More protests were being planned in Yangon this week against the death sentences passed against two Myanmar workers in Thailand that have strained relations between the two countries.
Ko Zaw Lin and Ko Wai Phyo, both 22, were sentenced to death by a court on Koh Samui Island on December 24 for the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and the murder of David Miller, 24, on nearby Koh Tao Island in September 2014.
The two men, from Rakhine State, denied murdering the British tourists. their lawyers said they would appeal against the death sentences.
The case raised questions over Thailand’s justice system after the defence accused police of bungling the murder investigation and using the men as scapegoats, an accusation denied by the authorities.
Thai police said the pair had admitted the murders after being arrested but they later retracted their confessions, saying they had been obtained under torture.
An expert witness testified in the case that DNA found on the murder weapon, a garden hoe, did not match that of the two men.
In handing down the death sentences, the court dismissed the torture allegations and said the DNA evidence was proof of guilt.
The verdict was greeted with anger in Myanmar and sparked days of protests outside the Thai embassy in Yangon and elsewhere in the country.
Angry protesters have gathered in cities such as Mandalay and Taunggyi and at some crossings with Thailand, including Tachilek, where an estimated 2,000 people demonstrated on December 26 and the border was temporarily closed.
The same day, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing called for a review of evidence in the case.
He expressed concern about the verdict in a New Year message to senior Thai junta leaders, state-controlled media reported on December 27.
“The commander-in-chief expressed his respect for Thailand’s judicial process while stressing the need to avoid a situation in which the innocent … were wrongly punished,” the Global New Light of Myanmar reported.
The reaction to the death sentences rankled the leader of Thailand’s military government, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who dismissed the criticism on December 28 in his first response to the verdict.
“They have the right to appeal, right? Laws all over the world have this. Or should Thai law not have this? Is it the case that we should release all people when pressured?” a visibly angry General Prayut told reporters, AFP reported.
In the days and weeks after the Koh Tao murders, Gen Prayut ordered police to make swift arrests, fearful of the impact the killings might have on thailand’s vital tourism industry, AFP said.
A leading member of the hardline Buddhist nationalist group, Ma Ba Tha, was quoted as saying earlier this week that more protests would be held in Yangon on January 5.
Sayadaw U Parmuakka also called for the National League for Democracy to take action on behalf of Ko Zaw Lin and Ko Wai Phyo because of what he called the discredited evidence against them, the Myanmar Times reported on December 4.
More than 100 people gathered outside the University Avenue residence of NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on December 27 to urge her to intervene in the case, a request she has declined.
“We have to abide by Thailand’s laws. We have rights to appeal, and our government must work for them [the convicted workers] to exercise their full rights,” she told Radio Free Asia last week.
Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand, U Win Maung, met the president of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, Mr Dej-udom Krairit, on December 30 to discuss the appeal against the death sentences.
The Myanmar government will provide some funding to the LCT for the appeal, that Mr Dej-udom said could take a year, the Bangkok Post reported.