Thai Junta Floats Death Penalty for Corrupt Officials

Thailand's National Reform Steering Committee proposed the lethal injection for public officials convicted of stealing more than 1 billion baht—or about $28 million USD.

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Jan 18 2017, 8:45am

Photo by Flickr user Sippanont Samchai

Thailand's ruling military junta has proposed the death penalty for corrupt public officials convicted of stealing more than 1 billion baht (Rp 377 billion) in a move that has some analysts wondering whether the threat of a lethal injection will be used to silence critics of the government. 

"Different countries in the region, like Malaysia, Cambodia, and India, have seen laws countering corruption used as a political tool," said John Samuel, the executive director of the regional NGO Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA). "In Thailand, this law, if implemented, could easily be used to repress the opposition."

The military seized control from then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, arguing that widespread corruption made the coup necessary. The junta said it had to "take over and root it out" and in the following years new Prime Minister Prayauth Chan-ocha—the former commander of the Royal Thai Army—announced plans to eliminate corruption from Thailand in two decades' time. 

In October of last year, the junta opened the country's first anti-corruption court. The National Reform Steering Committee has now upped the ante, approving on 9 Jan. a plan to use the lethal injection as punishment in the worst corruption cases. The proposal now has to go before the parliament, and then junta's constitutional committee before it could be passed as law. 

Under the proposed law, public officials convicted of stealing less than 1 billion baht face up to five years in prison. Those convicted of stealing more could face death. It's a harsh approach that has left some wondering if this is just a publicity stunt meant to engender good will for the military junta. 

"Nothing else has worked, so why not establish a law that puts the worst fear into the hearts of corrupt officials?"—Thanyatahn Phonsatha

Thailand ranks poorly on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index. The country ranked 76th out of 168 countries listed in descending order from least corrupt (Denmark) to most (Somalia). Indonesia faired far worse on the list, ranking 88th alongside Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Peru, and Suriname, and has proposed similar measures in the past. 

University student Thanyatahn Phonsatha told VICE Indonesia that the proposed law was the only way to end corruption in Thailand. 

"I think a law like this works," Thanyatahn said. "Finally this is something that will have enough impact to keep corrupt officials from going down that path. Nothing else has worked, so why not establish a law that puts the worst fear into the hearts of corrupt officials?"

The country hasn't executed anyone since 2009, but recent high-profile crimes—like the stabbing death of a man for his iPhone 7—have restarted the debate on capital punishment in general. Still, some doubt the threat of death would have a measurable impact on corruption in Thailand.  

"Corruption laws are very important and essential for a healthy democracy," Samuel said. "[But] if the law is introduced, it will further worsen the human rights record in Thailand, and likely raise more concerns among the international community and undermine the legitimacy of the NCOP [junta]."

Caleb Quinley is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow him at @calebquinley.

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