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Koh Tao – Thai Paradise Gains Reputation as ‘Death Island’

KOH TAO, Thailand — Promoters call the Thai island of Koh Tao a paradise. Dive resorts boast of its crystal-clear waters, and Western tourists flock to its lively beach bars.

But among some foreigners, Koh Tao has taken on a more sinister reputation. At least nine European tourists have died or disappeared there since 2014. British tabloids began calling it Death Island.

Now, the claim of a 19-year-old British tourist that she was raped on Koh Tao in June has again focused attention on the island’s troubled history and called into question police handling of serious crimes against tourists.

Initially, the police denied that a rape occurred and arrested a dozen people for posting about it on Facebook. The police also issued arrest warrants for an online newspaper editor in Britain and a Facebook page administrator in California.

After opening an investigation and interviewing the young woman in Britain, the police said last month that they had found no evidence to support her claim and closed the case. They said they would reopen the case if new evidence emerged.

The decision disappointed and angered the young woman’s mother, who insists that the 19-year-old is telling the truth. She accused the police of mishandling the investigation and covering up crime on the island.

“The whole thing has been a farce from the very beginning,” she said by phone from Britain. “Why on earth would someone make this up?”

Thailand, with about 35 million visitors last year, is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and promotes itself as the “Land of Smiles.” The government, which has been run by a military junta since 2014, is sensitive to criticism that could undermine the country’s reputation.

In a patriarchal society where the #MeToo movement has not taken hold, some officials have suggested that women bring rape or sexual harassment on themselves by wearing provocative clothing, prompting protests under the hashtag #Don’tTellMeHowToDress.

Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, questioned the attire and behavior of foreign female tourists shortly after the killing of two British backpackers, David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, on Koh Tao in 2014. Ms. Witheridge was raped before she was killed.

“They think our country is beautiful and safe and they can do whatever they want, wear bikinis wherever they like,” the prime minister said. “I’m asking, if they wear bikinis in Thailand, will they be safe? Only if they are not beautiful.”

He later apologized, saying that he meant only that foreign visitors should be careful.

But doubts still linger over the conviction of two migrant Burmese workers, U Zaw Lin and U Win Zaw Htun, for the killings of Ms. Witheridge, 23, and Mr. Miller, 24, at popular Sairee Beach. A judge found the workers guilty and sentenced them to death despite questions about DNA evidence and the police handling of the case. The men’s supporters say they were framed.

Other tourists who died include a Frenchman, Dmitri Povse, 29, who was found hanged in 2015 with his hands tied behind his back. The police ruled it a suicide. Last year, a Russian tourist, Valentina Novozhyonova, 23, disappeared with her diving gear. The police concluded she drowned at sea.

The eldest to die was a 33-year-old Moldovan man, Alexandr Bucspun, who drowned in October after he went swimming late at night. The police ruled out foul play.

In some cases, family members challenged the police findings.

Koh Tao, a ferry ride from better-known Koh Samui, has long had a reputation as a home for organized crime, and as a place where the police protected local interests.

The police major general who headed the rape investigation, Surachate Hakparn, said in an interview with The Times that the police have cracked down on crime syndicates on Koh Tao since the backpackers’ double killing.

“We admit that in the past, there was a mafia there that took advantage of tourists,” he said. “Today, we have gotten rid of them.”

This past summer, the young woman from Britain came to Koh Tao in June with a group of male friends. She and one of the friends, Martin Phu, went to a popular beach bar and ordered drinks after midnight on June 26, according to their accounts. They soon began feeling woozy, left the bar and passed out on the beach.

When the young woman woke up some hours later, Mr. Phu was not there. But an unfamiliar man was watching her and quickly left, she said. Her underwear had been removed and she knew immediately that she had been raped, her mother said. Her phone, cash and credit cards were gone.


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