The Death Penalty and a Deadly Drug War

 | Thu 10 Oct 2013 15:14 ICT

CityNews – Today on ‘World Day against the Death Penalty’ Day, Thailand remains a retentionist country where the death penalty is concerned.

Even though by 2012, approximately 120 countries had abolished the death penalty, it is reported that 1,722 people were sentenced to death around the world that year. The majority of executions took place in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and the USA. The numbers of executions in China are not available, although Amnesty International has it somewhere in the thousands each year, much higher than any other country.

Fifty-six people were sentenced to death in Thailand between 2007-2012.The last known execution that took place in Thailand was in 2009 when two prisoners Bundit Charoenwanich and Jirawat Phumpruekwere were given a lethal injection for drug trafficking, then the first executions for six years. Four people were executed in 2003, which was the year Thailand changed its execution modus operandi from firing squad to lethal injection. Prior to 1934, beheading was the chosen form of execution. Although foreigners have been sentenced to death in Thailand – mostly for drugs – their sentences are almost always reduced.

According to Thai prison statistics at the end of 2012 there were a total of 247,000+ people imprisoned in Thailand. Only a very small percentage of those convicted were foreign, and of the foreigners most were from neighbouring Burma, Laos and Cambodia. More than 60% of inmates are in jail for breaking narcotics laws, while relatively few inmates are serving time for violent crimes, sex offences, or endangering people’s lives.

The latest statistics according to The Department of Corrections shows that 627 men and 81 women are currently on death row in Thailand, of which 281 and 68 men and women were sentenced to death for drug crimes. 

In Thailand drug offences still receive very harsh sentences, even though the vast majority of cases involve drug mules, and not suppliers. It’s also reported that Thailand is an international hub for drug traffickers and that much of the world’s methamphetamine and heroin is trafficked out of Thailand. In a 2013 article in The Guardian stated how drug use and drug trafficking in Thailand is currently “spiraling”, and that something close to 1 in 60 Thais are thought to be a methamphetamine user.

The article also stated that while heroin is largely associated with Afghanistan, Thailand is still the world’s second largest producer of opium. Only last week CityNews reported the arrest of drug mules in Chiang Rai carrying millions of dollars worth of heroin and methamphetamine. The methamphetamine trade alone is reported to be worth an estimated 8.5 billion dollars.

The government frequently approves large budgets to fight the war on drugs, which often leads to arrests of drug mules, but if we look at statistics doesn’t actually make a dent on how many drugs are taken in Thailand, or shipped outside of the country. The UN states that around 1.4 billion yaba pills are made in the Golden Triangle each year, and in spite of the occasional crackdown, there seems to be no shortage of factories, nor a shortage of poor mules, and a growing number of customers – in 2012, 7,000 children under the age of 17 went through rehabilitation programmes for methamphetamine abuse in Thailand, according the Health Ministry.

A Thai navy captain in the Guardian article explained how it’s easy to move drugs in and out of Thailand, making these one off busts where sometimes mules are shot dead, not much of a victory in the war. “Bribes are so easy you could make millions on this border if you wanted to,” the navy captain told the Guardian referring to drugs spilling over Thai borders. If anything it’s an ongoing war of attrition, a war let us not forget that wins the public’s hearts and minds, delivers men of honour to elevated well-paying positions, and feeds scavengers, while also locking up the odd expendable kid or his mother.

The fact that Thailand is an international tourist hub, and has flight routes worldwide; the fact officials can reportedly be bribed at borders, and the fact that Burma and Thailand are awash with a growing number (according to Bangkok Post in 2012) of opium fields and methamphetamine factories capable of producing enough drugs to make millionaires of anyone with the nerve to branch-out, is evidence enough that the war on drugs will be long and arduous…and unwinnable.

This week a 54 year woman was arrested in Chiang Rai on a drug delivery. 100,000 baht is a tidy inducement when many people in northern Thailand subsist on very meager wages. The arresting policemen stood around her proudly in the press photo. A question we have to ask, a question the Thai government needs to ask, is what good does the tragedy of her incarceration do anyone, besides perhaps meet statistical demands, give someone some pocket money, and meet the agenda of politicians whose will to win, and whose remoteness to these people and their problems is staggering. 

These mules are of an unlimited stock due to the economic inequities inherent in the system. It also seems the drugs are of an unlimited stock. It was widely reported in October 2013 how drugs on a global scale were now cheaper, purer, and more widely available despite wars on drugs lasting up to 30 years. Drug taking is a human predisposition that’s been with us since Neanderthals got pissed on sour grapes and old bananas. 

Every day this war goes on is another day of inhumanity in Thailand. A symbol of the very rational, and unreasonable process of the human desire to get ahead of the other guy, and a result of the public’s blind apathy and ignorance in view of their own anti-drug stance which, no doubt, will come back and kick them in the teeth.  We can’t win a war on drugs, because we are fighting our own demons. The best we can hope for is peace, for non-action, for a quelling of our desires and the need to get out of our heads. But then peace is not profitable.


James Austin Farrell