Sunday, May 29, 2005


Early in the afternoon yesterday, I was rather lazily browsing through channels on the television when I chanced upon this program on BBC World. It provided an inside-look into a high-security prison at Thailand that was pretty notorious for mistreatment of prisoners.

Apparently, Thailand is in the grip of a very major drug problem. It was earlier a conduit for smuggling to Europe and the US, but now its own population has taken to drugs at a shocking rate. And there are a whole lot of drug-peddlers involved in this. So the government has come up with stringent measures to tackle this problem. People convicted for smuggling/peddling drugs may be sentenced to 25yrs, life or may even be sentenced to death. To make the death sentence more of a deterrent, the execution is telecast live on Thailand TV. (This is especially unimaginable because till 2003, executions were carried out using a machine gun – now they’ve switched to lethal injection.)

The jail’s Buddhist monk defended the harsh punishment meted out to drug-criminals thus. A person who is involved in drug trafficking ends the lives of many people – and hence he/she is akin to a person who has committed multiple murders. Apparently, this argument resonates with the street sentiment.

I enjoyed the program for the thoughts it raised in me. I’ll try and explain each of them below.

1.An interesting aspect of the program was its focus on foreign nationals in the high-security prison. Africans apparently are rendered little help by their governments, while the Europeans and Americans are a lot better off. A British inmate made an interesting comparison. American inmates need to serve only 8 years, after which according to a prisoner-exchange treaty between US & Thailand, they are shifted to American jails – from where they are released in 2-3 months. He went on to say Germans and some other Europeans had to similarly spend around 10yrs (8+2) in jail - but not so for English inmates. This he termed as unfair. I find this logic rather abhorrent. Quite a few native Thais are forced to take to this trade because of poverty. Incidentally, the program showcased a Thai– some 40-50 yr old – who said he had been pushed to a corner by poverty and had taken to drug-peddling though he had resisted doing so all his life. The program also featured a European prisoner in his early 20s who smuggled drugs into Thailand in order to fund his trip (his second vacation to Thailand). I believe in the case of Thais driven to such crimes by poverty, the society is partly responsible for the crime. And hence why should foreigners who do this be let off any easier?

2.Quite a few inmates complained about the high number of years they’ve been sentenced to. The Thai inmate I mentioned above repeatedly said that he should be given a second chance. But herein lies the dilemma for the authorities – The punishment has to be severe enough to deter the youth from taking to such crimes, even while it shouldn’t be inhuman to the ones who are punished. But how does one achieve that balance?

3. The timing of today’s episode was rather significant – especially since it seems to be a re-telecast having being produced in July 2004. Just this week, an Australian tourist was sentenced to 25yrs for smuggling drugs by a Bali court in Indonesia. Australian public is up in arms. I confess I haven’t tracked the trial details – but it looks like the media in Australia has played a crucial role in whipping up sentiments along with some rightist political parties. Now, some Aussies are even calling for a tourist-boycott of Bali – which depends on Aussie tourism to recover from the terrorist bombings (that rather ironically killed a whole lot of Aussies). Prima facie, the case smacks of Aussie racism coupled with a possibly bungled investigation.

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