THAILAND - Thailand is falling behind its neighbours when it comes to abolition of the death penalty, activists and experts said at a seminar yesterday.
The event, organised by the Union for Civil Liberty with support from the European Union, the French Embassy and others, brought together participants from across Southeast Asia to Thammasat University in Bangkok. There was talk of progress made in the region and a call for Thailand to speed up the abolition of the death penalty.
"We sincerely urge Thailand to take the lead" in abolishing the death penalty in the region, said Debbie Stothard, deputy secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Two countries in the region, the Philippines and Cambodia, no longer have the death penalty, she said.
In Southeast Asia, Thailand's death-row population is second to that of Malaysia, where about 900 prisoners are awaiting execution.
In Thailand, the number of inmates on death row is around 600 - about half of them drug-trafficking convicts, according to Amnesty International Thailand.
Singapore was named by Amnesty International in 2004 as the country with the highest per-capita ratio of death-row prisoners, but their numbers have since been markedly reduced with far fewer executions in recent years, said Mabasamy Ravi, a lawyer and death-penalty opponent from Singapore.
In Vietnam, which like Thailand still retains the death penalty, the right to life is increasingly viewed as important by Vietnamese authorities, said academic Ngo Ming Huong.
Thailand last executed two inmates in 2009, said Pol Colonel Aeknarat Sawettanand, director-general of the Department of Rights and Liberty Protection. He reported that department will engage in two phases of work in order to gain more knowledge from abroad and in Thailand and enable the public to better understand and be sensitised to the fact that death penalty doesn't help reduce severe crimes.
Aeknarat said many Thais are still in the mindset of revenge and retribution, which poses a hurdle in trying to convince them that it is against human rights standards to retain the death penalty. Back in the 1960s, said Aeknarat, prime minister Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat used Penal Code Article 17 to summarily execute arson suspects. Many Thais thought it was swift justice.
"I think times have changed," said Aeknarat. Besides growing opposition to the death penalty by some Thais and acceptance that death penalty is against human rights by the Justice Ministry, the Royal Thai Police have also increasingly recognised that forced disappearances and torture under interrogation are no longer acceptable, said Aeknarat.
However, the director-general admitted that Thai society is "addicted to violence" as reflected in the popularity of gruesome photos splashed on newspapers' front pages. "The mass media breed revenge and retribution," he said, adding that what Thailand needs is rehabilitation of people who commit crimes so they can become productive citizens.
Ultimately, it's up to Parliament to end the death penalty, Aeknarat said.