Thai officials on alert as Myanmar protests spread

Thai officials on alert as Myanmar protests spread

A monk holds a placard during a peaceful rally outside the Thai embassy in Yangon on Saturday against the Koh Tao murder convictions. (EPA Photo)
A monk holds a placard during a peaceful rally outside the Thai embassy in Yangon on Saturday against the Koh Tao murder convictions. (EPA Photo)

Thai authorities are confident that protests in Myanmar against the Koh Tao murder convictions will not get out of hand, but an army officer suggests Thai travellers now in the country should consider coming home just the same.

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said that while the protests, which were staged in three locations on Saturday, had been peaceful so far, his ministry was prepared to deal with any eventuality. He said he hoped there would not be any incident that could harm the good relationship between the two countries.

He made the comments as dozens of demonstrators gathered at Thai embassy in Yangon for a third day, while hundreds more rallied near Thai border posts in Chiang Rai and Kanchanaburi.

The largest demonstration was in Tachilek, two kilometres from the Mae Sai border crossing in Chiang Rai, where an estimated 2,000 people gathered at Shan Yoma stadium in a show of solidarity for Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun. The 22-year-old labourers from Rakhine state were sentenced to death on Thursday for the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and the killing of David Miller, 24, on the resort island of Koh Tao in Surat Thani province on Sept 15, 2014.

The protesters urged the release of the pair, who they and many others outside Myanmar believe were innocent. The defence team for the men is preparing to file an appeal.

Another 400 people rallied near the Three Pagodas pass in Kanchanaburi starting around 12.30pm on Saturday. Myanmar soldiers manned the crossing to ensure that the group stayed on Myanmar soil. There were no provocations and the event ended peacefully around 4pm, said Maj Gen Thammanoon Withee, commander of the 9th Infantry Division in Kanchanaburi province.

However, he said he warned Thai tourists who had crossed overland into Myanmar to return and suggested that others with travel plans refrain from crossing into Myanmar for the time being.

Local soldiers saw no need to deploy any reinforcements at the border and the pass remained open from 6am to 6pm as usual, the commander added.

Meanwhile, peaceful placard-waving crowds gathered outside the Thai embassy in Yangon for a third consecutive day to demand fair treatment for the two Myanmar men.

Mr Don said those who understood the case would know that it was only the beginning of the justice process, as the defendants' lawyers could still appeal.

The foreign minister said Thailand had acknowledged the concerns of the Myanmar demonstrators and their right to express their opinion, but the Thai government must let the justice system carry on its work. It was an international practice and the Thai judicial system was reliable, he said.

In Tachilek, the demonstrators staged a peaceful march along Highway RB3 to the Thailand-Myanmar Friendship bridge, carrying politely worded posters urging the release of the two men and a retrial. They stopped on the bank of the Sai River and stayed there for 15 minutes.

While the protest was taking place, Thai authorities closed the border for safety reasons. Security officials, immigration police and customs officials were stationed there to prevent trespassing.

The leaders of the protest group subsequently submitted a letter to Thai officials. Chutidej Meechan, the Mae Sai district chief, and Pol Col Siddhi Sirikangwankul, members of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBC), accepted the letter on behalf of Thailand to be forward to the government.

The protesters subsequently dispersed without incident and the Thai authorities reopened the border.

The Koh Tao murders have been the focus of intense international attention because of questions about chaotic police handling of the investigation and evidence, especially in its early stages. However, the court on Thursday said it found the DNA evidence against the two men convincing. It also said it did not believe the men's claims that they had been tortured into confessing.

Convicts moved

Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, meanwhile, were moved at 4am Saturday from the Koh Samui prison, where they have been in custody for the past 14 months, to the higher-security Nakhon Si Thammarat prison on the mainland.

Authorities said the transfer was standard procedure since the pair had been convicted and received the maximum penalty and were no longer detainees.

They boarded the 6am ferry and disembarked at a pier in Don Sak district in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thai media reports said.

Demonstrators hold placards outside the Thai embassy in Yangon on Saturday in the third consecutive day of protests against the Koh Tao convictions. (AFP Photo)

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