Thai society has been shocked by a horrific crime this past week—one that is currently on everyone’s mind and lips. A 22-year old State Railways employe raped a 13-year old girl in the sleeper car of an overnight train headed from from Nakhon Si Thammarat to Bangkok. After raping the girl, he then strangled her and threw her out the window of the moving train. Two days later her body was found after the rapist and murderer confessed to the crime and gave an indication of where to search. Many Thai people are advocating—through traditional and social media—that the killer should receive the death penalty. In addition to this, many are advocating that the death penalty should be the punishment for all cases of rape.
At first, I misunderstood and thought that they wanted the law changed to allow for capital punishment in the case of rape. I already knew that Thailand had a death penalty, so it seemed not surprising that a murderer could receive the death penalty. But in fact, the law already allows for capital punishment for the crime of rape alone, at the discretion of the court.
End the Glorification of Rape and Violence Against Women on TV
Everyone should agree that rape is bad. When the victim is an innocent 13-year old girl there is universal revulsion at the actions of the perpetrator. Our natural reaction is one of anger and a desire to seek retribution and punishment. But one has to wonder, why did he think that raping the girl was a good idea? Where did he get the notion that rape is OK? Is it possible that in his 22 years of life, this man has ever once been near a TV set in the evening?
The glorification of rape and violence against women on Thai TV dramas has to stop. If every rapist was to get the death penalty, there would be no happy endings in Thai soap operas—only scenes depicting the execution of the so-called hero. Rape in Thai TV dramas is incredibly prevalent. Typically, the lead male character will imprison the lead female character in a house and rape her out of anger after falling for some trick of the jealous evil female character, who tries to make the leading man think that the leading girl is a bad person. Later on, he will realize that the leading girl was a good girl all along—she was even a virgin until he came along and violated her! Somehow the two lead characters come to the conclusion that they love each other, and the wedding is planned. It’s a happy ending for everyone—except of course for the evil female character. There’s a good chance that she’ll get raped by some thug types as the producer’s way of dishing out punishment for her evil deeds.
How can this be considered acceptable viewing for people to watch day in and day out? What effect do you think it might have on the minds of young viewers, or even on old viewers for that matter? Does it make sense to call for real rapists to be executed on the one hand, while on the other hand portraying sexual assault as a valid method for setting romance in motion in TV and film? As reported by The Nation, there were 31,866 cases of rape in 2013 that were reported in Thailand. This works out to 87 per day, or one reported incident of rape about every 15 minutes. One can only imagine how high the actual number of rapes is when these are the numbers for the cases in which the victims had the courage to report to the police. How many of these sexual assaults took place because the attacker felt that forcing himself on the woman would have no negative consequences just like it didn’t for the hero of the latest TV drama?
If a society decides that rapists deserve the death penalty, then fictional representations of sexual violence should end with the attacker getting the same punishment. But this raises an entirely new question—is capital punishment an appropriate punishment for rape (or any other crimes)?
As Buddhists We Need to Rethink Capital Punishment
It churns my stomach to see so many people who call themselves Buddhist be so quick to seek the death penalty for this criminal. What he did is terrible, but we don’t become better than a killer by becoming killers ourselves. Thailand is overwhelmingly a Buddhist nation, but it is clear that many Thais don’t have any solid understanding of the Dharma that the Buddha taught. The first precept is to abstain from the taking of life. The act of killing any living being is a strong non-virtuous action that creates a karmic effect to be experienced negatively in the future. The murderer will have to face the results of his own actions one way or another—in this life or a future one. By hoping for, taking part in bringing about, and rejoicing in the death of another human being, the members of a society share in creating negative karma for themselves. Even though that person may be a convicted killer, any enjoyment or satisfaction that we may think we get out of his death will come at the expense of creating and fostering the development of increased negative emotional states within our own minds.
I haven’t seen if there have been any respected monks or other individuals well-versed in the Dharma in Thailand coming out to pacify the calls for violent retribution against the killer. If they did, what they might try to remind people is that our concept of an individual is an illusion. What we normally perceive to be a person with a definite personality is no more than a constantly changing amalgamation of 5 components:
- form, or the physical body
- sensations, or feelings
- volition, or mental formations
The collection of these components or “5 aggregates” has a kind of temporal continuity such that they are mistaken for a unique “self” or “soul.” We tend to see people as being inherently one way or another, but everything is actually in a state of flux and people do change. While it might be optimistic to think that a murderer could change themselves for the better much in this life, it is certain that they will go through a drastic change upon death and re-birth. The chain of lifetimes that we have all lived is so vast that the Buddha said he could see no beginning point. Considering an infinite number of previous lives, it is reasonable to think that each and every one of us has ourselves been a killer in more than just one previous life. This fact was addressed by the Buddha in the Timsa Sutta:
…From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident…What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, or the water in the four great oceans?…This is the greater: the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans…The blood you have shed when, arrested as thieves plundering villages, you had your heads cut off… when, arrested as highway thieves, you had your heads cut off… when, arrested as adulterers, you had your heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans…
At the extreme end of showing the power to change in one lifetime is the example of Angulimala. One of the Buddha’s disciples who attained enlightenment as a monk, Angulimala had earlier in his life killed hundreds of people. He was led astray into taking lives by a bad teacher who convinced him to try to kill 1,000 people. Angulimala got his name, which means “finger rosary,” by cutting off a finger from each victim and wearing them attached to a cord around his neck. He did so in order to not lose count of his kills. As utterly horrific as this seems, the Buddha could see that Angulimala had developed much virtue and wisdom from previous lifetimes. All he needed was the right conditions to be able to understand ultimate truth and become free from the round of birth and death.
Capital Punishment is Not Beneficial
Nobody is suggesting that the railway murderer will achieve enlightenment in this life, but nevertheless, giving him the death penalty will not solve any of our problems. Capital punishment is not beneficial nor effective in its intended aims. We can say that the reasons for having a death penalty generally fall into the two categories of punishment and prevention. However, capital punishment largely fails at both.
In the category of punishment, there is the direct punishment given out to the guilty party and then there is the related sense of satisfaction that the family of the victim is supposed to feel after getting retribution. In modern society, most countries with capital punishment carry out the sentence using methods that are supposed to be humane and don’t involve excess suffering. But if we really wanted to punish a killer, a quick and painless death isn’t such a good way to go. Wouldn’t having to spend the rest of their life in prison be the more punishing option? Prison rape is a well-known phenomena. One would have to think that a rapist would get swifter and harsher retribution for past misdeeds by being thrown together with a group of prisoners than by facing a firing squad or gas chamber. And as far as giving the victim’s family a sense of closure, a recent study suggests a lack of evidence to support the belief that the execution of a murderer will really help the victim’s family feel any better.
Capital punishment is also not so successful at preventing murder. Over a 20 year period, states in the US that have the death penalty consistently had higher murder rates than the states that don’t use capital punishment. Clearly the idea that capital punishment acts as an effective deterrent to committing murder is false. By and large, when someone has got to the point of killing another human being, they’re no longer capable of using reason and logic to weigh the possible ramifications of their actions—Or they just don’t care. A murderer either has some sort of mental illness that is impairing their judgement and ability to control their impulses, or they simply don’t care if they die. Of course, executing a criminal is an effective way to prevent them from repeating their crimes, but so is life imprisonment—which should be the strongest punishment given out for any crime.
Nobody should ever experience what that girl on the train went through, but taking the life of the man who killed her won’t help to bring her back.
As long as society continues to glorify sexual violence as entertainment, no punishment we can think of will prevent more tragedies like this from happening.