BANGKOK — One night, two years ago tomorrow, Zaw Lin and his friend Wai Phyo were playing guitar and drinking beer on a beach. Today they are locked up in Thailand’s most notorious prison for a crime they say they didn’t commit.
“I miss home. Too much. Sometimes I [go] crazy,” Zaw Lin, 22, said Monday during visiting hours at Bang Kwang Central Prison on Monday. “If I killed anyone, I stay here. Why am I here? I think about that all the time.”
Two years ago, Woraphan Toovichien said, his family was respected and well-liked on Koh Tao, but that changed after many on social media accused his relatives of being responsible for killing two British backpackers on the island and covering up the murders.
“People already judged my family as guilty. My family has suffered so much … my family is in ruins,” said Woraphan, 51, who works as a local administrator on the small, comma-shaped island about 80 kilometers off the coast of Chumphon province.
It’s been two years since David Miller and Hannah Witheridge were found dead on a beach on Koh Tao in the early morning of Sept. 15, 2014. But both sides tangled in the murders that became an international sensation said they still felt injustice; one from a deeply flawed legal system, and the other from internet witch-hunting and uncritical reporting.
On Christmas Eve 2015, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were convicted of killing the two Britons. They were also found guilty of raping Witheridge before she died. For their crimes, the two Burmese men were sentenced to death. They’re now held on death row at Bang Kwang Central Prison, aka the Bangkok Hilton, awaiting appeal proceedings.
Inside the Tiger
Drive toward Bang Kwang Prison from the north and the first thing to see are paint-peeled guard turrets jutting over walls topped with electrified barbed wire. Most of the prisoners here are condemned to life behind bars or death for serious offenses like premeditated murder, armed robbery and kidnapping.
Citing security concerns, the prison only allows inmate visits from close relatives and those with the same surnames. Friends are turned away. Reporters have to get permission directly from the warden to interview Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo.
“Oh, the two Burmese scapegoats?” one of the prison guards said upon reading the visitation document.
Several more forms and stamps later, I’m led through the last of three large metal gates that separate Bang Kwang Prison from the outside world.
Speaking from behind bars and glass panels through an intercom, Zaw Lin conversed cheerfully in passable English punctuated with frequent laughter. Wai Phyo was more quiet. He’s not confident enough with his English and mostly lets his friend speak on his behalf.
During the course of a 45-minute jailhouse interview, they recounted that night two years ago, discussed life behind bars, and insisted they will not seek a royal pardon as that would mean pleading guilty to something they did not do.
Of the crime, Zaw Lin offered the same version of events presented at their trial last year.
They didn’t know anything about the murders. They had finished working at the AC bar and were playing guitar on the beach. They drank some beer. They walked home at 2am.
He said he knew about the murders on the next day when he returned to work. Fifteen days later, Zaw Lin said, police arrived at the worker housing, took him and Wai Phyo to a safehouse, and beat them until they “confessed” to killing Miller and Witheridge.
“They slap me many times. Me and him, in different rooms,” Zaw Lin said, gesturing to Wai Phyo seated next to him. “They also put a bag on me. Plastic bag. I couldn’t breathe. They kick me.”
Police denied their allegations of assault; the court dismissed them as well.
The court also ruled there was sufficient evidence that Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo raped Witheridge before killing her and Miller on that night, including security footage, DNA traces and a phone of Miller’s found in Wai Phyo’s possession.
Lawyers representing the two defendants argued the evidence was circumstantial, and that police forensic testing procedures were unreliable and poorly documented. Wai Phyo also said, through Zaw Lin, that he picked up the phone on the way back home that night without knowing it belonged to Miller.
“I am angry – at police,” Zaw Lin said.
He said he felt that police targeted him because he and Wai Phyo were Burmese workers. Civil rights activists have long accused members of Thai law enforcement of exploiting and mistreating migrant workers from poorer neighboring countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia, who have little protection under the law.
Attorneys for Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, who work pro bono, have already filed an appeal, but no court date has been set yet. Zaw Lin said he was recently told by his lawyers that the trial may convene in 2017.
Tainted by Suspicion
In the aftermath of the Sept. 15, 2014, murders, the Toovichien family quickly became prime suspects – not of the police, but of amateur keyboard sleuths.
There were grounds for suspicion: Witheridge and Miller were last seen at AC Bar, which was owned by Montriwat Toovichien, a brother of village chief Woraphan. A Scotsman who worked as a busker on the island also posted on social media that he was threatened by Montriwat into fleeing Koh Tao.
Led by Facebook group CSI LA, online attention soon turned to Woraphan’s son: Warot, aka Nom Sod, a student at Bangkok University. The page accused Warot, then 22, of murdering the two Britons before fleeing to Bangkok, leaving his family in charge of the cover-up.
Woraphan said the allegations were baseless. DNA tests later established that Warot didn’t kill the two victims, and CCTV footage indicated he was in Bangkok at the time of the killings, but that didn’t stop people from labeling his son a murderer to this day, Woraphan said.
“How many people believed it, and how many people bothered to correct the news and defend him?” Woraphan said. “He was just living his life. Then some people accused him of trumped up charges. This is not how things should be. Imagine if you have a son, you will understand my pain.”
Woraphan took particular offense at media agencies who took up claims on social media and reported them as facts. “How many months did the media bombardment that my son was a murderer go on? And how many of those media outlets apologized? None at all, except the newspaper that I sued,” he said.
In August 2015 Khaosod settled with the Toovichiens and published an apology for a Sept. 24, 2014, headline identifying Warot as the “son of Koh Tao mafia” who “killed [two] farangs.”
Both Khaosod and Khaosod English are part of the Matichon Group.
“I think it should be a moral lesson that every media agency should exercise judgement, they should be more professional than this. Don’t just sell news. Have some ethics. Present facts,” Woraphan said.
Woraphan said he and his son try to live as normally as they can, but their lives are still tainted by the suspicion.
Death Row Optimism
Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo are now held in two separate cells on Bang Kwang’s death row. They say they are treated well and their cells are larger than at the Koh Samui jailhouse. Prison guards let them read books in their free time, Zaw Lin said.
“I no have beating. Nobody makes problem,” Zaw Lin said. “I meditate. I read books. I am now learning English, because my English is bad.” Because they didn’t speak Thai, Zaw Lin said he and Wai Phyo communicate with prison guards mostly in hand gestures.
According to Zaw Lin, even people in prison believe he and Wai Phyo are innocent. “They know I don’t killing. So they make no problem,” he said.
He also said he’s grateful for support from the outside world.
“I want to say ‘thank you very much’ for supporting me. They write letters every week. Some people send money to help me. I am happy,” Zaw Lin said.
Zaw Lin added that he still hopes to get out of prison one day and return to Myanmar (“I not come back to Thailand again!” he said with a laugh), but only if the court exonerates him. That’s why they won’t apply for a pardon.
“I need justice. I need truth. I will get out, with justice only,” Zaw Lin said. “I want people to know I no killing. I have the truth. I want justice.”
The court and prosecutors are still deliberating on the 200-page appeal files, so no trial date has been set yet, said Andy Hall, a migrant workers rights activist and member of the defense team.
New evidence and witnesses cannot be introduced in appeals; the proceedings will rest on re-interpretation of previous evidence. Hall said the defense team hopes to convince the new judges that police DNA testing procedures were flawed.