Thailand's executioner Chaowarate Jarubun shot dead 55 people in his uncelebrated career, but now his killing days are over and he says he breathed a sigh of relief after pulling the trigger for the last time.
"I felt sad about my job. It wasn't difficult, but I was happy to stop," Chaowarate said at Bang Kwang maximum security prison in suburban Bangkok, where he served for 19 years as chief of Thailand's firing squad.
"The first one was exciting, a little bit scary," Chaowarate, 55, said as he recalled his first killing at the prison back in 1984.
"Then, I eventually tried to retire from my job, but I couldn't. I was waiting to stop, but how could I say no?" he said.
Now the master executioner and his team of sanctioned killers have hung up their rifles as Thailand, armed with an amended capital punishment law, is switching this month to death by lethal injection.
The decision is an historic one for the kingdom. Since 1935, 319 prisoners including three women have been executed by firing squad, the last by Chaowarate on Dec. 11 of a convicted murderer.
"It was very, very sad for everybody, all those executions. Each was a sad case," he said, preferring not to dwell on the particulars.
Barring a last-minute royal stay of execution, death row prisoners were led from their Bang Kwang cells through a tree-lined courtyard, tied to a pole and, with a lotus flower and stick of incense in hand, shot in the head.
A single executioner with an automatic rifle did the job, backed up by a second man in the rare, but not unknown, event that the condemned person survived the first volley.
"Normally I fired about 10 of my 15 bullets. People may think it too much, but this is the way we helped prisoners die more quickly," Chaowarate said.
Corrections department officials say the shootings regularly drew accusations of gross human-rights violations. The law was amended on humanitarian grounds but also partly in response to the criticism, they said.
Nathee Chitsawang, who yesterday assumed his new command as director-general of the corrections department, said the switch to lethal injections showed Thailand in a less violent light.
"It's a softer move from firing squad to lethal injection," Nathee said. "This is a stepping stone to abolishing the death penalty in Thailand."
But he said that could only happen "when our society is ready, when our people are mature enough, and when our crime situation is not so severe."
That is unlikely to happen any time soon, as the number of prisoners on death row in Thailand doubled between 2001 and July last year to over 649.
Chaowarate and Nathee were on hand this week for the first demonstration to the media of the new lethal injection procedures that will be implemented on Oct. 19.
Journalists were escorted along with a shackled "prisoner," played by a jail staffer, to a low-ceilinged room bleached by fluorescent lighting and a new coat of white paint.
Guards strapped the prisoner to a gurney, connected mock IVs to his arm and gave a signal to a trio of medical attendants preparing the lethal injections which stops the heart.
Chaowarate looked relaxed as he and dozens of other officers gathered outside the room to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.
He revealed the room was the very same in which the firing-squad executions were carried out, but said he felt little emotion returning to the scene where he brought so many prisoners' lives to an end.
"I can't say if it was right or wrong," he said of his duty on the firing line, "because both sides, the victim's family and the prisoner's family, should receive sympathy."
He said there was "no special magic" to doing his job.
"I just made my mind clear and relaxed, and I held within me Buddha's teachings," he said.
Now, said Nathee, it's time for Chaowarate to assume a less controversial role in his remaining five years before retirement.
"He has done so many things that nobody wanted to do. We think he should stop," Nathee said, adding Chaowarate has been assigned to work with foreign prisoners.
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