Thailand is calling on officials in neighboring Myanmar to contain protests against a Thai court’s controversial death sentence verdict for two migrant workers from Myanmar last week.
Thai Foreign minister Don Pramudwinai told reporters on Monday that authorities have been in touch with their counterparts as the protests continued to spread beyond the capital.
Last Thursday a Thai court convicted two Myanmar migrant workers for the murders of a young British couple on a resort island. The case had been criticized by outside legal and rights groups amid widespread allegations that the evidence used to link the two suspects to the killings was insufficient or tainted.
Since Saturday, there have been reports of several border crossing closures because of demonstrations by angry Myanmar nationals.
“We will come and protest here every day until they get a justice and are freed,” Oakkan Tha, a monk from the Rakhine Monastery, at the Three Pagoda Pass border crossing told VOA on Monday.
Thailand has also stopped offering consular services at its embassy in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.
The consular section will be closed from Monday through Wednesday “due to unexpected and Prolonged demonstrations around the Embassy, following Thailand's Koh Samui Provincial Court's recent judgment on Koh Tao murder case, which have caused difficulties in access to the compound of the Royal Thai Embassy,” read a statement distributed to reporters by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We cannot accept that these Myanmar boys were given death sentences although they didn’t commit the murder,” said student Khine Wai Linn on Sunday in front of the Thai embassy in Yangon. “This is totally unfair Thai treatment of migrants from Myanmar.”
Demonstrators also went to the lakeside Yangon home of Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday, asking her to make a plea to authorities in Thailand.
The National League for Democracy president will help the defendants receive justice, said one of her senior staffers, Win Htein.
The NLD won a landslide victory in Myanmar's national election last month but for now the army-dominated government remains in power.
Myanmar's army chief, General Min Aung Hlain, has asked Thailand to review the evidence in the case, according to the government-owned newspaper New Light of Myanmar.
Thai junta leader defends decision
The protests have clearly upset the boss of Thailand's junta, prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who said the verdict needs to be respected and angrily asked reporters on Monday whether “we should release all people when pressured?”
The two defendants have a right to appeal in Thailand, noted the retired army chief.
The Lawyers Council of Thailand, which represented the defendants, Zai Lin and Wai Phyo, during their trial at the request of Myanmar's embassy, has called for their supporters to remain calm and have faith in the appeals process in the Thai judicial system.
Human rights groups have called for an independent investigation amid widespread skepticism about the case the Thai authorities used to convict 22-year-old suspects.
The two, who worked at a bar on Koh Tao, retracted confessions of killing Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the Thai island in September, 2014.
"We are innocent and we were not involved in this horrific crime, we didn’t kill. We want freedom,” the duo was quoted in a statement released by Andy Hall, a British human rights defender based in Thailand, after he visited them in prison on Monday.
Hall, on Twitter, said the two men have access to television in their cell and are “encouraged by seeing protests underway in support of overturning their convictions.”
The defendants have claimed they were tortured into giving confessions, as well as being threatened with death by interrogators, following their arrests two weeks after the killings.
Police have denied any coercion and have been on the defensive since the protests over the verdict.
Investigators based their case on DNA evidence which linked the two suspects to the crime scene, police major general Piyaphan Pingmuang told reporters in Bangkok on Sunday.
“The DNA evidence cannot lie,” he said in rejecting the possibility the case could be reopened.
The police major general also blamed the protests on unnamed groups he said are trying to politicize the verdict.
Thailand’s tourism sector under pressure
Thailand's government has been under the control of a military junta since a May, 2014 coup ousted the civilian leadership.
The coup, and a previous period of sometimes violent political demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok, affected Thailand's tourism sector. And the killings of the two young British backpackers, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, on Koh Tao four months after the coup furthered weakened the tourism industry, which now accounts for more than 14 percent of the kingdom's economy, according to officials.
The crime was widely reported in the British media which recounted that the attractive couple had been in a quarrel with some islanders on the night they were murdered and the crime occurred a night after two British women were reported to have been mugged there by a Thai motorbike gang.
Both of the murder victims suffered head wounds and a coroner said Witheridge had been raped, for which an additional 20 year sentence was imposed by the provincial court last Thursday.
The subsequent police investigation was labeled a farce amid intense pressure on authorities to solve the case which had tarnished Thailand's image as a relatively safe tourism destination.
Human rights groups say it is not unusual for migrant workers in Thailand to be wrongly charged with crimes.
The kingdom hosts an estimated three million such workers – most of them from Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Zinlat Aung in Bangkok, Si Thu in Yangon and Nai Kun Enn at Three Pagodas Pass contributed to this report.