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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 14:13 GMT 15:13 UK
The execution of Thai justice
By Chris Jones
Director/producer of The Real Bangkok Hilton

Bangkwang inmates
All Bangkwang prisoners are serving sentences of at least 25 years

For the first time ever, television cameras have been given access to Thailand's notorious Bangkwang prison, also known in the West as the "Bangkok Hilton".

Of its 7,000 inmates - mostly drug offenders - 883 have been sentenced to death.

Bangkwang is Bangkok's maximum-security jail; designed for lifers and death row prisoners.

The Thai people call Bangkwang the "Big Tiger" because it is a man-eater. Scores of prisoners have been put to death in its notorious execution chamber.

The Real Bangkok Hilton
Thursday, 22 July, 2004
2100 BST, BBC Two (UK)

After two years of delicate negotiations, the Thai prison system finally agreed to give us access inside Bangkwang.

We spent a tough two weeks inside, discovering harrowing stories from the prisoners battling to remain sane, and also the guards who are struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of inmates.

There is a small sign on the outside wall that says 883... the number of men waiting to be killed. And perhaps the most moving encounter we had was with Amporn Birtling, a Thai prisoner on death row.

Imprisoned for drug smuggling, his voice shook as he explained how he will only find out when he is to be executed two hours beforehand.

"I have no clue when I will die," Amporn said, "they could inject me today or tomorrow. All my life I hated drugs more than anything, I never thought that I would be arrested because of them.

"I told my kids don't touch them, don't get close to them, I hate them. I admitted I was guilty, why has society punished me so harshly? Why don't they give me another chance? I never committed a crime before."


Harsh sentences for drug smugglers are popular in Thailand.

Prison guards
Bangkwang's prison guards are out-numbered by inmates 50-1

The country has long been a major through-route for drugs, but now the Thais themselves are becoming drug addicts as new, cheap methamphetamine pills have flooded the local market.

Thousands of school children became addicts in the last few years prompting a public outcry.

The result has been a government crackdown leading to the mysterious killing of more than 2,200 people in the streets in 2003.

Officials insist this was gang on gang warfare, but watchdogs suggest it could have been extra-judicial killings by police.

Ten thousand more drug dealers were arrested, many of them simple couriers, or "mules". Now the jails are cracking under the strain.

Until the 1930s, the Thais beheaded criminals, unless the condemned was royal, in which case they were beaten to death with a piece of sweet-smelling wood

Amnesty International says there are now more prisoners on death row in Bangkwang than at any other time in Thailand's history.

They also say capital punishment is not a deterrent and innocent men always end up being killed.

But the Thai Government says drug dealers like Amporn destroyed the lives of many young Thai people, and deserve to die.


Head executioner
Bangkwang's head executioner does not want to be identified

Bangkwang's head executioner fits the profile: a burly build and large, menacing black sunglasses.

He would not let us film his face for security reasons, but he agreed to take us through his routine on a real execution day.

He showed us how, before he kills, he prays at the prison earth shrine and sprinkles dirt on his head; a Thai version of ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

"I pray for the spirits of the dead not to take vengeance on me," he says. " I pray for this to be the end of it."

The executioner is proud of his job.

At the execution chamber, he showed us a bulletin board detailing the history of execution in Thailand - a gruesome collection of photos both old and new.

Until the 1930s, the Thais beheaded criminals, unless the victim was royal, in which case they were beaten to death with a piece of sweet-smelling wood.

In 1932, they switched to firing squad, a system that lasted until December 2003. The execution room is still splattered with the blood of those killed by a bullet.

Director-General of Prisons, Nathee Jitsawang
Prison chief Nathee Jitsawang promises to ease overcrowding

The superstitious executioners shot them in the heart from behind so the dead person's departing spirit could not see the face of the executioner and come back to haunt him.

"We have to train our minds to become empty," explained the executioner. "free of fear, totally free of fear."

In 2004, new methods of execution have been implemented.

The new boss of Thailand's prisons is a reformer who sent officials to Texas to witness an execution by lethal injection and to learn the process.

"It is more humane then when we used the firing squad," said Director General of Prisons, Nathee Chitsawang.

"With the old method, sometimes they were crying and shouting... and sometimes they did not die immediately, so we had to take them and shoot again."

The executioner showed us the method of putting a man to death by pumping lethal chemicals into his veins, which he says must be done "slowly, slowly, or the vein might break."

He also demonstrated how they take a fingerprint of the condemned both before and after execution to confirm they have killed the right man.


Afterwards the bodies are taken through a tiny red door called the "ghost gate" to a Buddhist temple on the other side of the wall.

Abbot of Lap Lae prison temple
I tell the prisoner he is lucky that he knows his destiny and able to clear his conscience
Prison abbott

If relatives are waiting, they claim the body. If not the body is left in the temple cemetery. When there is no space left, the monk will cremate the bodies.

The monk guards the urns of the unclaimed. He explained how he tells the condemned it is better to die by execution than randomly, because they can prepare their minds for death.

Thai Buddhism holds that the state of mind at the time of death determines your incarnation in the next life.

The monk told us: "Giving last rites to a prisoner is not easy but I have become used to it. I tell him that he is lucky that he knows his destiny and able to clear his conscience, unlike myself.

"If a car hits me right after this, I might not have a chance die with a pure mind. It's a blessing in disguise."

The monk has grown tired of giving last rites to prisoners, but believes his work is important.

He thinks execution is like the king slaying enemies in wars past. Both, he says, are sinful, but done to protect the country and therefore allowed.

He offered us a final warning as he put away the urns.

"I have always believed that people will face the consequences of their actions. Even if you do not get caught, eventually your karma will catch up with you."

The Real Bangkok Hilton was broadcast on Thursday, 22 July, 2004, at 2100 BST on BBC Two in the UK.

The Real Bangkok Hilton
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20 Jul 04 |  This World

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