Saturday, October 4, 2014

Thai island murder investigation hits a wall of silence


With locals unwilling to talk on an island with a powerful hidden underworld, fears grow that the truth behind the brutal murders of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge may never be heard

Images showing David Miller near the Thai beach where he and Ms Witheridge were murdered just hours later
Images showing David Miller near the Thai beach where he and Ms Witheridge were murdered just hours later  Photo: skynews
When David Miller and Hannah Witheridge stepped off the boat onto this stunning, sun-kissed Thai island earlier this month they made straight for Sairee beach.
Crystalline waters caressed its fine yellow sands. Fellow travellers sipped chilled beers and cocktails on the shore. A sign, not far from the seafront bungalows they had rented for around £9.50 a day, read: "Your heaven on earth".
But Sairee, the main beach on Thailand's Koh Tao or Turtle island, proved no such thing for the young British backpackers. Shortly before dawn last Monday they were murdered on its southern tip by an unidentified gang of at least three "attackers", at least two of them Asian men, police now believe.
Their semi-naked and disfigured bodies were found at just after 6am by horrified workers from one of dozens of seafront resorts.
"It must have been somebody so angry to hit them so hard," said Narong Det Kanchana Pen, the 50-year-old owner of the Ocean View resort where they had been staying.
The deaths have been described as an incident of unprecedented brutality for an island that markets itself as a pristine paradise for divers and party animals.
"Over the past two years, there has never been a single violent incident" on Koh Tao, Chatpong Chatphut, the provincial governor, told local media this week.
But scratch the surface and a very different picture emerges: one of a tropical paradise – uninhabited until the 1940s and only developed as a tourist destination since the late 1980s – that has been soiled by drink, drugs and corruption and is said to be firmly in the grip of local mafias.
The power of Koh Tao's hidden underworld – a stark contrast with its spectacular natural beauty – has left many residents too terrified to speak openly about this week's shocking crime for fear of offending a handful of powerful and, many believe dangerous, island families who run the show.
"People are not talking now on the island," said one source with knowledge of its underworld. "But they know something about what has happened."
The apparent code of silence surrounding the events of last Sunday night makes it impossible to paint a clear picture of the final hours of the victims, who had met on the island after checking into neighbouring rooms at the Ocean View.
However, the night of their murders appears to have started at around 10pm at Choppers, an Australian pub 20-minutes walk from the hotel down a narrow strip of diving schools, resorts and bars that sell drinks by the bucket not the glass.
At Choppers – where Koh Tao's alcohol pub crawls often start – the pair watched Manchester United demolish QPR 4-0 on one of its 15 widescreen TVs, according to one foreign man who sat on their table.
He showed The Telegraph a photograph showing Ms Witheridge grinning widely into the camera at a table she was sharing with around half a dozen people including Mr Miller.
"It was a f*****g shock," said the man, who declined to be named. "They were there watching the football and then a few hours later this happens."
Like many on this beautiful island he refused to discuss the evening further, saying it was inconvenient to be seen in public talking to a journalist. A bar lady with a British accent insisted she had no recollection of the pair. "We just work behind the bar," she said.
After leaving Choppers, Mr Miller and Ms Witheridge turned left, heading back down the beach past a pool bar with a sign that read 'Topless girls get free drink', a life-size model of a baby elephant and a cluster of Thai lady boys handing out photocopied fliers for "the Queen's cabaret". "You won't believe your eyes," promises the event's flier.
The British backpackers' destination was Sairee beach's AC Bar, a notorious Thai-run watering hole which specialises in gin and vodka cocktails and drunken punch-ups. On Friday night police raided the AC Bar and reportedly recovered "narcotics and chemical substances," according to the Bangkok Post.
"There are fights there all the time," complained one expat business owner.
Koh Tao's tourist brochure describes Sairee beach as "ideal for families with children". But locals say that is often far from the case, particularly after dark. One business owner tells of a knife attack in which a Thai vendor slashed a customer with a fruit knife. Another says that handguns are occasionally pulled during disputes between locals.
There have been instances of bars and hotels being set on fire by Thai business owners who wanted to get rid of the competition, one expat said.
Police often seek bribes from foreigners caught consuming drugs on the beach, claimed another.
Asked if Koh Tao had a drug problem during a visit had to the island on Saturday, Police Genereal Somyos Phumphanmuang, Thailand's top police officer, said: "No, no, no. I can't say that."
At least two dozen security cameras line the narrow road behind Sairee beach, a response to the drunken and sometimes violent antics of tourists, one hotelier said."It's mostly because of the drunkenness. It's drunk people letting boats off their moorings, having sex on the beach, having sex on the rocks."
Still, tourists such as Mr Miller and Ms Witheridge continue to flock to nightclubs such as AC Bar each night despite their reputation for fist-fights.
Wailwinphyo, a 21-year-old migrant from Burma who works as a fire juggler at the bar, said there were dozens of drinkers there for his Sunday night performance.
He, too, claimed to have no memory of seeing the couple at the bar and says he saw them for the first time the following morning on the beach. By that time they were dead.
"I saw two bodies but we didn't see their faces – they were covered with towels," he said.
Confusion surrounds the final hours of Mr Miller and Ms Witheridge. Police General Somyos Phumphanmuang admitted he no clear picture of their exact final movements. He also declined to disclose the findings of toxicology tests carried out on the two victims.
CCTV images show Mr Miller walking back down Sairee beach at 1.27am and then, just under 30 minutes later, walking back towards the AC Bar. It is not clear when or where he met up with Ms Witheridge again but shortly over four hours later their bodies were found on the beach.
The last known images of Hannah Witheridge were taken at 12.07am as she walked past a diving resort on the way to the AC Bar with two men and one woman whose names are thought to be Matt, Tom and Emma.
In the absence of hard facts, Koh Tao's rumour mill has gone into overdrive. There are whispers of a possible altercation between Mr Miller and a Thai man, possibly one with powerful local connections, who had supposedly been harassing Ms Witheridge all evening.
Asked if an altercation had taken place, Police General Jarumporn Suramanee, Thailand's assistant national police chief, said: "I cannot say".
On Saturday, police announced that DNA tests on semen samples taken from Ms Witheridge's body had shown that two of the "attackers" were Asian men, opening the possibility, initially discarded by authorities, that they could be Thai.
In a letter to David Cameron, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai Prime Minister wrote: "Please rest assured that my government is fully committed to conducting on an urgent basis, a full investigation into the incident in order that each and every one of those who committed this heinous crime is brought to justice."
But in Koh Tao many doubt that will happen. If a well-connected local was involved the killers would never be caught, predicted one source. "If they did it, we will not get the truth."

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/thailand/11111532/Thai-island-murder-investigation-hits-a-wall-of-silence.html 
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