Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Thai Buddhist Perspective on the Death Penalty

On Monday 30th June the first of a series of seminars on religious perspectives on the death penalty was held in Wat Suan Dok, a campus of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, Chiangmai. 34 monks participated and several civilians. There follows a summary of the discussions.

  1. All speakers recognized that capital punishment contravened the basic Buddhist prohibition against killing, ‘even of a mosquito’ in the words of one speaker.

“The death penalty is a concept that humans have created”

“If we wish to promote Buddhism, and are Buddhists, we should abolish the death penalty to follow the Buddha.”

  1. The punishment of criminal offences is considered the responsibility of civil authorities, and therefore ‘political’. As political matters were considered to be strictly outside the sphere of interest of Buddhist monks, the issue of the death penalty was avoided. One speaker recalled an old prohibition by which a monk could not walk in an area where executions were carried out but must detour to avoid any incursion into such a civic location. This attitude throws light on the apparent indifference of Thai monks to the death penalty which is so at variance with their beliefs. (There also appeared little sympathy among Thai monks for the ‘political’ involvement of their compatriots in Burma. A prominent Vietnamese monk remarked to me once his incomprehension of the lack of involvement of Thai monks in social issues. The interest of the speakers at the seminar in the death penalty may be a relic of a now forgotten militancy of monks in the northern region)
  2. However, Buddhism places a high value on repentance and reform of life. Pivotal to this attitude is the lesson conveyed in the story of Angulimala, the criminal who had killed 999 people before attempting to kill his own mother and the Buddha. Under the influence of the Buddha, Angulimala repented, changed his life and entered the monkhood. The peaceful outcome of the story is heightened by contrasting the reform of the robber murderer due to the Buddha’s teaching in contrast to the failed attempt of the king and his soldiers to eliminate him by force.
  3. Buddhism does not see the death penalty as an isolated issue but rather as a failure to resolve problems in the whole of society. If peace and harmony were established in society, capital crimes would no longer be committed, and the death penalty would no longer be an issue. Abolition of the death penalty must be accompanied by a vast effort to reform society.
  4. The monks were very conscious of the immense deficiencies in the Thai legal system, such as in the absence of an investigation into the deaths of human rights defenders (including a famous Chiang Mai activist monk), wrongful convictions, execution of innocent people.
  5. Religion aims to promote a society where people can grow, be good, ‘making people live, not die'.

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