Knives are out in death penalty row

Knives are out in death penalty row

To execute or not to execute, the question weighed on Thai society in the past week with the force of righteous anger. It is a tough question, one that lays bare the complex intersection of morality, law, religion, belief, value, and even the position of the country on the spectrum along which the international norm is moving.

As usual -- because this is Thailand -- emotion runs high. In fact emotionalism, our favourite national pastime, threatens to derail this useful debate into an online bloodbath where knives are drawn (virtually) and verbal savagery prevails. Bring me the head of Amnesty International! Why don't you adopt the evil murderer and take him home if you care so much about his rights! What about the victim's rights! Where's my dagger! Where's my guillotine!

Vitriol and curses aside, we should take a deep breath and stick to the issue. Regardless of your view on capital punishment, we can talk about it. We should talk about it with sanity, sensitivity and reason. Thailand is still lurching along in our transitional limbo, caught between the old and the new, the past and the future, between status quo and progress, and the question of whether state execution is necessary in the 21st century is just one of the tricky issues that's testing our legal, cultural and social litmus -- because to move forward there will be more: abortion, for instance, or same-sex marriage, or the legalisation of marijuana, even the fate of the Deep South (mind you, we're still debating if an election is necessary). None of these questions is easy to settle, but we'll only make it harder if we turn every debate into a blood-curdling ego match.

On Monday the Corrections Department executed Theerasak Longji, a 26-year-old convicted murderer, by lethal injection. The news broke, provoking a range of responses, and the following days were giddy with Facebook spats and TV talk sessions. Of course, Amnesty International made its displeasure known and repeated the call for the abolition of capital punishment; it expressed dismay that Thailand had decided to carry out the execution, the first since August 2009, with Theerasak picked out from over 450 death row inmates. The German human rights commission, too, called this "a step backwards and a dreadful signal". Then a small group of protesters in costume showed up at the central prison to rally for the end of the death sentence.

First of all, capital punishment is legitimate. It's written in the law -- it has been there for centuries, from the times of blade to rifle and now poison -- and it remains the dominant ideology in this peaceful nation. In recent online polls conducted this week over 95% of respondents preferred to keep capital punishment, or, in a more academic survey in 2014, only 8% of those sampled would like to abolish the extreme penalty while over 40% wanted to keep it. And though the Justice Department may be urged to give it a thought now that the debate has been renewed, it's unlikely, highly unlikely, that we'll do away with the practice anytime soon.

So the abolitionists are clearly a minority in this country, probably a very small minority, and like all minority voices it should be listened to -- and not hit with such hostility. Internationally, it's different: From the time of the Code of Hammurabi to our present decade, even given those ghastly public executions by the Islamic State, the number of executed convicts has kept falling, not rising, over the years. More countries, not fewer, have abolished the death penalty either in practice or in writing. And it's unlikely countries that have revoked the extreme penalty will reinstate it -- on the contrary, more countries will probably move towards abolition in the coming years.

We do not have to be "like other countries" (though in keeping the death penalty we're like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia anyway). But we lose nothing in considering those facts and ascertaining our position in the direction along which the world is clearly progressing, like we should with many other issues.

Do extreme crimes deserve extreme measures? What's more powerful in this complex dilemma, however, is the emotions and impulses that make us all too human. The inconsolable grief suffered by, say, the family of a murder victim can never be discounted, and a death for a death offers them if not peace then at least closure. That's a human thing to feel. At the same time, there are relatives of murdered victims who oppose the death penalty and campaign for abolition -- that, too, is a human thing to feel, not because they're naïve dreamers who live in a rose-scented utopia, but perhaps because they believe the banality of evil is sometimes invisible, pervasive and cruel.

Put down the knives and let the debate continue.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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