When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra swept to victory here in January, he said his government would focus on three main areas: rooting out corruption, saving the beleaguered economy, and combating drugs with increased vigor.
The public and pundits may dispute his intentions, let alone his success with the first two goals. But there is no arguing that he is fulfilling his promise to hit hard on drug criminals.
Thailand's escalation in its war on drugs was most evident on April 18, when it executed four convicted drug traffickers at the Bangkwang Maximum Security Prison in Bangkok. Two of those executed were foreigners - a Hong Kong national and a Taiwan national. One week before, the government went ahead with its first execution since it came to power, and the first of a drug offender in years.
But not only were the latest executions carried out by firing squad, one after the other, the news media was invited to cover the prisoners' last moments, after they were informed at 4 p.m. that they were to be executed just one hour later. Reporters were not present at the execution, but pictures of the convicts eating their last meals and kissing the earth filled television reports that evening and newspapers the next day.
"Right now, in China and Malaysia, they do the same thing," Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Thammarak Isurangura told the Monitor in a statement explaining why the media was invited. "We need to have the population be afraid of committing offenses such as these, and be submissive to the law."
Strong public support
Indeed, in contrast to weakening support in the United States for the death penalty, the latest poll taken by the Rajjapatra Institute in Bangkok showed that 88.4 percent of Thais support capital punishment. In a 2000 Harris poll, 64 percent of Americans approved, versus 75 percent in 1997.
Currently, seven drug traffickers are on death row at Bangkwang and 180 other convicted drug criminals have been sentenced to die, but have not yet exhausted their appeals. A total of 318 inmates, 288 men and 30 women, are on death row for various crimes.
According to Chartchai Suthiklom, the deputy secretary general of the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), capital punishment is a useful tool in their war, and is a punishment that fits the crime. "The punishment is quite high, but is meant for the big-timers, and it's not only Thailand that has execution," Mr. Chartchai says. "The method of punishment must actually punish the perpetrator, and if you look at drug criminals, they are worse than murderers. Murderers kill one person, a drug dealer kills 1,000, and kills the future of the country as well, so why not give them the highest punishment?"
Although cultivation of drugs such as opium and marijuana, and the production of heroin and methamphetamines, has decreased considerably here due to highly successful crop eradication programs, Thailand still finds itself a major transit hub of illicit narcotics.
As part of the "Golden Triangle," the flow of drugs into Thailand from neighboring Burma, and to a lesser extent, Laos and Cambodia, is still rampant, and is now the main target of Thailand's counter-narcotics operations. While figures on the quantity of narcotics being smuggled through Thailand are difficult to estimate, several seizures - each consisting of dozens of kilograms of heroin and millions of methamphetamine pills over the last year - indicate the drug trade here is alive and kicking.
While many of the drugs flowing through Thailand eventually find their way out of the country, drug use among Thais continues to rise, and is used by the government as further justification for the hard line on drug traffickers.
According to the ONCB, there are now 300,000 Thais addicted to drugs, and 2 million casual users, in a country of 66 million. Moreover, they are not using "softer" drugs like marijuana - the most frequently consumed drug is the highly addictive stimulant, methamphetamine. This, Chartchai says, signifies the need to do "whatever it takes" to fight those who are bringing drugs into the country.
Rising prison population
And the results are clear. According to the ONCB, in 1992, Thailand had a total prison population of 54,955, of which just under one-fourth were incarcerated for drug crimes. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the prison population had risen to 115,079, 50 percent of whom were incarcerated for drug crimes.
While the executions met with approval from the general public, the government - and the prime minister in particular - received condemnation from international nongovernmental groups for both extending the death penalty to drug criminals and foreigners, and creating the spectacle to drive home the point.
"By using execution, you just take one life, and that doesn't mean that it's going to solve the problems of poverty and lack of education that contribute to the drug problem in the first place. People still won't understand how bad the problem is," says Saovanee Limmanont, executive director of Amnesty International Thailand.
"I agree with [Prime Minister] Thaksin when he said there must be some fight against the drug problem," adds Ms. Saovanee. "But not the death penalty - that's not the answer. The other thing is that using those executions, making a spectacle of it to the public, is not fair to the family of the inmates. They shouldn't use execution as a PR tool."
Whether it was international pressure, or Thai uneasiness over the media hype, something about the way in which the April 18 executions were carried out has led to a reversal on the media-coverage policy. When the next execution takes place, the media will not be there as witnesses. Some speculate that perhaps the identity of the next person on death row had something to do with it: What would public reaction be to the coverage of a woman's last hours?
According to Thammarak, the reasoning behind the reversal is that the point the government wished to make - that drug traffickers will be dealt with harshly - has been sufficiently made.
But while the point may have been made to the public, prisoners should not expect any show of mercy. "There are no exceptions to the law.... The judge can make a decision [on sentencing] and we must accept his decision once he does," Chartchai says. "Everyone is equal when you commit a crime in this country.... Otherwise, [criminals] will think Thailand is a haven for committing crime."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor