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The BBC's Jonathan Head
"There has to be another less cruel way of fighting crime"
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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
Eyewitness: Thailand's public executions
Chu Chin Kuay from Taiwan
Chu Chin Kuay from Taiwan was one of those executed
Jonathan Head in Bangkok reflects on the harrowing experience of watching public executions

The government in Thailand says it plans to hold more publicised executions in its efforts to control rising crime rates.

On Wednesday, the media was summoned to Bangkok's toughest prison to watch the last moments of five condemned men, before they were shot by firing squad.

Thai PM
Thaksin Shinawatra: Wants to send deterrent message

It was a hastily arranged press event, more than 50 journalists, ministers and officials were herded through security, to witness what the government was describing as a lesson to drug dealers.

Suranit Chaungyampin, advisor to the prime minister's office, said it was being done for psychological reasons.

The condemned men had not even been told that they were to die that afternoon - they were given just two hours notice.

"It's psychological - to let other people see that we are serious, that we are not kidding. The next people who think of doing drugs will have to think of the consequences."

What we didn't know then, was that the condemned men had not even been told that they were to die that afternoon - they were given just two hours' notice.

Popular sentiment

There was no chance for last minute contact with their families, no chance of a special last meal. Instead, they spent their last minutes praying, and being paraded in front of the media.

They were led in three groups past us, their legs in chains, towards the special pavilion where they would face a firing squad.

Four were convicted drug smugglers - two from Thailand, one from Hong Kong, one from Taiwan - the last man, a Thai Muslim, had been sentenced for masterminding a murder.

Burmese drug factory village
The drugs are made in factories in Burma
Two of the men were clearly under great emotional stress. It was a disturbing spectacle.

Even one of the officials there, Somboon Prasopnetr, a deputy director-general in the Department of Corrections, felt uncomfortable about this draconian deterrent.

"I think in the short run they deserve to be executed if they are drug traffickers, but in the long run I'm not sure. Execution cannot stop crime, crime occurs for many reasons. As a criminologist I don't agree, but as an official I have to do according to the law."

But the new prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is well-tuned to popular sentiment in Thailand.

Lee Yuan Kuang from Hong Kong
Lee Yuan Kuang from Hong Kong pictured in prison
Addiction to some drugs is almost at epidemic levels, and most Thais appear to want the government to take a much tougher approach to crime.

"In Thailand the law system is way too weak. It doesn't have authority, real power, to force people. People think they can get away with what they did," one woman tells me.

Another man admits that executing criminals in public runs against the country's Buddhist philosophy - but with so much crime around, he thinks it's probably necessary.

Frightened geese

We were allowed to follow the last prisoner to the place of execution.

As the sun set, he said his final prayers, surrounded by flashing cameras and bored-looking officials.

Then he was led into a room, blind-folded, and seated behind a black curtain, with a white, circular target painted on it. The door was closed.

His final moments were accompanied by the sound of frightened prison geese.

It may be that the front-page coverage of these executions does deter some would-be drug dealers.

But the spectacle left me and many of my colleagues there with the feeling that there had to be another, less cruel way of fighting crime.

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See also:

20 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai executions condemned
13 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thailand battles drug factories menace
08 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai students in grip of 'crazy drug'
11 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thailand presses Burma on drug city
13 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thailand's tough drugs message
15 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Aids explodes on trafficking routes
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