For a moment, it looked like history would tragically repeat: Thai police were again pinning the murder of a foreign woman on a powerless Burmese migrant worker.
Minutes after a Phuket police captain uttered a cryptic “Very good, all wrapped up” comment to Thai reporters about the investigation n into the killing of Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf Saturday morning, Thai media reported that the culprit was a 33-year-old Burmese man working at nearby labor camp. It was déjà vu all over again.
As the news spread like wildfire, so did the incredulous skepticism. Even the Bangkok Herald fell into the trap, posting the Thai reports on social media. After all, we’d seen this movie before. It was almost exactly seen years ago that two young Burmese men were tagged with the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge and killing of David Miller in Koh Tao.
The bungled police investigation and circus-sideshow criminal trial were widely criticized by international media, human rights organizations and legal experts.
The DNA evidence Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were convicted on was contaminated and their confessions coerced. The two were denied access to counsel at first and allegedly tortured by authorities. The court then railroad the pair in an 18-hour in which the verdict was decided before the gavel fell.
Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were both sentenced to death, with the verdicts upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court. Only a royal pardon issued in 2020 saw their sentences commuted to life.
It may be Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo actually did commit the crimes. But no one will ever believe it. The case forever stained the Thai legal system to the point that anytime a Burmese man is accused of a heinous crime, the public will call it a frame job. After all, authorities never will admit that a Thai could do such things.
This time, however, a Thai did do it, the police claim. The Herald’s social media posts were wrong, as were all the early reports. Police had, in fact, arrested 27-year-old Teerawat Thothip, an unemployed drug addict pushed to desperate behavior by the prolonged coronavirus recession and the government’s failure to pull the country out of it.
The Suspect’s Confession
There is no excuse for Teerawat’s actions, in he is indeed guilty. Police extracted a public confession, but the Royal Thai Police’s track record on such statements is spotty at best.
Teerawat said he killed the 57-year-old deputy protocol chief for the Federal Assembly of Switzerland over a mere 300 baht.
Teewarat, on the call from his attorney’s office, said he went to the Ton An waterfall to pick wild orchids to sell. Descending from the top of the waterfall empty-handed, he Sauvain-Weisskopf swimming.
By the time he reached her spot, Sauvain-Weisskopf was back on dry land. He went for the backpack, but she resisted. They fought, falling on to rocks. Police said he either knocked her out or she hit her head during the tussle.
Re-enacting the crime Sunday, Teewarat showed how he covered her body with a black tarp, hid her backpack behind a tree, and threw her sneakers into the forest before leaving with 300 baht. He didn’t even take her smartphone.
CCTV cameras caught Teewarat driving his motorbike into the area, parking and then leaving. Investigators also said they had witnesses attesting to his whereabouts, although there are no cameras at the waterfall itself. Bruises and scratches were found on his body.
Teewarat said he wanted the money to buy drugs and booze. Maybe even fix his phone. He insisted he did not mean to kill the Swiss woman and certainly did not rape her, even though she was found bottomless. Autopsy results have not been released.
Police have charged Teewarat with murder and robbery ending in death, but more charges may be laid in coming days.
National police chief Pol Gen Suwat Jangyodsuk on Sunday offered an apology and condolences to the victim’s family over the tragedy. Switzerland’s ambassador in Bangkok, Helene Budliger Artieda, called it a “very sad and disturbing time” and thanked local authorities for their quick action.
Sauvain-Weisskopf, who was traveling alone, had arrived in Phuket July 13 under the island’s “sandbox” scheme, which allows fully vaccinated foreign travelers to skip quarantine and then travel elsewhere in the country after 14 days.
With Covid-19 raging across the country, hotel bookings for August and September already have begun to dive. The murder has heightened concerns about the future of the sandbox and the prospects for Thailand’s restarting its moribund foreign-tourism industry.
Since the killing, Phuket authorities have begun all-out efforts to restore tourist confidence. Phuket Gov. Narong Woonciew said officials will survey unsafe areas in each community and put them under surveillance. Equipment and technology will be used to enhance security and a neighborhood watch program will be set up to give police more “eyes and ears”.