What sort of person leans over a sub-machine-gun bolted to the floor, takes aim at a target on a white curtain in front of a condemned man strapped to a cross, and then pumps 10 to 15 bullets into his back?
A family man, a rock musician, an altruist, a boozer and civil servant in the Corrections Department for three decades. In short: a man of wild contradictions and divided loyalties.
Chaovaret Jaruboon, who made his mark as Thailand’s last executioner, succumbed to cancer this past Monday at the age of 64, leaving behind a wife of 40-odd years, three grown children, and the bloodstained legacy of executing 55 inmates over almost two decades at Bang Kwang Central Prison on the edge of Bangkok.
Even as a boy, crime and vice had been in his peripheral vision. Chaovaret grew up in the Bangkok neighbourhood of Sri Yan, the family’s middle-class dwelling sandwiched between the mansions of magistrates and the hovels of harlots. On his way to school every morning he had to walk past a brothel that doubled as an opium den, where the dregs and fumes of last night’s debauch mingled.
None of these temptations sent his moral compass out of whack; Chaovaret’s early life was too grounded in religious morals. His father was Buddhist, his mother Muslim, and the Saint Joan of Arc School he attended was Catholic. Much later in life, he would boast that he had never visited a bordello, never taken drugs and only committed one crime in his life: stealing a pack of greetings cards from another student back in Grade 4.
As staunch of a moralist as he could be, forever defending capital punishment until his dying day, he also had a raucously rebellious streak that he vented by playing guitar in rock ‘n’ roll bands that toured the GI bases in the ‘60s.
For him, taking a job as a prison guard served the dual purpose of supporting his family while working towards that final parole for all working stiffs: retirement with a pension. (Anybody who knows what it’s like to be a highly sexed and grossly underpaid rock musician should be able to related to that decision.)
Chaovaret always said that the worst job on the execution team was not pulling the trigger – it was having to walk into the death-row cell to read out the final decision of the court to the condemned man, before whisking him off to a final meal and blessing from a Buddhist monk. En route to the “room to end all suffering” (as the death chamber is referred to in Thai), Chaovaret said, ““I heard it all—crying, begging and cursing me. But some of them just walked in without a word. They were ready to die.”
Exhibiting the Buddhist grace under pressure that he was renowned for, Chaovaret defused some dangerously combustible situations on death-row. In his 2006 autobiography The Last Executioner, he remembered dealing with a serial rapist, convicted of raping and murdering a 10-year-old girl, who was screaming at the guards and still protesting his innocence. Chaovaret told him, “Just think of it as bad karma coming back to you for what you have done. If you are positive when you ‘go’ you will end up in a better place, so empty your mind of anger and negativity.”
His tranquil demeanour also served as a tranquilizer for the inmate. The now contrite rapist wrote a letter to his father repeating the inescapable Buddhist cycle of life: birth, aging, suffering and death. He also reminded him to visit his brother Narat who had confessed to his role in the rape and murder.
One woman involved in a kidnapping-turned-homicide fought the guards all the way into the death chamber and was pronounced dead by a doctor after taking 10 bullets. But as they brought one of her accomplices into the room, Chaovaret and the guards heard her scream in the tiny morgue. Not only that, she was trying to stand up. Bedlam erupted. “One of the escorts rolled her over and pressed down on her back to accelerate the bleeding and help her die,” wrote Chaovaret. “Another escort, a real hard man, tried to strangle her to finish her off but I swept his arms away in disgust.”
After they executed one of her accomplices, the doctor found that the woman was still breathing. He ordered the guards to tie her back on the cross and this time they used the full clip of 15 bullets to ensure she was dead.
Chaovaret’s experience on the firing line and ability to keep a cool head while everyone else was losing theirs resulted in the prison authorities promoting him to the rank of executioner in 1984. He always said that he did not want the job and only did it because it meant more money for his family.
Susan Aldous, author of the autobiographical The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison about her humanitarian work in Thailand’s largest maximum-security facility, sees it a different way.
“When they asked him to become the executioner, I think they appealed to his sense of masculinity. Do you think you’re tough enough to do this job? Before that he was a low-ranking nobody, but that promotion gave him a sense of importance.”
Having interviewed him in the prison quite a few times and seen him socially on a few other occasions, I often thought that he had a chip, though definitely not a boulder, on his shoulder too, and that he enjoyed the notoriety of his job. In between spells of playing surf instrumentals and Elvis covers on his acoustic guitar in the jail he would take stabs at himself, “I wasn’t handsome or talented enough to make it as a musician.”
At the same time, this contradictory character, who later became the Chief of Foreign Affairs at Bang Kwang, overseeing as many as 800 foreign inmates at any given time, was the only person in Bangkok that Susan trusted to take care of her daughter. “We used to joke that the executioner was her nanny.” He also helped Susan to untangle the prison’s red tape so she could do programmes with the deathly ill and the nearly blind. “He would show me how to do the paperwork and he’d get the signatures. Then I’d be hugging all these AIDS patients and he’d make all these jokes about how disgusting it was and that I was so ugly that this was the best I could get. But when the other male guards were not around, I’d look over and see him with a few tears in his eyes.”
Certainly Chaovaret did have a conscience. He also believed in karma. Before each execution he would pray to a powerful spirit for forgiveness. He was not killing the man out of malice, he said, but because it was his duty. The 2,000 baht he received for each execution he religiously donated to a royal temple in Nonthaburi.
Not long before he passed away, his wife held a special Buddhist rite to appease the spirits of the 55 men and women who ended up in his gun-sights. She asked them to let him die in peace and not interfere with his next reincarnation.
The final book he coauthored, A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton (Maverick House, 2010), was with Pornchai Sereemongkonpol. At the beginning of this year, Pornchai saw him for the last time. “He was in a wheelchair and quite bloated, but still in good spirits and cracking jokes. He always had a good sense of humour. I remember him telling me once that his daughter found it difficult to get dates because all the guys knew what her father did,” he said.
How to sum up this Jekyll and Hyde character? He was both an assassin and an altruist, a rock ‘n’ roller and a civil servant, a hardline moralist and a hard-drinking joker who, above all else, was the most loyal of family men with three children and a four-decades-long marriage.
Knowing him and his love of Elvis and penchant for matching a song to every possible occasion, if you asked him to sum up his life, his leathery features would crack open in a grin and he’d sing a few bars of “Jailhouse Rock.”
The late executioner is featured in Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex and Black Magic (Marshall Cavendish International, 2010).