MALAYSIA IS HARDLY known for the leniency of its punishments. Sharia (Islamic law) applies in some states and canings offer a violent public spectacle. Even so, the country’s new government no longer wishes to deal in death. On October 10th Liew Vui Keong, a minister, announced that the death penalty would be abolished, although the necessary legislation has yet to be introduced in parliament. That would leave only four countries in South-East Asia still conducting executions: Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. And even among these hold-outs, there are signs of change.
Vietnam, with a population of more than 95m, is by far the most prolific executioner in the region (see chart). It does not normally disclose the number of prisoners put to death. But last year it reported that 429 had been executed in a 151-week period between 2013 and 2016, a much higher number than had been estimated previously. Singapore, the next on the list, carried out only eight hangings last year.
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In Singapore and elsewhere, the death penalty remains popular with voters. But it is less and less so with lawmakers, who are more aware of the foreign criticism it attracts, especially because it is sometimes used for non-violent crimes such as corruption and drug offences. In recent years Vietnam has abolished it for crimes such as producing or trading counterfeit food and possessing drugs. Last year Malaysia and Thailand scrapped mandatory death sentences for selling drugs. In Indonesia a new law under discussion in parliament would introduce a ten-year probation period before an execution occurs.
There is regression, too. Singapore imposed a moratorium in 2011 during a review of mandatory sentencing before resuming executions in 2014. In June Thailand carried out its first execution since 2009. In the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte would like to reintroduce the death penalty, a view shared by many of those who voted for him. But legislation to do so has stalled in Congress. The new speaker of the House of Representatives, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is a former president who helped to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in 2006.
As encouraging as the growing ambivalence about executions is, however, the region suffers from enormous numbers of extra-judicial killings in which the authorities often participate. Myanmar has not formally executed anyone since 1988. Yet a UN report last month said that its army had slaughtered more than 10,000 members of a Muslim minority, the Rohingyas, in a pogrom which began last year.
Indonesian authorities shot dead more than 60 drug suspects last year. They claim, unconvincingly, that all the killings occurred in self-defence, or as suspects attempted to flee. In the Philippines Mr Duterte’s war against drugs has unleashed murder on an appalling scale. Police and vigilantes have killed more than 20,000 suspects in around two years, according to human-rights groups and opposition politicians. For the most part the victims have been petty users and dealers, rather than kingpins. Mr Duterte has himself boasted on occasion about participating in such killings in his previous job as mayor of the city of Davao; at other times he has disavowed any role. But he certainly has not disavowed the practice.