By Jared Ferrie
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar investigators said on Thursday they believe two Myanmar men accused of murdering two British tourists in Thailand are innocent, but witnesses who might be able to prove their innocence will not testify as they fear the Thai police.
Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were found dead on Sept. 15 on a beach on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao. Post-mortem examinations showed both suffered severe head wounds and Witheridge was raped.
The murders dealt a blow to Thailand's vital tourism industry, which is struggling to recover after months of political unrest and a May 22 coup, and the government called on police to solve the case quickly.
Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin and Win Phyo, both 21, initially confessed to the murders but later retracted their confessions saying they had been beaten and threatened by Thai police.
But Thai police deny those accusations and say they have solid evidence, including DNA evidence, against the two men who were arrested in October.
A committee set up by Myanmar's embassy in Thailand to investigate the case said they had interviewed about 40 Myanmar nationals who were working on Koh Tao at the time of the murders.
Some of those interviewed were "strong witnesses" who might provide evidence to exonerate the accused, said Kyaw Thaung, who heads the committee, but they were reluctant to testify and had returned to Myanmar for fear of being implicated in the crime.
"If they go to court and speak as witnesses, they'll have problems with the Thai police and Thai bosses," Kyaw Thaung told reporters in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
Thai Police Major General Suwat Jaengyordsuk, defended the investigation, which he led, and said Myanmar was welcome to present witnesses.
The two pleaded not guilty on Dec. 8 to charges including conspiracy to commit murder and rape. The first hearing in the case will take place on Dec. 26.
"Whatever the Thai government decides in this case, we believe these two young people did not commit this crime," said Htoo Chit, the Myanmar committee's spokesman.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat in BANGKOK; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)