Killing of 2 Britons 'will hit Thai tourism hard'

BANGKOK - The murder of two young British tourists on a Thai island will make many travellers think twice before visiting the country on holiday, Thai police said yesterday.

The bodies of Ms Hannah Witheridge, 23, and Mr David Miller, 24, were found last week with severe head wounds near where they were staying on the southern island of Koh Tao, known for its coral reefs and diving.

"People coming to Thailand will think twice about travelling here after a murder," Lieutenant-Colonel Kissana Phatanacharoen, deputy spokesman for the Royal Thai Police, said. "Given the enormous media interest in this case, that is only natural."

The Thai authorities have made no arrests and reported little progress in solving the case. But according to Lt-Col Kissana, the Thai police had obtained DNA samples related to the case and had sent them to Singapore, where he said testing is quicker.

He was apparently referring to the DNA samples of two unidentified Asian men found at the crime scene and those of a 23-year-old Thai man, who was arrested for an unspecified drug offence on Sunday.

"We are waiting for the (result) of his DNA test... It is not clear if he is a suspect yet" in the murder case, Major-General Kiattipong Khawsamang of Surat Thani provincial police said earlier.

The man is said to be a speedboat driver who operates between Koh Tao and the nearby island of Koh Samui.

Police are also searching for two friends of the driver, Major-Gen Kiattipong said.

Forensic experts in Bangkok discovered traces of semen at the crime scene but could not find a DNA match with the 12 people they have questioned so far over the case.

Those questioned included two of Mr Miller's British friends and several migrant workers from Myanmar.

Interpol Thailand had joined the investigation, Lt-Col Kissanahe said yesterday.

"We're reconstructing the steps of both victims, their activities on the island, who they met, who they flirted with, who they learnt to dive with," said the spokesman.

The killings are the latest blow to Thailand's vital tourism industry, denting the country's image as the happy-go-lucky paradise often referred to as the "land of smiles".

Tourism had already been battered by political street protests and military rule that have kept travellers away from the capital Bangkok and led hotel occupancy rates to plummet.

Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, whose coup in May toppled the remnants of a democratic government, warned tourists last week that Thailand was not as safe as they imagined.

He also apologised for criticising tourists who wear bikinis, comments that sparked an international outcry.