TIME Aviation

An Expert Says Our Search Strategy Will Need Overhauling If the Réunion Debris Is From MH370

The discovery of possible MH370 debris on Réunion Island would mean that the existing search zone is wrong, a top oceanographer explains

On Friday, a group of French officials boarded a 12-hour flight to Paris from Réunion, a volcanic island and French territory in the southwest Indian Ocean. With them was a 9-ft.-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam many believe is a wing-flap from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

It was the unremarkable final stretch on what may turn out to be the wing-flap’s remarkable journey—if indeed it is a wing-flap, and if it turns out to have actually come from MH370. Sources in Boeing have told CNN they are ”confident” the flotsam was part of a Boeing 777, and experts have little doubt the part came from the doomed jetliner. That would mean this debris could have been drifting on ocean currents for more than 500 days for some 2,500 miles, or the equivalent to driving Route 66 from New York to Los Angeles.

Yet what is more remarkable is what more it can tell us. It could, for example, nix ongoing search efforts, which are currently focused around 1,000 miles off the coast of Perth in Western Australia. Authorities have scoured 21,000 square miles of a 23,000 square mile search zone in an operation costing well over $100,000 million, and which has involved thousand of flights, dozens of ships and several submarines. They are now poised to head south and double the search zone’s size.

On Friday, Australian deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a press conference that he was “confident” this zone was the right one “based on continuing refinement of the satalite data.” He added: “We will continue to concentrate on the southern end of that identified area.”

However, according to Erik van Sebille, a lecturer in oceanography at Imperial College London, the flotsam’s very appearance in Réunion—if it is proven to come from MH370—would mean that searchers have been looking in the wrong place.

“If you take into account the currents in the Indian Ocean, then you can trace the flow backwards from the northern part of the search zone,” he tells TIME. “It would exclude the southern part as anything that drifts from there would go eastward into the Pacific Ocean.”

Following the discovery of the supposed debris—spotted on a pebble beach by an eagle-eyed government worker named Johnny Bègue—helicopters have been scouring Réunion, which lies around 600 mi east of Madagascar, for more. Reports of luggage fragments are currently being investigated. However, van Sebille also believes such efforts are largely misplaced, factoring in the frenzied nature of the ocean’s currents.

“The ocean currents are not like highways. They are not really simple and predictable—they are actually quite chaotic. It’s a bit like the weather,” he says. “It’s just like how San Francisco is typically used to the westerly wind, but every so often it might come the other way—it’s the same for the ocean.”

Experiments with GPS-tracked objects, released 30ft apart in the ocean, have resulted in them drifting hundreds of miles apart within just a month. So while the broad strokes of the ocean’s currents can be mapped, conclusions are typically ambiguous. By tracing the currents from Réunion back to the search zone, “our best hope is that we can perhaps pin down the region to perhaps a few hundred miles, which will still be very large,” says van Sebille.

The barnacles clinging to the wing-flap can also tell a story. Very quickly, investigators will be able to tell from their size how long the object has been in the water, meaning that even if serial numbers cannot categorically prove the object came from MH370, identifying the plane model, combined with time adrift, could remove reasonable doubt.

As there are more than 1,000 species of barnacles in the ocean, with their provenance depending on myriad environmental factors, Benny K.K. Chan, associate professor of marine biology at National Taiwan University, says that it would also be possible to lead back to a specific crash site by identifying certain varieties.

“There are some species of barnacles that have very distinct distribution, and so if you get some of these then maybe you could get some hint from where this wing-flap has drifted,” he tells TIME. “But from the pictures I can only see the lepas genus, which are common to nearly all floating objects.”

Experts are due to examine the flotsam at a laboratory in Toulouse, with conclusions expected in the next day or so. But the value of the wing-flap—again, if MH370’s wing-flap is what it actually is—increases exponentially should more debris be found, especially, and perhaps surprisingly, if it is found far from the original discovery.

“If we find some debris somewhere else on a completely different part of the Indian Ocean, then what we can do is backtrack that too and then look at the overlap,” says van Sebille. “You can then look at the overlap of all the rough areas. It’s essentially triangulation.”

TIME Aviation

What to Know About the New Malaysia Airlines Clue

The discovery is the most significant since the Boeing 777 vanished almost 17 months ago

An Australian official warned Thursday not to jump to conclusions about a barnacle-encrusted, 9-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam that washed up on the French island of Reunion — a discovery many are saying may be debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Australia’s deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, said it was premature to link the recovered chunk of metal with the jet that went missing 509 days ago. “It is too early to make that judgment,” Truss said at a news conference in Sydney. “But clearly we are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and whether it is indeed linked to the disappearance of MH 370.”

Other officials have a “high degree of confidence” that the discovery is an aluminum-composite wing-flap from a Boeing 777, the same type of plane that vanished shortly after departing Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8, 2014. The 227 passengers and 12 crew are all presumed dead.

Now engineers from Boeing are examining the debris to confirm that it is a flaperon from a 777, and even, if possible, from MH370 specifically. “We are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and if it is indeed liked to the disappearance of MH370,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at a press conference Thursday.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Where does the investigation stand?

Initial search efforts were concentrated along the flight’s charted route over the South China Sea, but then moved to the Strait of Malacca when Thai military radar indicated the aircraft doubled back across the Malay Peninsula (conventional tracking wasn’t possible as the plane’s secondary radar had been disabled inside the cockpit).

Then, after still no trace was found, pioneering data analysis by British satellite telecom firm Inmarsat indicated that MH370 had traveled south into the Indian Ocean, probably running out of fuel roughly 1,000 miles off the western Australia city of Perth.

A total of 55,000 sq km of seafloor has been scoured in this area, but the lack of any success prompted the search zone to be doubled to 120,000 sq km in May. In addition, thousands of reconnaissance flights were launched, with the combined operation costing more than $100 million — an unprecedented figure.

And so, if confirmed, Wednesday’s discovery of a supposed wing-flap — found 2,500 miles (or the equivalent of the width of the U.S.) from the search zone — would be the first definitive piece of proof that the plane had crashed.

“Malaysia Airlines is working with the relevant authorities to confirm the matter,” the carrier said in an emailed statement. “At the moment, it would be too premature for the airline to speculate the origin of the flaperon.”

2. What’s next?

Proving categorically that the recovered piece came from a Boeing 777. Investigators from the U.S. aviation giant, as well as representatives from Malaysia Airlines, are currently trying to make that call. But should verification prove tricky in tiny Reunion, they may transport the object to specialist labs in France for further examination. (France has jurisdiction to handle evidence found on its territory, though will work with Malaysia, which heads the overall investigation because it involves its flag carrier; Australia has also offered assistance.)

Ideally, they would find a serial number. If there’s a part number that starts with “113W,” then we know it comes from a 777. (A marking “PB670″ was found on the object, revealed Truss, though the significance is so far unknown.)

If the part is confirmed as coming from a 777, experts say there will be little doubt it came from MH370. “Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane but also to determine what happened — and why,” said Boeing in a statement Wednesday.

3. So have we been searching in the wrong place all this time?

Not at all. In the almost 17 months since the plane vanished, debris could feasibly have drifted anywhere around the globe. Certainly, the buffeting South Atlantic Gyre could have swept a flaperon from Western Australia to Reunion.

“The information that we have is consistent with the search that’s being undertaken at the present time,” Truss told reporters. “It supports the satellite data and the identification of the area in the southern Indian Ocean as the likely place where the aircraft could have entered the water.

However, if confirmed, additional searches of islands near Reunion, and the coastlines of nearby Madagascar and East Africa, could also be initiated to try to find more debris.

4. What does it tell us?

If confirmed as a piece from MH370, the most telling initial detail is the size of the debris, which experts say makes a high-velocity nose-dive crash unlikely. Larger objects of this ilk are more common from slower impacts, such as a pilot deliberately plotting a gentle descent.

“It’s an indication that this broke off in some sort of a landing or a spiral down from altitude as the plane stalled and ran out of fuel,” Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN.

But even the attached barnacles could tell an important story, given that there are over 1,000 different species throughout the oceans dependent on myriad environmental factors.

5. What’s the legal significance?

Very little. Under the Montreal Convention, litigation against an airline must take place within two years of a disaster. This is still the time frame that lawyers representing the victims’ families are working within. But Malaysia Airlines has already accepted responsibility and declared that the missing plane was “lost.”

Compensation has already been announced, although the amount could be challenged. However, as an airline has a “strict liability” to deliver passengers to a destination, the cause of the crash — pilot suicide, pilot error, hijacking, etc. — only has limited significance.

“The cause may not matter vis-à-vis the airline regarding what their duties and responsibilities are to pay compensation,” Brian Alexander, a lawyer specializing in aviation litigation for Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which is representing 48 victims’ families, tells TIME. “And I don’t think this one finding would affect our decisionmaking regarding the timing of the filing.”

However, should more wreckage be found to indicate the disaster resulted from a mechanical fault that was not the airline’s fault, additional litigation could theoretically be brought against Boeing.

6. What about the families?

This is where the discovery could be hugely significant. Without debris, conspiracy theories have proliferated, with some suggesting an elaborate heist and that the airplane may have been stashed for reuse in a later terrorist attack, possibly in a disused Soviet-era military runway somewhere near the Caucuses. Many families have refused to give up hope until the plane has definitively been proved as crashed. That time, for better or worse, may soon be upon us.

TIME Cambodia

This Country Just Made It Legal for Cops to Keep 70% of All the Traffic Fines They Collect

A Cambodian traffic police drives a car
Tang Chhin Sothy—AFP/Getty Images A Cambodian traffic police officer drives a car during a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Feb. 14, 2012

Officials do not foresee a rash of spurious fines being handed out as a consequence

Drivers in Cambodia have a lot to contend with: cavernous potholes, weaving motorcycles kicking up clouds of choking dust and noodle hawkers trundling down the “fast” lane. Now motorists may find their pockets as ravaged as their nerves, after officials announced a fivefold bump in traffic fines and gave permission for issuing officers to keep 70% of all cash collected.

The new rules, coming into force in January, are an attempt to curb corruption, reports the Phnom Penh Post. Currently, traffic cops keep half of much smaller penalties, meaning that many supplement their meager salaries by soliciting bribes.

The current $1.25 official penalty for not wearing a car seat belt, for example, will rise to $6.25, with the officer allowed to keep $4.38. Of the remaining 30%, some 25% will go to the station where the officer is based, with the final 5% sent to the Ministry of Finance.

“We plan to issue an edict in the future to encourage and promote this measure,” Ti Long, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s Public Order Department, said at a press conference on Monday.

Local road-safety analyst Chariya Ear, for one, applauded the move. “It will be a good idea to give more incentives to the officers who are doing their jobs,” he told the Post.

However, not all drivers agree, fearing that, in a nation ranked 156 out of 175 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, officers will hand out spurious punishments to feather their nests.

Phnom Penh resident Gary Morrison, 49, says he already pays traffic fines on a regular basis, ostensibly for “being a foreigner,” even though he has all the correct documentation for his vehicle. “So,” he says sardonically, “it’s nice to know they are encouraging the police to fine me even more.”

TIME Malaysia

5 Reasons Why Obama Should Steer Clear of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course in Hawaii
Hugh Gentry—Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii during Obama's Christmas holiday vacation in Kaneohe, Hawaii, on Dec. 24, 2014

Washington is having serious trouble finding dependable allies in Southeast Asia

The U.S.’s “rebalancing” toward Asia has two main pillars: being a counterweight to China and securing a free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If Washington is to succeed on both fronts, it needs as many friends in the region as it can win. The U.S.’s newest ally is Malaysia, this year’s chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nation, collectively a growing market, and, on the surface, a modern, democratic, Muslim country. In April 2014 U.S. President Barack Obama paid an official visit to Malaysia, the first sitting President to do so in decades, and, later in the year, played golf with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak when both were on holiday in Honolulu. This November, Kuala Lumpur will host the next East Asia Summit and Obama is due to attend.

But recently, all the news coming out of Malaysia is negative. After becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal, Najib on Tuesday sacked his deputy and Malaysia’s attorney general in an apparent purge of critics. British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing a domestic backlash for pushing forward with a visit to Kuala Lumpur this week despite the snowballing controversy. Here are five reasons why Obama might want to break from Cameron by giving Najib a wide berth.

  1. 1MDB — A Wall Street Journal report has alleged that Najib’s personal bank accounts received nearly $700 million in March 2013 from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-owned development fund. Najib has protested his innocence and threatened legal action against the Journal. “I am not a thief,” Najib told Malaysian media on July 5. “I am not a traitor and will not betray Malaysians.” The police, the local anticorruption agency, the attorney general’s office and the central bank are investigating the allegations. On July 8, the police raided 1MDB’s office in Kuala Lumpur and took away documents. Even before the latest news, 1MDB was an embarrassment for Najib, who chaired the fund’s advisory board as debts of $11.6 billion were accrued. Such are the suspicions of malfeasance that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ran the country from 1981 to 2003 and has long been considered Najib’s mentor, has repeatedly called for his protégé’s resignation over 1MDB’s alleged mishandling.
  1. Anwar Ibrahim — Najib’s main political rival is once again in prison for a sodomy conviction. Human Rights Watch deemed his five-year sentence handed down Feb. 10 to be “politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law.” This is the second time Anwar has been jailed for sodomy.
  1. Hudud — Stoning for adultery and amputation for theft are not the kind of punishments meted out by the progressive state that Malaysia purports to be. Yet Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is supporting attempts to introduce hudud Islamic law in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) heartland state of Kelantan, where nightclubs are forbidden and men and women are designated separate public benches. Why is UMNO supportive of recognizing hudud under federal law? Largely because PAS is part of a three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition that is UNMO’s chief challenger. The other partners — Anwar’s Keadilan, or People’s Justice Party, supported by middle-class, urban Malays, and the Chinese Malaysian–backed Democratic Action Party (DAP) — are strongly against hudud. Many analysts accuse UMNO of cynically fostering a radical Islamic bent to widen rifts in its political opponents.
  1. Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa — In 2002, when Najib was Defense Minister, a $1.25 billion contract was signed to purchase two Scorpène submarines from French firm DCNS. Altantuyaa was a Mongolian woman who, knowing French, facilitated negotiations as a translator, and then allegedly attempted to blackmail Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib’s aides with whom she was also having an affair, for $500,000 over “commission” payments he had allegedly received. Two policemen posted to Najib’s bodyguard detail were convicted of murdering Altantuyaa on Oct. 18, 2006. Najib denies any involvement.
  1. Prevention of Terrorism Act — Najib campaigned on scrapping the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) but then immediately replaced it with the equally sweeping Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA. The POTA includes practically the same powers as ISA, including two-year detention without trial, and was dubbed a “legal zombie arising from the grave of the abusive [ISA]” by Human Rights Watch. Najib also vowed to repeal the similarly maligned Sedition Act but reneged after his election in 2013. In fact, in April his government extended the maximum jail term under the Sedition Act from three to 20 years.
TIME Thailand

Courtroom at Koh Tao Backpacker Murder Trial Hears of More Thai Police Blunders

Police admit that key CCTV cameras were not checked

Police investigating the murder of a pair of British backpackers on an idyllic Thai beach have revealed that they didn’t check key CCTV cameras — the latest troubling admission in a case deemed an acid test for Thailand’s justice system.

Burmese migrant workers Wai Phyo and Zaw Lin, both 22, are currently on trial for the murder of David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, on the Thai Gulf island of Koh Tao.

The tourists’ bodies were discovered on Sept. 15 last year by rocks on Koh Tao’s popular Sairee Beach.

Both defendants deny the allegations, claiming they are scapegoats who were tortured into confessing by police seeking to safeguard the coral-fringed island’s vital tourism industry. Police deny any mistreatment.

Human-rights groups have also raised concerns that the defendants are being railroaded because of their vulnerable status as migrant workers.

Friday marked two-thirds of the way through the 18-day trial, which is split into three equal parts on Koh Tao’s neighboring island of Koh Samui, and proceedings so far have offered little to suggest that Thailand’s reputation for fumbling justice is undeserved.

On Wednesday, Police Colonel Cherdpong Chiewpreecha told the court that nobody examined CCTV footage of a boat leaving the island around an hour after the presumed time of the murders. “We have the footage, but we never checked it,” he said, according to Sky News.

Cherdpong also conceded that officers never investigated rumors of an altercation between Witheridge and a young Thai man in the AC Bar, a late-night drinking hole where both she and Miller were last seen prior to the discovery of their bodies. The defense maintains this same man may have committed the crime before fleeing the island on the boat.

Additionally, no fingerprints or DNA tests were performed on the suspected murder weapons — a wooden club and garden hoe found near the bodies — as investigators did not believe such tests would be useful following a cursory examination of the objects with a magnifying glass. (The items of evidence were brought into court in a supermarket shopping trolley, reports the Guardian.)

The revelations were met by gasps in the courtroom, where both representatives of the victims’ and defendants’ families were present. The prosecution case hinges on DNA samples from the defendants that purportedly match those retrieved from Witheridge’s corpse.

On Friday, the bench finally permitted defense lawyers to request independent retesting of all DNA evidence. However, police have already said that key DNA evidence collected from the victims had been “used up.”

Given that Thailand welcomes 25 million tourists each year, the case has unfurled in the full media glare, with foreign press outnumbering domestic. Coverage has still been spotty, though, not least because, as is common in Thailand, reporters have been barred from taking notes inside the courtroom.

According to Andrew Drummond, a British journalist who covered court cases in Thailand for 25 years, this is because any “note-taking will invariably differ with the official version.” However, in Thailand the judge takes the notes himself rather than using a designated court transcriber. “The system is open to all sorts of abuse and misuse,” adds Drummond.

Several international media outlets have also complained of being unable to find translators as prospective candidates have been scared off by local thugs, adding weight to the theory that the murders have a criminal connection.

During the initial six-day segment of the trial, a Burmese man was brought in to act as court translator. However, the defendants protested, alleging he was among those who assaulted them during interrogation. Zaw Lin said the translator was present when police “put the bags on us and punched us,” reported the Bangkok Post. “I remember his voice.”

The translator was finally dismissed after the defense complained that he was also included on the prosecution’s list of witnesses. (He declined to comment on the allegations of abuse when contacted by TIME prior to the trial.)

Fears of mistreatment were not eased when the defendants complained that they were forced to sleep in their shackles following an earlier court appearance, as no official was around to remove the chains.

“The police are terrible and unjust,” Wai Phyo told TIME in Koh Samui Prison prior to the trial. “And the judge will just act to try and protect his country.”

NOW READ: This Septic Isle: Backpackers, Bloodshed and the Secretive World of Koh Tao

TIME Thailand

This Septic Isle: Backpackers, Bloodshed and the Secretive World of Koh Tao

The death-penalty case has caused an international sensation

The balcony of room A5 at Ocean View Bungalows commands one of the finest vistas of Koh Tao’s sweeping Sairee Beach. Traditional longtail boats, a rainbow of scarves adorning their bows, bob on the lapping water of the glistening bay. And right in the foreground, rising proudly from sliver sands, protrude a scattering of granite boulders, a furtive relic of this tranquil 21-sq-km (8 sq. mi.) island’s volcanic inception.

These rocks are no strangers to explosive secrets. On Sept. 15, one of the occupants of that same room A5, Hannah Witheridge, was found bludgeoned to death in their midst alongside fellow British tourist David Miller, just a short stumble from her door. Witheridge, 23, from Great Yarmouth, a seaside town on the English east coast, had been raped and killed by blows to the head. Miller, a year older and from Jersey, one of the U.K.’s Channel Islands, had likewise suffered deep lacerations to his skull before drowning in the shallow surf.

A mute Burmese beach cleaner stumbled upon the bodies shortly after dawn. A garden hoe and wooden club found nearby were quickly fingered as the principal murder weapons.

The crime’s brutality amid Koh Tao’s insular, backpacker charm caused an international sensation and threatened to further weaken a tourist industry already reeling from the military coup of May 22, 2014, which saw hundreds arbitrarily detained and draconian new controls imposed on freedom of speech and assembly.

Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha enraged many by hinting that the blame, at some level, lay with the attractive victims. “Will [tourists] survive in Thailand if they dress in bikinis?” he asked Sept. 17. He added that they would if “they are not beautiful.”

Prayuth soon backtracked on his remarks on travelers, saying, “Sometimes I speak too strongly.” But virtually his next breath again sought to assign blame: “We have to help take care of [our nation],” he said, “and not let not-good people mingle with us, such as unregistered alien workers.”

Investigators had already steered their attention to migrant workers, via a friend of the deceased, and the son of a local headman, who were briefly considered as suspects. DNA testing of casual workers was introduced and many migrants complained of rough interrogations, with some claiming that they were scalded with boiling water. (Police deny these allegations.)

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, both 22-year-old ethnic Rakhine from Burma’s restive Arakan state, were arrested on Oct. 2. The police quickly elicited a confession and, after a macabre reconstruction of the murders before a swarm of media — including a staged session of penitent prayers by the accused — probably hoped that the case looked closed.

But it unraveled just as quickly. After finally receiving independent legal counsel, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, who had no prior criminal records, claimed they had been tortured during interrogation and recanted. Human-rights groups expressed serious concerns.

The 18-day trial of the two defendants, divided into three equal parts over several weeks, began on July 8. A verdict is expected in October and they could face the death penalty if convicted.

“Over the coming weeks we hope to gain a better understanding as to how such a wonderful young man lost his life in such idyllic surroundings in such a horrible way,” said Miller’s family in a statement at the opening of the trial.

Family members of Hannah Witheridge, one of the two British tourists killed on Koh Tao island, comfort each other at the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok
Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters Family members of Hannah Witheridge comfort one another at the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok, on Sept. 18, 2014

‘THE WORST THAIS IN THAILAND’

The murders of Witheridge and Miller sent shock waves through Thailand. “That the victims were tourists automatically drew more attention,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut. “And the shambolic investigation also didn’t help.”

Foreigners die surprisingly often here. There were 362 U.K. citizens who met their end in Thailand in 2014, more so even than in France, which attracts almost 20 times as many British visitors. But generally they lose their lives through traffic accidents, overdoses and suicides. This was very different.

Of the 25 million foreign visitors who touch down in Thailand each year, half a million grace Koh Tao, the smallest of three popular tourist islands in the Thai Gulf. The largest and most developed is Koh Samui, which also boasts the archipelago’s only international airport. The next in size is Koh Phangan, home of the infamous Full Moon parties, with a reputation for drugs and debauchery. Koh Tao is by far the smallest. Ringed by coral gardens and teeming with kaleidoscope shoals of tropical fish, it was primarily known, until now, for its diving.

But Koh Tao was a political penal colony from 1933 until 1947, and a sense of self-sufficiency and isolation exists to this day. Far from official oversight, de facto control falls to the owners of booming hospitality businesses that were developed on land originally obtained, via government concessions, for coconut plantations.

Feuding here is common and vicious. Greg Shepherd, 34, from Luton in the U.K., tells TIME he witnessed a man getting shot in the face in a bar north of Sairee Beach in the mid-2000s. “They took the victim away in a pickup truck and the barman just got a mop out and cleaned up the blood,” he says.

In general, tourists are almost comically unaware of this malevolent undercurrent. Yet it remains an open secret that “organized crime is rampant on these islands,” says Saksith. Little wonder the conversational staple of many long-term expats is, “These are the worst Thais in Thailand.”

Drugs play a key role. The sweet reek of marijuana is commonplace even in prominent beachfront bars, while cocaine and crystal meth, known locally as yaba or “crazy drug,” are not hard to find, say locals. At one establishment by Chalok Baan Chao, joints are sold for 200 baht ($6) while a magic mushroom milkshake costs 700 baht ($20). “Nice and strong,” grins the heavily tattooed barman. The families that run the island and police that guard it deny any involvement with narcotics. But the sheer ubiquity of drugs on Koh Tao suggests at the very least a high toleration of the trade.

Naturally, a pall of silence engulfs this clannish, cliquey atoll, owing in no small part to the legal standing of its foreign contingent.

There are no official figures for the number of expats who call Thailand home, but it likely runs into the hundreds of thousands. Pensions and incomes that would be less than optimum in Europe, say, or North America, can fund a life of carefree hedonism in Thailand.

On tiny Koh Tao alone, there are some 2,000 expats alongside the 2,500 registered Thais, according to Mayor Chaiyan Turasakul. Most are running guesthouses, eateries and scuba-diving operations or working as diving instructors. However, according to Rhys Bonney, an immigration adviser to expats in Thailand, even the legality of scuba-diving instructors is an “extremely gray area” as Thai work permits are specific to particular company premises. “There’s no work permit that allows you to work in 15 different locations [under the sea],” he says. “Legally, it would seem quite easy to shut these dive shops down.”

Insecure residency tends to breed compliance. “Once you’ve been living there for a while, you’ll turn a blind eye to some pretty sketchy stuff,” says Mike Earley, 30, from New Zealand, who spent six months on the island working as a DJ. Complaining about wrongdoing may invite official questions and demands for passports and documentation. Expats “don’t want to lose their time in paradise,” Earley says, “as it’s cheap, it’s nice living, and it’s very easy to ignore what happens.”

Even murder.

Hannah Witheridge murder
Athit Perawongmetha—ReutersBurmese migrant workers Wai Phyo and Zaw Lin arrive at the Koh Samui Provincial Court, in Koh Samui, Thailand, on July 8, 2015

SEVEN DAYS A WEEK FOR A PITTANCE

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo are two of an estimated 2 million irregular Burmese migrants, along with smaller numbers from neighboring Cambodia and Laos, currently working low-paid jobs in comparatively thriving Thailand. They toil in slavelike conditions for pitiful wages in occupations typically described as 3-D — dirty, dangerous, degrading.

Some work on fishing boats for years without seeing land, getting passed between trawlers, catching fish, squid and shrimp for American dinner tables. (Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter.) Others labor for long hours under the burning sun farming pineapples, exposed to hazardous doses of pesticides and other chemicals. And on Koh Tao there are around 5,000 Burmese — conspicuous by the golden streaks of thanaka paste, a traditional sunscreen and beauty product, garnishing their cheeks — who build hotels, sweep rooms and serve drinks to the coppery throngs of tourists.

They flee extreme poverty and ethnic violence in Burma (officially now known as Myanmar), the legacy of a half-century of civil war and suffocating military dictatorship. Even though recent quasi-democratic reforms have seen an influx of tourist dollars and the rolling back of sanctions, that means little for the nation’s rural poor. In fact, says Sean Turnell, a professor and expert on Burmese economics at Australia’s Macquarie University, “The economic circumstances of Myanmar’s majority rural population are now marginally worse than before the reforms were launched.”

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo know this too well. Speaking exclusively to TIME at Koh Samui Prison, both appear much younger than their 22 years. Zaw Lin, as pimply as any teen, chats eagerly of his love of Manchester United and star Portuguese winger Nani. Wai Phyo, a Real Madrid fanatic who idolizes FIFA world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, moves a virtually hairless top lip as he talks.

“My father died when I was very young,” says Zaw Lin, “so l left school aged 8 and started helping my mother in the fields when I was 10.” Facing worsening poverty, around two years ago he paid a broker 5,000 baht ($150) to transport him to Koh Tao, heartened by tales he’d heard of fellow villagers who had eked out a successful living there. Since then, he had managed to send back almost $2,000 to help his destitute family. “It’s something but it’s not enough,” he says.

To be able to work on Koh Tao, illegal Burmese migrants paid a 500-baht ($15) bribe each month, plus another 500 baht if they want to use a motorbike without a Thai driving license. Typically, they work seven days a week for a pittance, sleeping in bamboo shacks erected in jungle clearances. Possessing no official status or documents, their vulnerability is extreme, and complaints of rape, extortion and physical violence are legion. “Burmese people are treated as second-class citizens,” says Saksith. “Dehumanizing as it sounds, they are a commodity for some people.”

Asked whether he has a message for his compatriots considering working in Thailand, Wai Phyo simply says, “Be careful when you go out at night as you might step in the wrong place.”

Police measure footprints of a man as data is collected from people who work near the spot where bodies of two killed British tourists were found, on the island of Koh Tao
Chaiwat Subprasom—ReutersPolice measure footprints of a man as data is collected from people who work near the spot where bodies of two killed British tourists were found, on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand, on Sept. 19, 2014

‘WE HAVE LEARNED TO TAKE CARE OF VISITORS’

Theories abound on Koh Tao about who killed Miller and Witheridge. Many believe the true culprits are local, and these suspicions were fueled after a Scottish friend of Miller fled the island claiming to have had his life threatened by local thugs.

Nevertheless, few have rallied to the defense of the accused. One of Wai Phyo’s former employers, who saw him soon after Sept. 15 and noticed no perceivable change in his demeanor, has refused to be a character witness or be named by TIME. “I’ve not been threatened, but I’ve too much to lose,” he says. “This is the wild west.”

At present, the case rests on DNA evidence linking cigarette butts found around 20 m from the bodies next to a crooked log where Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo admit they were playing guitar and drinking beer on the evening in question. These samples purportedly match those retrieved from Witheridge’s corpse.

But many have concerns that the scene was contaminated immediately after the discovery of the bodies; myriad officials, journalists and even bewildered tourists were seen traipsing through the area while evidence was still being gathered. Gruesome photos of the bloodied corpses circulated online, either leaked by officials or even taken by passersby. Thailand’s forensics chief, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, has said that by not using trained specialists, “police contradicted the principles of forensic science.”

Forensic evidence is processed independently in the U.S. or U.K. and many other jurisdictions around the world, safeguarding a proper chain of custody. But in Thailand, the police perform the entire process. This is troubling when set against the allegations of torture made by the accused.

Wai Phyo says officers removed his clothes and left him naked in a freezing room for 20 minutes. “They beat me and put a bag over my head, humiliating me by taking pictures and a video,” he said. “They threatened to kill me, saying: ‘We can throw you into the sea and feed your corpse to the fish.’”

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission investigated these allegations, but progress has been glacial, not least because police representatives failed to turn up to four arranged meetings. The police categorically deny any mistreatment and no officer has been charged to date.

Torture allegations aside, the proceedings have been peppered with oddities. The families of Miller and Witheridge even put out a statement saying the evidence against Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo was “powerful and convincing.” This assertion was facilitated by the U.K. Foreign Office despite being prejudicial toward the possibility of a fair trial. (Both families declined to comment when contacted by TIME.)

More recently, a court order to allow Dr. Pornthip to review the DNA evidence was rescinded. “The defense lawyers urgently need both crucial information gained from the re-examination of forensic evidence in this case and also adequate time to consider this information prior to the trial beginning,” said lead defense lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat in a statement last month.

On July 10, the bench again ordered the DNA to be retested, only for the police to reveal that certain key samples — specifically those retrieved from the victims’ bodies — had been used up. The only items still available for retesting were objects found around the crime scene, including the suspected murder weapons, but one witness claimed that these had been washed.

According to Kingsley Abbott, Southeast Asia legal expert for the International Commission of Jurists, “The defense must be afforded adequate time and facilities to explore whether the alleged destruction of evidence in this case was appropriate and unavoidable, and to test the prosecution case overall.”

Back on Koh Tao, authorities have scrambled to blot out the tragedy. “Koh Tao is very safe,” says Mayor Chaiyan. “Because we have learned for generations to take care of visitors.” A brand new police station has been built with 40 full-time officers replacing the five previously based here. A process of registering irregular Burmese migrant workers has been introduced to tackle the semiofficial bribes, though many say abuses continue unabated.

Few of the visitors on Sairee Beach today are even aware the murders took place. “I had no idea,” says Jordi Cramer, 21, a waitress from Edmonton, Canada, when TIME speaks to her strolling past the granite-hemmed crime scene. “I did feel safe, but that is scary.”

Scared is right. For while the surf has washed the blood from the sand, and life returns to normal for the island’s hodgepodge of wealthy and penniless inhabitants, one fact remains clear: not just the boulders hide secrets on Koh Tao.

David Miller and Hannah Witheridge
Family handoutsDavid Miller, 24, from Jersey, left, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, from Great Yarmouth
TIME Thailand

Thailand Defends Its Decision to Forcibly Return Uighur Migrants to China

The move has been condemned by the U.N., Washington and human-rights groups

Thailand’s junta government has defended the forcible return of more than 100 Uighur migrants to China despite their fears of persecution.

“Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem,” Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy spokesman for the Thai government, told reporters Thursday. “We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality.”

The move has been condemned by the U.N., Washington and human-rights groups, and led to violent scenes in Turkey when pro-Uighur protesters attacked the Thai consulate in Istanbul with clubs and rocks.

Uighurs are a Muslim minority in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang, but they are ethnically, culturally and geographically closer to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia than to the Han — China’s dominant ethnic group. Thousands have fled the escalating violence and perceived abuses in Xinjiang in recent years.

Despite hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced people, mainly from Burma, within its borders, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and still does not have functioning asylum procedures.

The 109 Uighurs returned Wednesday “self-identified as Turks, expressed fear of being sent to China and expressed the strong desire to go to Turkey,” Vivian Tan, Bangkok-based spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency, tells TIME. Their forced return “violates international law,” she adds, notably prohibitions on “sending people back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger.”

Washington echoed U.N. concerns about the deportations. “We strongly urge the government of Thailand, and other governments in countries where Uighurs have taken refuge, not to carry out further forced deportations of ethnic Uighurs,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

The reaction in Turkey was particularly fierce. Late last month, Thailand won approval in Turkey — but a stern rebuke from Beijing — by sending a group of 170 Uighurs there. Bangkok’s decision to send the present batch of Uighurs to Beijing is seen as kowtowing to the Chinese leadership, which is extremely sensitive to the Uighur issue.

“The international community needs to take a firm stand to guarantee the rights of Uighur refugees,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in a statement. “Governments and multilateral agencies must not permit China to disregard international human rights norms.”

Xinjiang is rich in natural resources, boasting China’s largest deposits of oil, natural gas and coal. It is also comparatively underdeveloped and sparsely populated, with its wide open spaces a tempting prospect to settlers from the rest of densely populated China.

An influx of Han Chinese has raised overall living standards, says Beijing, though Uighurs claim of marginalization and the erosion of their traditional culture. During the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan, for example, all students and state employees, among them many Muslim Uighurs, were forbidden from fasting.

Such grievances have spurred an insurgency, often targeting Chinese civilians (as was the case in March 2014, when 29 were killed during a bloody knife attack at Kunming’s train station in western China’s Yunnan province). Many Turks see themselves as having a cultural and spiritual bond with the Uighurs, and the unrest has strained relations with Beijing. The attack on the Thai consulate was preceded by fierce protests outside the Chinese consulate and badgering of Chinese tourists in Istanbul.

Thailand’s junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha warned Thursday that “we might temporarily have to close the embassy in Turkey” should the situation deteriorate. As Thailand currently holds another 50 Uighur migrants while “their nationalities are verified,” this fear is very real. Thai authorities must weigh Beijing’s ire, their international responsibilities and another backlash from Turkey. However, owing to close socioeconomic ties — China is Thailand’s second biggest trading partner — Beijing no doubt remains favorites in this ethnic tug of war.

TIME Thailand

Thai Junta Bans Launch of Vietnamese Rights Report Ahead of State Visit

The report's authors accuse the junta of "choosing to side with dictatorships"

Authorities in Bangkok abruptly canceled a press conference Friday during which a report on the plight of indigenous communities in central Vietnam was due to be launched.

The meeting, called to launch Persecuting ‘Evil Way’ Religion: Abuses Against Montagnards in Vietnam, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), was deemed too “sensitive” to take place at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Department of Information director general Sek Wannamethee told HRW, according to the rights group.

While many meetings to discuss the political situation in Thailand have been nixed, this is the first time a discussion of another country has been deemed too controversial. The decision, many believe, is because Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is due to visit Thailand soon.

“This action today is just the latest indication that Thailand is choosing to side with dictatorships in ASEAN while further stepping up repression at home,” HRW said in a statement Friday.

The incident is the latest curbing of freedoms since Thailand’s military chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a May 22, 2014, coup d’état and installed himself as Prime Minister. Hundreds of academics, journalists and activist have been summoned and arbitrarily detained for criticizing military rule. Even cryptic expressions of dissent such as publicly reading George Orwell’s 1984, or flashing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games, have been outlawed.

The relationship between Thailand’s military and press has also become more fractious. Winthai Suvaree, a spokesman the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta euphemistically christened itself, revealed this week that 200 local and foreign journalists would be summoned to “create understanding” and be given instructions on how to “ask questions” that will not offend Prayuth, who is notoriously touchy. The 61-year-old despot went on a bizarre rant earlier this week, in which he seemed to accuse the entire media industry of a conspiracy against him.

“I am not angry at you, reporters, because I know that you were ordered to do this. If you write well, they won’t publish your stories,” he said, according to the English-language service of the Thai newspaper Khaosod. “We are working to fix everything, but the media keeps writing that I have not done any work at all, that I haven’t passed any reforms at all. I am sad, too. I am sad to be born in this country.”

TIME Thailand

Jungle Graves in Thailand Spotlight the Plight of the World’s Displaced Peoples

Rescue workers inspect a mass grave at an abandoned camp in a jungle in Thailand's southern Songkhla province
Surapan Boonthamon—Reuters Rescue workers inspect a mass grave at an abandoned camp in a jungle in Thailand's southern Songkhla province on May 5, 2015

Some 30,000 people fled their homes each day in 2014. Among them were many Rohingya

Just a stone’s throw from where Western tourists sip cocktails and bronze themselves on beaches in Thailand’s southern state of Songkhla, a macabre discovery has been made: skeletons buried in the jungle.

At least 26 of the human remains are believed to be those of Rohingya Muslims. They were murdered, it is assumed, by people smugglers after fleeing pogroms in western Burma (now officially known as Myanmar) for a new life in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

While thousands of members of this much persecuted community successfully make the perilous voyage on rickety boats, hundreds die en route and many more are held captive in jungle camps, often with the collusion of local law enforcement, until their friends or relatives cough up enough cash to buy their freedom.

As with the 18 mutilated bodies that washed up on Malaysia’s historic port island of Penang late last year, it seems likely that those recently exhumed didn’t have sufficiently affluent connections.

“Those who can pay the money are released within a few days, those who cannot pay must stay and every day they are beaten and traumatized,” Abdul Hamid, president of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia, told TIME in Kuala Lumpur last month. “Witnesses from the camps say that every week there are three or four people who die from the torture.”

The recent discovery comes as a new report reveals that a record-breaking 38 million people around the world today have been displaced within their own countries by conflict or violence. The number is the equivalent to the combined populations of London, New York City and Beijing, and signals “our complete failure to protect innocent civilians,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Among them are Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya, described by the U.N. as “virtually friendless.” They are denied citizenship in both Burma and neighboring Bangladesh and consequently struggle on both sides of this shared frontier, many in squalid displacement camps, where food, shelter and medical care are in scandalously short supply.

Their plight has worsened since dozens were killed and thousands of homes destroyed in sectarian violence unleashed by Burma’s Buddhist majority, which first erupted in October 2012.

But the Rohingya’s problems do not end even if they are able to leave Burma. The supposedly lucky 100,000 who have reached Malaysia face a difficult time on arrival. Only around 45,000 have UNHCR cards, as registration has been closed for over six months to all but newborn babies or dependents of existing refugees and newly arrived children. They receive no government handouts nor are they allowed to work, and so must make do with irregular construction jobs, where they are liable to further exploitation.

While state-sponsored violence is an aggravating factor in the plight of the Rohingya, their real curse is a lack of citizenship and thus constitutional protection in the land of their birth. Burma may have shrugged off a half-century of brutal junta rule, but the military still maintains tight control, and the Rohingya remain pawns of a slew of generals, who see inculcating antipathy towards the Rohingya minority — they are portrayed as Bangladeshi interlopers — as their best hope of retaining power in elections slated for October.

Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the opposition National League for Democracy party, refuses to unequivocally speak up for the Rohingya, calling their plight an “immigration matter,” despite that fact that many Rohingya families have histories in Burma for longer or as long as hers.

And so, as the U.S. re-engages with the Burmese government, and hails this impoverished nation’s significant strides toward democracy, those anonymous jungle graves are a grim reminder of the formidable challenges that remain, as well as of the vulnerability of all those forced from their homes.

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