briton's deaths.
Meanwhile, sources close the governor of Surat Thani province told Khaosod that provincial authorities are considering sacking Thaweesak Inprom, the chief district officer overseeing Koh Tao island, for allegedly neglecting to protect tourists’ safety.
"Mr. Thaweesak has been reprimanded many times about the safety of tourists," the source claimed. "And ever since the murder on Koh Tao took place, he has not reported to his superiors at all."
Officials say they will now implement more measures to protect tourists on Koh Tao, such as additional lighting and CCTVs in "risky areas."
Searching for a suspect
Despite a flurry of initial reports and speculation by a number of Thai media agencies, police say they have not yet charged a suspect or uncovered a motive behind the gruesome murder.
Officers are conducting door-to-door searches on the island, with a focus on Burmese immigrants following speculation that a migrant worker may have been responsible for the murder. Reports say that three Burmese men have been detained by the police for interrogation.
There is widespread discrimination against Burmese migrants in Thailand, who Thai authorities frequently accuse of committing crimes inside the Kingdom.
Police are also looking for an “Asian-looking man” who was reportedly seen “behaving suspiciously” in CCTV footage from the beachside party attended by the victims on Sunday night.
Footage shows the man leaving the party at around 5:00 am. Police say the victims left earlier, although they have not specified at what time. Their bodies were reportedly found by Burmese workers cleaning the beach at 6:30am.
Police initially distributed a photo taken from CCTV footage that they said depicted the two victims leaving the party. However, police later retracted the statement after realising they had misidentified the pair in the footage.
On Monday, police said they sealed off the island to prevent potential suspects from fleeing, but Pol.Maj.Gen. Kiattipong Khaosam-ang, a commander of Surat Thani police, confirmed that the lockdown is no longer in place.
However, police are "screening" passengers before they board boats, Pol.Maj.Gen. Kiattipong said.
According to the British Embassy in Bangkok, a consul arrived on the island this morning and is liaising with local authorities.
“The Embassy is urgently seeking information from the local authorities and Consular staff are providing assistance to friends and family at this tragic time,” the Embassy said in a statement.
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