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On the 4th of October 2014 two 21 year old migrant workers from Myanmar, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were charged with murdering two British backpackers on Sairee Beach in Koh Tao.
Chillingly, this came as little surprise to ex-pat residents, not only on Koh Tao but in Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Not because the ex-pat population of the three popular island holiday destinations in the Gulf of Thailand knew the two young men, or their friends or indeed their families, but because mutterings of “you wait, they will fit Burmese up for this crime” are commonplace after any crime. Interestingly these rumours started circulating before Montriwat Tuwichian had even been put in the clear after being identified as a suspect by Pol Lt-Gen Panya Mamen and arrested. Montriwat’s nephew Nomsod, the son of the village headman Worapan Tuwichian was also identified as a suspect by the General, who said both men were captured on CCTV and there was enough evidence to implicate them in the murders. Rich and powerful players not only on the small diving Mecca of Koh Tao but with powerful connections to police, prosecutors, judges and the army, it came as no surprise to anybody who has spent more than a fleeting visit to the islands when they were soon cleared of all involvement in the case. By the time prime minister Prayut Chan o cha had announced that he could not guarantee the safety of good looking western women in bikinis and that no Thai could have committed such a heinous crime the local communities were already drawing breath wondering who would be unfortunate enough to become the fall guys for this crime, the mutterings between ex residents reached as far as New Zealand, Scandinavia, the UK and Australia. They did not have to wait long. Little over two week after the horrific crimes that shook the nation as well as the rest of the world took place Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were arrested and it was announced they had admitted to the crimes.
Behind closed doors murmurs of disbelief were rife, people were discussing the case in hushed voices and out the earshot of anybody connected to police or what has been termed in the press as the local mafia. Nobody was shouting in the streets, nobody was protesting, in fact nobody was doing anything other than standing in quiet astonishment that two tiny, young, naive looking Burmese men could have committed the most hideous crime the local community had seen to date. The other interesting fact is that at this time, nobody was breathing a sigh of relief, nobody was congratulating the police on their investigation and nobody was having a go at the hundreds of other members of the Burmese community as one might expect when members of an ethnic minority deem it appropriate to massacre two innocent young travellers. No witnesses came forward to verify the police claims, no character witnesses came forward to perhaps tell their stories about the two men and their dodgy dealings, aggressive behaviour, drunken violence or the hatred of women they would have to possess in order to commit such a crime. Nobody said anything, it all went eerily quiet until all hell broke loose on social media as over 700,000 followers of the Facebook Page CSI LA found a voice and produced way more evidence in defence of the boys than was ever seen in court.
With graphic images of the crime scene available to anybody with more than a fleeting interest in the case thanks to the polices force’s complete lack of due diligence in securing the crime scene and police and rescue workers feverishly uploading the ghastly photos of the scene to Facebook pages and other social media sites, amateur sleuths for the first time could draw their own conclusions with actual evidence direct from the scene within hours of the bodies being discovered.
Did over half a million people join together to try to prove Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo did not commit these diabolical crimes because they knew them? Because they had met them? Because they had lived on Koh Tao and been in their company previously? No, it was because for the first time, thanks to social media, people who have experience of Justice Thai style could come together and have a voice. With false names, untraceable IP addresses and the cloak of anonymity a new community formed and CSI LA and Thai Visa were buzzing with claims of mafia, corruption and scapegoating that clearly is nothing new in the minds of anybody who has any connection with the southern Thai islands. No mention was made of what a great relief it was that two psychopathic killers were no longer on the loose, and the beaches of Koh Tao were once again safe to enjoy. All we saw was outrage that once again those in power had managed to ‘get away with murder’ except this time the online community were standing up in defence of two men 99% of them had never encountered.
Never before had so many people come together to discuss a crime committed on Thai soil. The online community analysed the photographs of the ‘running man’ seen going to and from the crime scene during the small hours of the morning. Interestingly Montriwat first claimed to be the man on the CCTV TV but later police confirmed it was Wai Phyo, despite the fact that Wai Phyo has a small thinning patch of hair that did not show up on the images, and that in fact Nomsod has a rather than more passing resemblance to the images seen and that during the court case an expert testified that thanks the to the unique gait of the man, it could not have been the defendant.
The online community asked questions such as if the two were guilty why were no witnesses coming forward, why was there a shroud of silence on Koh Tao? Why was everybody afraid to speak and other questions were raised too, such as why did some of the crime scene photos after the two bodies had been removed from the beach show the victims clothes strewn all over the sand when photos on the same beach that contained the body of David clearly showed their clothes piled neatly on a rock. Why were Hannah’s clothes never tested for DNA and where did the clothes go? Why was David wearing one sock? Why would anybody going for a midnight swim or a romantic moment with a beau on the beach remove all his clothes other than one black sock? Why was the hoe moved from the scene of the crime and then later placed back there. How could any crime scene produce concrete evidence of the kind suitable to sentence two men to death when dozens of people had trampled all over it. Pictures of Nomsod soon popped up online that appeared to prove he was at his university in Bangkok and had not been on the island at the time of the crimes, however many found the date and times appeared to have been tampered with on the CCTV images designed to prove his whereabouts. Images of burns and scalds found their way into the public domain that many believe proved police brutality and were evidence of torture.
Back on the ground the discussions of who committed the crimes were no longer held behind doors as the local community became aware of the fears of those who had taken their own look into the case. The general feeling went from a fear of speaking to total outrage that two young men appeared to be taking the fall for a crime they had no involvement in, and if they really had been fitted up for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then was anybody safe? Even local police were speaking to their ex-pat friends freely admitting they also believed the men behind bars had nothing to do with the crime and congratulating those who helped them.
Support for the two Burmese was strong on all three islands. Groups of Ex-pats rallied round to support them and later their mothers who arrived on the islands to support them during the court case that stretched over three months. With some fear still in place donations were handed over in secret from members of the Koh Samui community who were still too afraid to show their support in public for fear of reprisal, and mutterings of “I can’t be seen to help, I have to live here” left the lips of many raising funds to support the who men as well as those endlessly researching the case in a hope of being the one who found the missing link that would give the men back their freedom. These silent supporters came from every walk of life, every industry and every community on the islands united in their wish to see real justice done, not another case of what they believed to be the rich getting away with murder and the reputation of the islands being saved by who hapless innocents who would become the 3rd and 4th victims of the hideous crimes.
One small team of Ex-pats were less afraid, visited the two men in jail, passed on the endless messages of support from the islands and the rest of the world, gave moral and financial support and later supported the mothers of the two men, who had long since retracted the confessions they say were made under duress, providng food, housing and transport to and from the prison and the court hearings.
99% of those who got involved with the ‘online case’ support the two men the remaining 1% claim the right men are behind bars. While trial by social media bears no weight in the court there is no doubt that Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo draw great strength from behind bars knowing that hundreds and thousands of people believe in their innocence, and a great many of them continue to fight to prove it.