Death Penalty and ASEAN Sovereignty

ASEAN is very serious in tackling drugs problem.

Following execution of eight drugs dealers in Indonesia (29/04/15), the world again put their attention on South East Asia, and how death penalty still prevail in this region. Among ten ASEAN members, only two countries have officially removed capital punishment from their law. Cambodia and Philippines abolished death penalty for all crimes in 1989 and 2006 respectively. Brunei Darussalam, Laos and Myanmar are de facto abolitionists since they haven’t carried out any executions for decades. Still, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand remain retentionists of death penalty with executions method ranged from hanging, firing squad, to lethal injection.

International pressure on ASEAN countries to abolish its so-called barbaric death executions had been consistently occured. Seems like it becomes regular headline every few years when one of ASEAN countries is about to execute their death-accused convicts, notably when it involved foreigners. Nevertheless, death penalty opposition activism also sparked within the region, especially from retentionist ASEAN countries. Thailand activists and experts had called for end to death penalty in regional seminar Thammasat University in Bangkok (12/12/2012). Recently, during ASEAN People’s Forum 2015 in Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia (24/04/2015), civil society organisations from ASEAN countries gathered and urged governments to cease death penalty practice.

It is true that global trend shows positive favor toward capital punishment abolition. South East Asia is, arguably, one of the regions with eminent death execution rate. Singapore is in fact had the second highest per-capita execution rate in the world between 1994 and 1999. In Malaysia, there was an estimated 992 people on death row by the end of 2013. While in Indonesia, there are about ten new death sentences imposed annually.

Even though many other countries still enforce capital punishment, including US and Japan, South East Asia is continually becoming an object of condemnation regarding death sentence. The raised issue is allegedly associated with its adjudgement on drug trafficking crimes, which are seen by the condemning countries as, probably, not that dreadful to deserve life-repealing sentence.

However, ASEAN retentionists do have their own considerations of applying harsh punishment toward drug traffickers. Illicit drug trade is indeed an intensely serious issue in this region. Currently, Golden Triangle between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand remains producer of a quarter of the world’s heroin. Drug gangs, drug-related diseases and drug-influenced violence have harmed the regions’ young generation and overall society. Showing this strong intention to combat narcotic drugs’ abuse, the ASEAN leaders even signed joint declaration for a drug-free ASEAN in 1998.

ASEAN is very serious in tackling drugs problem.
ASEAN is very serious in tackling drugs problem.

This firm attitude toward drug abuse crimes has actually ignited salute expression. U.S. presidential candidate Newt Gingrich once praised Singapore for its ‘very draconian’ rules toward drug crimes. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg even stated that U.S. could learn from Singapore’s harsh drug laws.

Nevertheless, pressure to remove death penalty is generally increasing. Some ASEAN countries have responded to this by steadily reduce the scale of death penalty strictness. Vietnam, for instance, have changed the execution method from firing squad into lethal injection in 2011, with consideration of ‘more humane’ approach. In 2013, Singapore has removed the mandatory death penalty for special drug cases.

Despite all the continuing pressure and condemnation, apparently it’s not a prominent agenda for ASEAN countries to fully abolish death penalty. As Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia stated regarding his rejection to Australia clemency petition, his country is in the drugs-emergency state that the government should take assertive move to combat it.

Eventually, every country has its own considerations of applying its current law. There are philosophical and sociological circumstance differences that underlie law enforcement in different countries. ASEAN governments are, of course, possess their own right and sovereignty to enforce law that is considered most effective to their own situation. And this sovereignty, by all means, should be protected and not threatened by any external power.

Written at 30 April 2015 for The Diplomat…but not published I guess :p


  1. Well written article and analytic nice!

    btw, from my view, I’m disagree with death sentence though, even it’s seems to be so harsh and pointed to scare the other about how wrong drugs is, but life sentenced prison seems to be fair to me. More humane approach, also it gave deterrent effect which more painful in a other way, to live in prison for their life.

    1. hi graha!
      well yeah discussing pro vs contra of death penalty is such a lifelong debate haha but anyway thanks for dropping your view! 😉

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *