Chavoret Jaruboon’s memoirs in English and Thai
Up until 1934, the official method of execution in Thailand was by decapitating (see The Last Public Beheading). This was then considered to be barbaric and the method was changed. Over a period of 71 years, a total of 319 prisoners were then executed in Thailand by firing squad. Despite its name, this form of execution wasn’t carried out by a line of men carrying rifles. In Thailand, a single sub-machine gun was used from a distance of about four metres. A total of 15 bullets were loaded though only about 8 or so were needed from a single burst. The last execution by this method was carried out as late as 11th December 2002. The last executioner to use this method in Thailand was Chavoret Jaruboon. An English version of his autobiography called “The Last Executioner” has recently been published by Maverick House and is already on the bestseller list. I was pleased to receive a copy of this book from the publisher in order to write a review for thai-blogs.com. Recently I have read a number of prison books set in Thailand and it was certainly interesting for me to read a different side of the story from this unique perspective. Most books are written by former foreign prisoners. This is the first book I have seen that is written by a Thai prison guard.
Chavoret Jaruboon was born in 1948 in a poor neighbourhood of Bangkok. His mother was a Muslim and his father a Buddhist. Their marriage didn’t work and he was brought up by his father. As a boy, he wanted to be a teacher like his father. However, he left school early to pursue his interest in music. He travelled the country playing bass guitar in a rock band. Most of his audiences were American servicemen who were in Thailand at that time for a bit of R&R during the Vietnam War. This was where he perfected his English which proved useful later in his life when he became head of the Foreign Affairs Section at Bang Kwang Prison. Chavoret said he had great fun with the Americans who taught him how to curse fluently in English. Many of them became good friends and introduced him to the latest songs from America. As a band member, he was earning good money which he naturally spent on the latest fashions and entertaining ladies. He admitted that he lost his virginity here to a bar girl. Unlike his Western counterparts, he made sure that he sent money home regularly to his father. As a result he had no savings of his own.
All good things come to an end and he soon found himself back in Bangkok. At the age of twenty one, he was called up for compulsory military service for two years. He joined the air force and was stationed not too far away at a base in Nakhon Pathom. This allowed him to return to Bangkok every weekend. His girlfriend, Tew, from his rock band days, had moved into the family home to help look after his elderly father. Chavoret admits that he was a bit ahead of his time as they lived together first before they got married. In fact, they didn’t register their marriage until after the birth of their second son. His military years weren’t enjoyable though he did find the paramedic course interesting. Whilst he was in the air force, his father died suddenly one day. It was only then that he realized how popular and loved his father was by his former students which included the governor of Ubon Ratchathani. After his graduation in 1971, he tried unsuccessfully to put together another band. However, with the Americans now gone there wasn’t so much of a demand for rock bands or Elvis impersonators. After a brief stint working as an interpreter for a bad-tempered farang, he found himself back in Bangkok as an un-employed youth. It was then that his cousin suggested to him that he should apply for the job as a prison guard. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The executioner as a cowboy
“The Last Executioner” is not all about the carrying out of the death sentence in Thailand. Chavoret has also written about life in Bang Kwang Prison both for the prisoners and guards. He describes how they are only given a budget of 27 baht per day to feed the prisoners. Many of them have to supplement this by buying extra food. Prisoners with no money to buy food can only survive by doing odd jobs for the wealthier prisoners. The guards themselves were poorly paid and often looked for a way to earn extra money. Chavoret admits that some of his fellow guards were corrupt and acted as couriers for the prisoners bringing them drugs and other illicit items. One guard in particular is worthy of mention. His name is Prauth Sanun and he was on the execution team with Chavoret. On occasion he too had pulled the trigger to execute a drug dealer. You would think that he of all people would know and understand the consequences of selling drugs. However, he was later arrested in a police sting carrying 700,000 amphetamine pills. He is now on death row not knowing which day will be his last. Death penalty advocates maintain that capital punishment is needed as a deterrent against heinous crimes. Obviously they need to study this case.
For myself I am strongly against the death penalty for any crime. My main concern is that an innocent person could be executed. In the not too distant past, there have been summary executions of prisoners in Thailand who didn’t have proper time to defend themselves nor launch an appeal. Even Chavoret himself admitted that there was a chance that a prisoner could have been innocent, though he chose not to become personally involved with any of his victims until after he had carried out the sentence. He believed in “an eye for an eye” and although he said the death penalty wasn’t perfect, it was the best they had in the absence of an alternative. Although it is considered a sin for a Buddhist to kill someone, they also believed in karma. This is their past misdeeds catching up with them. Some Buddhists also believe that you are fortunate to know the time of your death. If you are prepared for it and are of a positive mind when you die, then you will be born into a better place in your next life. Obviously, prisoners on Death Row would disagree. The following testament is written by someone who was on Death Row for a while. As he is still in Bang Kwang he wishes to remain anonymous.
“Most times we did not know when they were coming. Sometimes they would lock us down early but would use an excuse like important visitors were coming into the building. They would tell us that we had nothing to fear and that we should remain calm. They would always come at 4:30 p.m. and the sound of the steel bars and chains being unlocked and removed from the door would strike fear and terror into the hearts of every man on the Row. The trouble was that those men who had exhausted all possible avenues of reprieve and were on the ‘Blacklist’ were spread equally amongst each of the 20 or 50 cells. There were usually 3 – 4 blacklisted guys in each cell so of course when we would hear the block door being unlocked the entire block would fall into a fearful silence. Even those guys who knew it wasn’t their time would be overwhelmed with fear because of the hysteria generated. Fear is infectious and each time was mental torture because we all knew that some day it would be our turn. The group of five or six Special Officers would walk slowly up the aisle until they reached the cell that contained the guy whose god had finally called him. There would be a kind of vacuum in the block where every condemned man had breathed in and failed to exhale again. We could all, every last one of us; hear our own hearts beating so loudly in our chests that it was deafening. The man would be called to the cell door, handcuffed then led away to oblivion. You could cut the relief with a knife but what a terrible relief. Another of us had gone forever. I saw 21 men go this way during my time on Death Row. Every last one of them walked calmly and silently to their fate. In their heads and hearts they were already dead.”
Chavoret wasn’t always an executioner. One of his first jobs at the prison was as an escort for the condemned. This is his version of this same event from the point of view of the guard: “Being an escort can be a tricky business. It’s probably one of the most emotional roles in the whole process of execution because you personally pick up the prisoner from his cell. In other words, you are death’s messenger. Then you can end up spending a lot of time with the prisoner before he dies. When it is time the escort brings the condemned into the execution room and ties him to the cross. After the prisoner has been confirmed dead by the doctor, it is the escort who unties him and lays him down on the floor. Even the executioner does not have to see the body after he has done the job.” From the execution room, there is a side door that is used to take the body out to a temple and crematorium which is conveniently located next door. Surprisingly, all executions in Thailand are carried out by this same team. If the prisoners are unable to come to Bangkok, then the Bang Kwang crew have been known to go on road trips with their machine gun and wooden cross.