Koh Tao case shatters faith in our police

Koh Tao case shatters faith in our police

After so many twists and turns in the Koh Tao beach murder case over the past three weeks, police finally arrested two young migrant workers from Myanmar. However, many believe they are scapegoats.

The police have only themselves to blame. Such overwhelming public scepticism was not caused solely by the police's poor handling of the investigation, which became an international farce, but more significantly, stems from the police's longstanding notoriety for arresting poor and powerless scapegoats to save rich criminals who can afford to buy their innocence.

A high-ranking officer at the Corrections Department once revealed in a TV interview his belief that half of all prisoners were scapegoats.

Koh Tao is a famous diving paradise. When British travellers Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were found bludgeoned to death on Sairee beach on Sept 15, the world trained its eyes on Thailand to see if it could catch the culprits and restore the international community's confidence in the nation as a tourist hotspot.

What the world witnessed was a total lack of professionalism.

From day one, the police allowed the crime scene to be sullied, destroying vital evidence. Then it kept introducing new "persons of interest" to the media, without any concern about how their lives might be affected.

Migrant workers were the first target of police suspicion — a symptom of rampant ethnic prejudice and their powerlessness. They were later "cleared". Then the police floated the idea of Miller's roommate being gay and the murder a result of jealousy.

The case against the roommate grew stronger when a pair of "blood-stained" trousers was found in Miller's suitcase. Furthermore, strands of light-coloured hair were found in Witheridge's hands. The poor man was later "cleared" when the "blood" on the trousers was shown to be "mud". The police said nothing more about the hair.

Thai suspects began to enter the scenario only after a Scottish tourist posted on Facebook that he had seen two Thai men trying to molest Witheridge before Miller intervened to stop their advances on the night of their murders. He posted the photos of the men who happened to be in a circle of influential people on the island.

The police denied claims of mafia involvement and said the pair's DNA did not match that retrieved from Witheridge's body.

After the controversial bikini comment from junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the tourism minister's wristband-for-tourists proposal and DNA tests of over 200 people, the soap opera-like investigation ended over the weekend when police arrested Saw Rim and Win, both 21.

The police insisted they had solid forensic evidence and confessions from the culprits. Yet many are unconvinced and have unanswered questions: What happened to the initial forensic findings which showed rape had not occurred? Why was the used condom at the crime scene not sent for tests? Why was the son of the village headman not DNA tested? And what happened to one of the CCTV clips showing a suspect which was allegedly cut for two minutes? 

The police force countered these questions on both its website and in many media interviews, but this has not stopped doubts about planted evidence and confessions as a result of torture.

In short, the police are facing a total breakdown in public trust.

The words "reform" and "anti-corruption" are being used a lot lately; how can these high-minded goals be achieved without the rule of law? How can people trust the law and justice system when torture and corruption by police continue with impunity? Reform is just meaningless rhetoric when police bend the law for those who can pay.

The Koh Tao murder investigation shows the world how seriously flawed our police work is — from the contamination of crime scenes and false leads to conflicting evidence and "barbaric" crime re-enactments.

Yet, the case reveals more than just a botched investigation. It shows an urgent need for police reform. Society cannot be safe if people feel the police force is not only inefficient, but untrustworthy.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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