Protests grow in Myanmar over Thailand's beach murder verdict

YANGON, Myanmar -- Hundreds of people in Myanmar protested for a fifth day Tuesday against death sentences issued in Thailand to two Myanmar men convicted of murdering a pair of British backpackers, but who are seen by many here as scapegoats.

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The Thai Embassy in Myanmar said its consular section will be closed for the entire week due to the "unexpected and prolonged demonstrations" that make it hard to access the entrance.

A Thai court last week sentenced Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin to death for the murders of David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, whose bodies were found on the Thai island of Koh Tao on Sept. 14, 2014. Witheridge had also been raped.

Both men say they are innocent and that police tortured them to force them to confess.

Protests have also been staged at border crossings, and over the weekend Myanmar's powerful and influential army chief called for the case to be reviewed. The sentiment was echoed on the streets of Yangon on Tuesday.

"We do not believe justice was served by the Thai court. We are asking them to review the case," said Nay Myo Wai, a nationalist politician who supports the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, which led the protest.

"We intend to fight for justice for the two Myanmar men in Thailand," said U Pamaukka, a senior monk and Ma Ba Tha member.

Protesters threatened to call for a boycott of Thai goods if the courts refused to review the case, saying that the two men did not deserve the death sentence in a case that has raised many unanswered questions about police conduct.

Police rushed to solve the crime, under intense pressure to limit negative publicity to the tourism industry, but instead drew widespread criticism of their investigation. They were criticized for not properly securing the crime scene, conducting more than 200 random DNA tests, releasing names and pictures of suspects who turned out to be innocent, mishandling crucial DNA evidence from the victims and allegedly torturing their prime suspects.

The two Myanmar migrant workers, both 22 years old, were arrested about two weeks after the murders. Police said they confessed to the crimes, but both later retracted their statements and said police had used a variety of psychological and physical torture to force them to confess to crimes they didn't commit.

Over the weekend, Myanmar army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing urged Thailand to "review the evidence" that led to the convictions to "avoid a situation in which the innocent ... were wrongly punished," the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on its front page Sunday.

His statement was widely seen as a message from Myanmar's leadership.

It drew an angry reply from Thailand's military ruler, who responded with a rhetorical question.

"They have the right to appeal, don't they?" Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was quoted as saying by Thai media Tuesday. "Isn't this the same legal practice all over the world?"



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