"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Monday, April 13, 2015

Death in the Land of Smiles

Firing-squad execution in the Land of Smiles
Firing-squad execution in the Land of Smiles
There are as many ways to kill as there are to die. When it comes to state-mandated executions, there are preferred methods that take place either as messy public spectacles on scaffolds and squares or in private settings in chairs and on gurneys, more clinical, therefore ostensibly more humane. Here in Southeast Asia, state-funded killing is a mixed bag.

Cambodia abolished the death penalty in 1989; it was suspended in 2006 in the Philippines, though it remains on the books. In 2014, Myanmar (Burma) officially commuted all death sentences to life in prison.

In Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore, the condemned are hanged, though Brunei has not executed anyone since 1957. In 2013, Malaysia had a per capita execution rate of 1 execution per 9,433,333 persons. In 2014, Singapore had a per capita rate of one execution per 2,495,000 persons.

The situation in Laos is murky. The compilers of Cornell University Law School's online database DeathPenaltyWorldwide.org are "unsure whether Laos applies a mandatory death penalty." While prisoners are still condemned to die, there have been no confirmed executions since 1989.

In Indonesia, where executions resumed this year after a brief moratorium, the situation is clearer: inmates are executed by firing squad. According to Death Penalty Worldwide, "The prisoner has the choice of standing or sitting, and of whether to have his eyes covered by a blindfold or hood. If following the shooting the prisoner still shows signs of life, there is one final shot to the head."

Vietnam also uses firing squads: "According to older reports, the prisoner is tied to a wooden post and has his mouth stuffed with lemons. A firing squad of 5 to 7 people is called in. As the prisoner is dying, an officer fires a pistol shot through the condemned's ear," reports Death Penalty Worldwide.

Since 2003, Thailand, the so-called "land of smiles", has used lethal injection. Previously, the condemned were shot to death. The last shooting execution took place on 11 December, 2002. The executioner was named Chavoret Jaruboon. A remarkable biopic film about his life, aptly named The Last Executioner, was released last year. To watch it is to venture not only to an exotic land, but also into the agonizing soul of a musician, Buddhist, husband and father, who was paid to kill people the State had decided should die.

A Brief History of Execution in the Land of Smiles

Chavoret was a guard at Bang Kwang Prison, the notorious "Bangkok Hilton". It should be noted that his full-time job was as a guard and that his role as executioner amounted to a part-time gig that he took for extra money. An entire year could pass between 1 execution and another. For each he was paid 2,000 baht (roughly $60US at the current exchange). In total, from 1984 to 2002, he executed 55 people.

Here's how the condemned were executed at Bang Kwang. They were led into a small room where they were blindfolded then hog-tied to crossed beams, their back facing the executioner. A screen was pulled between them, and the attendant doctor fixed a black bull's eye printed on cardboard on it above the prisoner's heart.

From 1935 to 1984, the weapon was a Bergmann MP 34/1 submachine gun, chambered for 9mm parabellum rounds. The gun was fixed into position on a stand that vaguely resembled a cotton-candy machine. After 1984, the more modern Heckler and Koch MP-5, also chambered for 9mm, was used along with, and this is peculiar, a silencer.

As Chavoret explains in his 2011 memoir with which the film shares a title, "The Bergmann was very loud, and the bang usually freaked out the 2nd guy if there was more than 1 execution. (With the silencer) I could even check the gun was properly aimed by trying it out a couple of hours before the execution took place."

A 3-man team managed each execution, with 1 aiming the gun after it had been fixed in the stand, another holding a red flag, and a 3rd who pulled the trigger when the flag dropped. Thai law mandated that 15 rounds were in the gun's magazine, though fewer were usually required. Since the weapon is a high-speed automatic, the number of bullets fired would be different each time, so that 1 prisoner might receive 6 while the next would receive 8, and so on, though apparently Chavoret usually fired in 3-round bursts. In the book, he is very specific about how many rounds he fired at each execution (he counted the ejected brass).

In effect, this created a 1-man firing squad. The ritualistic shooting team is a holdover from the days when condemned prisoners were beheaded. In his book, Chavoret admits: "I must say that I could have not have chopped off someone's head with a sword - there is no way on earth I would have been able to do that."

He also highlights the class system at work in the old days, when "if the condemned was a member of the Royal Family or a high-ranking officer then a better class of execution was required - they would be beaten to death with a sweet-smelling stick."

Chavoret himself died of cancer in May 2012, age 64.

The Last Executioner had its global premiere at the 2014 Shanghai International Film Festival, where it was only one of 15 films invited to compete for the prestigious Golden Goblet Awards.

Source: popmatters.com, April 13, 2015

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