young British tourists were murdered on the Thai island Ko Tao, on September 15,
Miller and Hannah Witheridge, both university students, had met just hours
earlier with their friends while staying in the same complex on the island. Both bodies were found battered and washed ashore on the beach. The brutal murders sparked an international controversy, with Britain demanding
justice for its citizens. Though murder rates are relatively low in Thailand, in 2015 foreign tourist
deaths shot 54% above 2014 numbers. The sudden deaths of these two students brought notoriety to the increase.
authorities immediately began to investigate the murders for possible suspects.
Dozens of officers began interviewing locals, foreign nationals,
visitors, and migrant workers. After the murders, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed concern
about the potential effect on the country’s tourist industry. Tourism is Thailand’s biggest industry and makes up more than 10% of its GDP. Any international press painting Thailand as a danger zone instead of a
tropical paradise could harm its economy – especially in the wake of the
county’s 2014 coup d’etat.
police immediately ruled out the possibility that Thai nationals could have
committed the murders and limited their search to migrant workers. Two 22-year-old Burmese migrants, Zaw Lin and Win Phyo, became the lead
suspects in the case after allegedly forced confessions. Throughout trial proceedings and
interactions with the migrants, translators were ill-equipped to interpret or communicate with the
migrants. One of the interpreters later admitted he
was unable to read the Thai documents he was enlisted to translate for the
migrants. Zaw Lin and Win Phyo were convicted and
sentenced to death in December 2015.
Allegations of International Law Violations
may have violated international law in conducting the murder trial. As a party
to the United
Nations Convention against Torture and
Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Thailand has committed to “take effective
legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of
torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” Under the Convention, “[n]o
exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of
war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be
invoked as a justification of torture.”
Scuba diving boats in Ao Lok Bay on Ko Tao. The tiny island is home to about 2,000 people, and
its economy revolves around Western tourists who come to explore its magnificent coral reefs.
The murders of two U.K. nationals in 2014 precipitated an allegedly sham investigation and the
alleged torture of two Burmese migrant workers. Photo: Chris Bagley, ILJ Online Editor
Thailand’s domestic law also offers detainees basic
protections while in custody. Detainees are entitled to legal counsel, medical
treatment, and to be informed of their rights while in custody. The Thai
government began reforming its justice system and has invited human rights
groups and the media to assess and monitor its performance. To
monitor potential torture violations, detainees are examined when they enter
and leave custody. Any
signs of wounds or torture are to be reported to Thailand’s Department of
Corrections, the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, and the National
Human Rights Commission.
While in custody, Zaw Lin and Win Phyo were
allegedly tortured into giving a confession they later retracted. The two men claim they were beaten, handcuffed naked, kicked, threatened
with electric shock, suffocated with plastic bags to the point of asphyxiation,
and threatened with death. They say their murder confessions resulted from the abuse, not from any
guilt. If they are now telling the truth, then Thailand violated its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Torture allegations have been persistent in Thailand.
The UN Committee Against Torture has investigated such allegations. The Convention Against Torture has
mandatory reporting mechanisms for all countries that are party to the treaty. The
UN Committee Against Torture reviews country reports, oversees the
implementation of the treaty, and issues comments on countries’ treaty
compliance. In remedying treaty violations, the Committee publicly records treaty
violations, provides guidance on how best to comply with treaty obligations and
works with States to train local officials on how to recognize and prevent
In 2014 the Committee voiced its concerns about the
treatment of prisoners in Thailand:
The Committee is seriously concerned that, in
practice, all arrested and detained persons are not provided with all the
fundamental legal safeguards from the very outset of their deprivation of
liberty. Such legal safeguards include, but are not limited to . . . the right
of detainees to be informed of their rights, the right to promptly receive
independent legal assistance . . . and the availability of judicial and other
remedies to detainees and persons at risk of torture and ill-treatment that
would allow them to have their complaints promptly and impartially examined, to
defend their rights and to challenge the legality of their detention or
Report highlighted Thailand’s lack of investigation of torture allegations,
consistent torture allegations against state officers, judicial disregard of
torture allegations, and “the almost total absence of criminal sanctions
against responsible officers.”
The Convention requires Thailand to investigate
torture allegations – though it doesn’t specify standards or mechanisms – and
then compensate any bona fide victims. If
Myanmar isn’t satisfied with that result, it could conceivably lodge a torture
complaint against Thailand to the UN Committee Against Torture on behalf of its
migrants. This would probably be a merely symbolic gesture, since Thailand has not
recognized the Committee’s Competence to investigate such complaints directly,
though it could conceivably do so. Furthermore,
Myanmar’s own history of human-rights violations makes such a complaint seem
unlikely. Additionally, a non-governmental organization could submit an inquiry
about human-rights violations to the Committee against Torture and request
enforcement mechanisms are difficult. In the Committee’s Report on
Thailand’s treaty compliance, it recommended that “the State party should
unambiguously reaffirm the absolute prohibition of torture and publicly condemn
all practices of torture, accompanied by a clear warning that anyone committing
such acts or otherwise complicit or participating in torture will be held
personally responsible before the law and will be subject to criminal
prosecution and appropriate penalties.”
Mistreatment of migrants is especially common in Thailand. The
international NGO Human Rights Watch conducted research among migrant workers,
Thai government officials, and interviewed more than eighty migrants about
their experiences in Thailand to explore migrant issues. In the ensuing report, migrants discussed how “police
in the area physically abused migrants on a regular basis.” Migrants’ complaints to authorities often remain
resolved – a finding consistent with those of the UN Committee Against Torture.
The International Response:
Protest, Hack, Appeal
death sentences ignited protests across Myanmar. About 1,000 protesters
gathered outside the Thai embassy to protest. Protesters also gathered on the Thai-Myanmar border to demand justice for the
convicted migrants. Myanmar army chief General Min Aung Hlaing
has encouraged Thailand to “review the evidence” that resulted in the
convictions in order to “avoid a situation in which the innocent . . . were
wrongly punished.” A team of Thai lawyers appointed by Myanmar’s ambassador has appealed on behalf
of the Myanmar migrants. The new trial is set for March 24. Myanmar President U Thein Sein has tasked a team of Myanmar lawyers with
reviewing the trial and reporting updates to the embassy.
response to the death sentence, the international hacking group Anonymous hacked
seven Thai Police websites. Anonymous hijacked the sites and replaced their content with the stark message “Failed
Law. We want Justice. #BoycottThailand” on a black background.  Anonymous also posted a video deriding the Thai government for blaming the
tragedy on migrants rather than conducting a thorough investigation.
issues in this case highlight larger issues in international law for Thailand
and the broader international community. During the case, Britain provided
support to the prosecution without sharing any evidence to defense council. Though this conduct may not be an outright violation of international law, the
International Covenant on Human and Civil Rights and the European Commission on
Human Rights stresses the importance of ensuring a fair trial – especially when
the death penalty is foreseeable. Additionally, the European Union is staunchly opposed to the death penalty, and
its abolition is a precondition for EU accession.
the torture allegations, mishandling of evidence, and DNA contamination
highlight a botched trial and the larger plight of migrants as second-class
citizens. In response, the international hack shutting down several Thai police
websites illustrates a larger, amorphous movement taking justice into its own
hands. Instead of submitting complaints to the UN Committee Against Torture
that would probably go unheeded, the Anonymous hack has raised the profile of
the migrant’s plight with a blackout screen.
backpacker murders: Two on trial over Britons’ deaths, BBC
News (July 8, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-33438693 [https://perma.cc/9RZY-MDHR].
 Peter Walker, Thailand backpacker
murders: David Miller and Hannah Witheridge - two lives cut short, Guardian (Dec. 23, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/24/thailand-backpacker-murders-david-miller-and-hannah-witheridge-two-lives-cut-short [https://perma.cc/JSB6-THMZ].
 Andrew Buncombe, Thailand beach murders: Both Hannah Witheridge and David Miller suffered
severe head wounds, Independent (Sept. 17, 2014), http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/thailand-beach-murders-both-hannah-witheridge-and-david-miller-suffered-severe-head-wounds-9738170.html [https://perma.cc/V3CB-T28G].
 Chadamas Chinmaneevong, Spike
in tourist deaths sparks ministry concern, Bangkok Post (Feb. 11, 2016), http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/special-reports/859948/spike-in-tourist-deaths-sparks-ministry-concern [https://perma.cc/Q2ZS-QA9F].
sees a worrying increase in tourist deaths, Asian Correspondent (Feb.
11, 2016), https://asiancorrespondent.com/2016/02/thailand-sees-a-worrying-increase-in-tourist-deaths [https://perma.cc/6ZB6-SEBX].
 Buncombe, supra note 3.
Dam Van & Jocelyn Gecker, Myanmar migrants found guilty of killing
British backpackers, Associated Press (Dec. 24, 2015), http://bigstory.ap.org/article/4990031147134ea89ac4227a97a0d1c7/thai-court-set-rule-murder-british-backpackers [https://perma.cc/49GQ-N6HE].
Campbell, Suspects in the Koh Tao Murder
Trial Were Given Woefully Unqualified Interpreters, Time (Aug.
21, 2015), http://time.com/4005983/koh-tao-murder-trial-interpreters-backpackers.
 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment, art. II, Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85
[hereinafter Convention Against Torture], available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx [http://perma.cc/NP3G-QYBU].
Against Torture, Concluding observations
on the initial report of Thailand Addendum: Information received from Thailand
on follow-up to the concluding observations, 2, U.N. Doc.
CAT/C/THA/CO/1/Add.1 (May 29, 2015).
 Dam Van & Gecker, supra note 11.
 Convention Against Torture, supra note 14.
 Comm. Against Torture, Concluding
observations on the initial report of Thailand, 2, U.N. Doc. CAT/C/THA/CO/1
(June 20, 2014).
 Comm. Against Torture, supra note 23.
 Convention Against Torture, supra note 14, arts. XII–XIV.
 Convention Against Torture, supra note 14, art. XXI.
See Committee against Torture to hold
fifty-sixth session in Geneva from 9 November to 9 December 2015, Committee
Against Torture (Nov. 5, 2015), available at http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16713&LangID=E [http://perma.cc/8A59-RCC4] (omitting Thailand from list of countries that
recognize the Committee’s authority to investigate within their borders); Convention Against Torture, supra note 14, arts. XXI–XXII.
Fact Sheet No. 17, The Committee Against
Torture, supra note 24.
 Comm. against Torture, supra note 16.
 Peter Walker, Why UK role in backpackers murder case still worries rights groups, Guardian (Dec. 23, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/24/why-uk-role-in-backpackers-case-still-worries-rights-groups [https://perma.cc/9AZP-HJZH].
Posted by Keturah T. Reed on Wed. March 2, 2016 10:26 PM
Immigration, International Human Rights, Reports (longer, analytical blog posts), Thailand