In her seven years as an anti-death penalty activist, Rachel Zeng had never seen a judge sentence a prisoner to death, and when it finally happened, last April in Singapore, she felt like her heart might break. "You shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead," the judge told the 26-year-old murder convict. Zeng couldn't sleep for days, seeing the "noose already halfway on his neck."
It might sound like business as usual in Southeast Asia, a region with a sorry track record in human rights, and Zeng might come off as a quixotic figure, trying to dismantle the gallows in a country that still bans chewing gum. But it turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that the tiny Asian tigers are now strong contenders in quashing the eye-for-an-eye doctrine for good. Over the past decade, Cambodia, East Timor and the Philippines have all scrapped their firing squads from their statutes. Brunei, Myanmar and Laos have discarded their electric chairs and are de facto abolitionists — no known executions have occurred in those countries for more than two decades. Thailand has an unofficial moratorium in place and hasn't carried out an execution since 2009. All told, just 119 people have been executed across Southeast Asia over the past eight years, according to an OZY analysis of data from Cornell Law School, compared to hundreds more in previous decades.
Now, only Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia remain the last battlegrounds in nixing the death penalty altogether in the region — and already, abolitionists have made inroads. In particular, the tide is turning in Vietnam, where, last month, lawmakers cut back on handing out death penalty sentences for several offenses, including robbery and war crimes, and the longtime practice of death by firing squad was switched to the "more humane" lethal injection method. Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted reductionist policies to shrink their number of executions, especially for drug trafficking. All of this is "unexpectedly promising" for the region as a whole, says Andrew Novak, an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University. The justice ministries in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia did not respond to OZY's requests for interviews or comment.
The trend is not without its detractors, of course. There remains strong support for capital punishment in the region, including for crimes other than murder. Last year, a director of the Vietnam Development Bank was sentenced to death for approving counterfeit loans. The maximum punishment for drug possession in Malaysia is death, as inbound passengers are helpfully reminded on their descent into Kuala Lumpur. And the ravages that drug trafficking, a $16.3 billion business, has inflicted on families throughout the Golden Triangle have buttressed support for the death penalty. "My cousin died for nothing, for a bag of yaba [methamphetamines], for addicts who'll never know the consequences of their addiction," says Terrapon H., a Bangkok university student who says his cousin died in a drive-by shooting. He requested his last name be withheld.
Yet a global shift away from capital punishment has made a regional impression, says Matilda Bogner from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Bangkok. According to Amnesty International, 2014 saw 22 percent fewer executions than 2013, and more than half of all countries have abolished the death penalty. And back in April, Indonesia's eight high-profile executions put Southeast Asia back on the radar for anti-death penalty advocates and human rights lawyers worldwide. So despite hard-liner Jakarta, the abolitionist movement didn't fail. Rather, it "reenergized" and "inflamed" the campaign, says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
However, some activists say they still have a long trail ahead. Indonesia and Singapore are especially hard nuts to crack, says Priscilla Chia, the 23-year-old director of youth-led Second Chances in Southeast Asia. There's a "lacuna of information available" from these countries about the legal process, the application of the death sentence and the exact means in which the execution is carried out. In Singapore, she explains, the only people allowed at each execution are the warden, the executioner and the doctor. Who knows what goes on behind those closed curtains?