The death penalty can be imposed in Thailand to this day, despite no executions having been carried out for almost a decade due to an unofficial moratorium. The means of execution have varied over the centuries, today lethal injection is the official method, having replaced executions by gun that were used for much of the 20th century.
Before the use of firearms, beheading was a common method and was often carried out in public in a highly ritualised fashion. P A Thompson, an American painter who travelled in southern Siam in the early 19th century, gives us this graphic account of one provincial beheading he witnessed, along with a crowd of some 100 people:
“When the condemned man arrived he was handed over to the monks who spent the morning preaching to him, but he appeared to derive little comfort from their words. When this was over he was allowed to ask for anything that he wanted but he only desired a little rice.
“It is said condemned men are often given opium, but this man had none… they had planted a bamboo with a cross-piece about two feet from the ground. To this the condemned man was led. He sat cross-legged on the ground with his back to the bamboo and his arms, closely pressed against his sides, were tied at the elbows to the cross-piece.
“Then one of the executioners kneeling beside him, filled his ears with clay and gave him lighted joss sticks to hold. At times, also, he appeared to stroke the condemned man’s face almost as though he were trying to mesmerise him, but if such were his object it was of no avail for the joss sticks fell unheeded to the ground. Now the second executioner came out, dressed in red with a red band round his forehead and carrying a sword. He advanced until the condemned man could see him out of the tail of his eye, and there, some twenty yards away on the man’s right hand, he sat upon his heels and appeared to await the moment when he should strike.
“Thereafter the condemned man kept his head turned towards him, looking over his right shoulder. Meanwhile the first executioner had run back and donned the red dress. He now entered the wide ring of spectators directly behind the condemned man, during his stealthy advance he kept always on his left-hand side… and then raising his hands to heaven he took his sword – a long slightly curved blade broadening towards the point with a thick heavy back and edge keen as a razor.
“He danced out with half a dozen prancing steps on tiptoe and stopped with one foot in the air. His sword was held above his head, one hand grasping the handle and the other fingering the point, so in a series of little rushes varied by extraordinary posturing and twirling his sword, he crept nearer and nearer to his unsuspecting victim, amidst a silence that was painful. At the end his movements were so rapid that we could scarcely follow them. He was well out of striking distance when there came a quick rush, a circle of light in the air and a sudden jet of crimson. He had not paused for the fraction of a second to take aim, but the head was severed with that single blow… then the body was laid in a grave already dug near by while the head was stuck upon a pole and left as a warning to other evil doers.”
Adapted from ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’. Available at bookshops and www.historyofphuket.com