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Drugs and the death penalty in Southeast Asia

Drugs and the death penalty in Southeast Asia
Published 23 Jan 2015   Follow @elliotbrennan

Every few years, Southeast Asian countries make headlines for their capital punishment practices, and invariably these headlines come when foreigners are sentenced.

On Thursday, Andrew Chan, an Australian accused of drug trafficking in Indonesia, lost his appeal for presidential clemency. He is one of two Australians (the other, Myuran Sukumaran, lost his appeal in December) who will be executed by firing squad.

Under the new Indonesian president, this year has already seen six convicted drug traffickers executed. Among those executed were citizens from Brazil, Vietnam, The Netherlands, and Nigeria. These executions have, once again, brought Indonesia's death penalty into the international spotlight.

Human Rights Watch has called out Indonesia's double standards. While Indonesia carries out the death penalty on drug traffickers, Jakarta has since 2010 lobbied Saudi Arabia to pardon one of its citizens on death row for murder. With thousands of Southeast Asians working in Saudi Arabia (many often in precarious employment positions), it is not uncommon for migrant labourers to face capital punishment. Most recently, the beheading of a Myanmar citizen in Mecca earlier this month caused uproar when a video circulated of the woman pleading her innocence moments before the sentence was carried out.

The persistent work to highlight such cases, particularly by NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, has contributed to gains made in some Southeast Asian countries to abolish the death penalty.

In January last year Myanmar commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment. There have been no known executions in the Myanmar since 1989, nor in Laos since that time. Thailand has not carried out capital punishment since 1988. In effect these states are what Cornell University's Death Penalty Worldwide database describe as 'abolitionist de facto'. The Philippines, East Timor and Cambodia have abolished capital punishment entirely. Brunei hasn't carried out any known executions since 1957 (though with the enactment of the first wave of hudud law last year, that tide may turn).

Yet capital punishment is still practiced in Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Most controversially, all these countries permit the death penalty for drug trafficking. [fold]

In a mass trial last year, Vietnam's highest court upheld the death sentence for 29 drug traffickers. In 2005, Singapore executed Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen for drug trafficking. Most recently, two Singaporeans were executed for the trafficking of pure heroin in July last year. In Malaysia, drug traffickers are among the 900 currently on death row. In Indonesia, of the 133 people on death row in 2012, more than half (71) were there for drug trafficking.

While the influence of powerful religious conservative groups is certainly a factor in the maintenance of capital punishment in Indonesia and Malaysia (just as it is in the US), a more holistic analysis of why the death penalty continues in Southeast Asia must place greater weight on the damage done by narcotics.

The region has a long and troubled history with narcotics. Drug gangs and their huge profits threaten internal security and development. Drug-related diseases such as HIV devastate populations and drug-fueled violence terrorises communities across Southeast Asia. It was against this backdrop that ASEAN set the ambitious (or fanciful) goal of having a drug-free region by 2015. Given recent rates of production, it was a pipedream.

The Golden Triangle still produces a quarter of the world's heroin. According to the UNODC 'almost all the heroin produced in the Southeast Asia is consumed in East Asia and the Pacific'. In 2011 the region consumed 65 tons of pure heroin with a retail sales volume of approximately US$16.3 billion. Crackdowns on heroin production in the Golden Triangle have led to the advent of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), which are easier to produce. In the Greater Mekong subregion some 1.4 billion ATS, known locally as yaba, are consumed annually, with an estimated market value of US$6.5 billion.

From the Golden Triangle, narcotics are then trafficked and consumed through the region. That trade will likely become easier at the end of the year when the ASEAN Community is set to introduce freer movement around the region. This in itself could see a push for stricter application of death penalty laws.

For law enforcement, the trade in narcotics has its upside. Extracting bribes from tourists caught taking drugs is big business. For poorly paid police, such bribes can net thousands of dollars (sometimes a year or more worth of pay). The incentives for them to crack down on drugs are therefore skewed. The threat of capital punishment exerts fear on drug offenders and therefore increases the bribes that can be extracted. Drug kingpins are seldom charged, let alone put to death. Rather it is the lowly traffickers and drug users who suffer the most grievous of punishments.

It is perhaps a strange logic, but abolishing the death penalty will go a long way to improving law enforcement and governance in Southeast Asia, thereby diminishing drug trafficking,  which is the ultimate aim of governments that enforce the death penalty.  If the region is serious about tackling drug trafficking it would be wise to abolish the death penalty. Tackling the scourge of drugs in Southeast Asia means tackling the death penalty.

Photo by Flickr user Brian Jeffrey Beggerly.

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