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When capital punishment could go wrong

My first true short story on this site - John McMiken



A close call with death

I do believe in capital punishment as punishment for horrendous crimes and also as a deterrent for people who would ever consider doing very bad things. However, these punishments should only be applied when there is absolutely no doubt about the guilt of the person involved. I personally had a very close call in recent years, by being unaware of how these laws applied in different countries and by being indifferent and not paying attention to detail.

This is a true short story about me and how I could have ended up on the gallows inadvertently

The Story:

In 1984 I was working as a senior electronic/project engineer for a very large and well known Multi-national Defence Company and at this time, I was in Thailand working with the Royal Thai Navy trying to repair their automatic indoor firing range system. This firing range system, projected moving targets from film onto a paper screen and military personnel could practice their live firing skills by firing at these targets. When a shot was fired the system would sense the noise from the gun and freeze the projected target, then lights would illuminate behind the screen and the bullet holes could be seen easily and assessed as to the proximity to the target. After a pre-set assessment time the system continued again automatically.

I had been repairing one of these systems at the Royal Thai Navy base at Sattahib in Thailand, I repaired it successfully, tested it and then proceeded to the Base Commander for him to sign my paperwork and then I should have been finished. The Commander however, asked a favour of me, he asked me if I could stay for a few more days and train his firing instructors on how to use the system properly, the Thai military was a very good customer, so I agreed without hesitation and said that I would start the following morning, then set off back to my hotel in Pattaya.

The next morning I arrived back at the Sattahib base and went to the range, the student instructors were waiting for me, so I immediately reverted into my training mode and went through with them the theory and practical operation of the firing range system. Everything was going fine, then they asked me if I could show them how to control an actual live firing lesson with the system. So I asked them to collect some weapons and ammunition from their armoury and I took a tea break and thought about how to go through this next phase with them.

The students arrived back at the range with their weapons, but then their spokesman came up to me and said that they didn't have any ammunition and that because this was not one of their scheduled firing training courses, that I would have to go to the armoury myself, explain the situation and actually purchase the ammunition required for this course, this surprised me a little, but I did as they said and managed to purchase 200 rounds of ammunition from their armoury. I then returned to the range, put the ammunition on the bench next to their weapons and then said that I would run the system, put one of the target films on and then explain exactly where they should aim on this target to gain maximum effect. I started the system running, carried a pointer and walked to the screen to point out the most effective points of aim to take with this particular target film.

What happened next took me completely by surprise, whilst I was pointing out the aiming points on the multiple targets, they all started firing. There were bullets flying all around me and I just dived to the floor and screamed at the top of my voice "CEASE FIRING, NOW!" This they did and I shakily got to my feet, walked back to the control panel and switched of the system. I didn't know that they had loaded their weapons whilst I was operating the system, these are all firing training instructors, so I thought that they would have the same range firing procedures that we used in the West. I spent the next two hours lecturing them about range live firing procedures and ammunition control. At the end of this time, it was time to call it a day, so I ordered them to unload, then I checked their weapons and they returned them to the armoury. I set off back to my hotel in Pattaya, but I was still feeling a little shaky about what had happened that day and I felt that I needed a beer badly, so I stopped the car at Jomtien Beach road, went to a roadside stall that sold beer and just sat drinking beer and watching the sun go down over the sea. After a few beers, I had calmed down considerably and I started thinking about my next day's lesson and how I should control it properly.

Sitting drinking beer and still mulling things over in my head, it came to me that I was staying here in Thailand longer than I intended to, running this extra course, so I took out my passport, checked the dates and realized that my visa expires the following day. I quickly finished my beer, drove back to my hotel in Pattaya, threw my briefcase in the room and quickly rushed out to find a travel agency. I found a travel agent quite quickly and booked a flight for the following evening to Singapore. Pocketing my ticket, I left the travel agency and then just wandered down the road to the nearest open-air bar and sat there drinking more beer, listening to music and letting the tension of the day flow out of me.

The next morning I returned to Sattahib, visited the Commander and explained to him about my visa problems and that this would be the last day of the training course, this he accepted, shook my hand and thanked me for my assistance. When I got to the range, the student instructors were waiting for me and I briefed them on the day's training. I placed the ammunition in my briefcase and locked it "No more surprises!" I am in control now. The day went quite well, I ran through all of the target films, controlled the ammunition and trained the students Western military style how to run a firing range. Before each target session, I ordered them to take up firing positions, I loaded the magazines and placed them beside each of the firers. I Ordered them to load their weapons and to "fire at will at the targets in front" and then started the system. It all went very well and they were very good, but I still kept the ammunition locked in my briefcase until required.

That evening, we closed the range, I shook hands with each of the students and said goodbye. Looking at my watch, I realized I had to drive quickly or I would miss my flight to Singapore. I arrived at the Airport hotel in Bangkok with one hour to spare, I booked in, put my suitcase in the room, grabbed my briefcase and crossed the overpass to the airport. I checked in for my flight and went into the business lounge for a whisky and snacks. I was feeling quite pleased with myself, I had repaired the firing range and after a bad start, the training had gone very well at Sattahib. My next job was at the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Bangkok and I could start that at my leisure, so now I was looking forward to a couple of days just relaxing in Singapore. In Singapore, I booked into the hotel, went out for a meal and then spent the evening in a friend's bar near Tanglin Shopping Centre. The next morning, I went to the Thai Embassy applied for a visa and then just passed the time wandering around. I lived in Singapore for three years when I was in the Royal Air Force and I know it quite well. I had a very relaxing time for a couple of days, picked up my passport at the Thai Embassy, went to Changi airport and headed back to Bangkok.

On arrival at Don Muang airport in Bangkok, I just exited quite quickly, I only had my briefcase as carry-on baggage, so I strolled across the overpass to the Airport hotel, I picked up my key and went to my room. Took a beer out of the fridge and was thinking about what to do that evening. Passing time, I opened my briefcase, realized that it was a mess, just full of technical manuals, a multi-meter and other odd bits of paperwork. With nothing better to do at the moment, I decided to empty it and tidy it all up neatly. Whilst I was emptying the briefcase, I found a cardboard box, "What is this?" I thought, but as I opened it I remembered, it is the remainder of the ammunition that I had bought from the armoury in Sattahib, so I counted them and there were about 100 rounds left, I had completely forgotten about them. So I just thought that maybe they would come in useful for any future indoor range work I may have and put them back in my briefcase. That evening I went to one of my favourite haunts in Bangkok, The Ship Inn British pub near Sukhumvit Road. I always used this as my "local" when in Bangkok and I knew most of the staff and many of the customers in there. I ordered a pint of beer and sat at the table near the window, it was my favourite place whenever I was in there. After a short while one of the customers, Neil, who was a British expat living in Bangkok, came over and sat down with me. He said that he had not seen me for a while and asked me what I had been doing. I told him about the work in Sattahib and the problems with the range and about me almost getting shot just doing my job and we had a good laugh about it. I then went on to tell him about my visa running out and having to go to Singapore for a new one. Neil knew Singapore well also and we talked about that for a while and had a few more beers. The evening was going well, but I was running out of things to talk about, so I told him about still having 100 rounds of ammunition in my briefcase and forgetting about it, at this, his face changed a little, then he asked me "Did you take your briefcase to Singapore with you?" so I replied that I had, he then went on to ask me "Was the ammunition in the briefcase when you went to Singapore?" So I just jokingly replied that the ammunition went with me and the bullets are very well-travelled now. Neil then went very quiet for a while, so I just thought that he had run out of things to talk about too, he then said "Do you know just how lucky you are?" to which I replied "Yes I know, I have a very good job, I travel a lot and I get very good expences from my company". Then he just looked at me, shook his head and said "You still don't get it, do you?" I was now totally confused, I said "Get what?" he just replied that he needed a large whisky and went to the bar.

When he returned, he said "Do you know the law in Singapore?" I replied that I knew that they were very strict about some things, especially smoking, I had a lot of problems in Singapore about where you can and cannot smoke. He looked at me, shook his head again and then said "Ian, the possession of one round of live ammunition in Singapore, warrants an automatic death penalty by law, there" I did not know this and now having been told, I went into a semi-state of shock. Neil could see the effect his words had had on me and offered me a whisky, to which I replied "Yes please, and make it a very large one!" When this revelation had really sunk in and I had gone over in my head the endless probabilities of what could have happened to me, the whisky kicked in and I jokingly said "Does that mean that they would have killed me a hundred times if I was caught?" This statement broke the ice and we started laughing a little again, but the thought of what could have happened to me, went around my head for months/years afterwards.

I kept that box of ammunition with me for years after that event and looked upon them as a kind of good luck charm for me.

The moral of this short story is, always be very aware of the laws applicable to you in any country that you may visit, ignorance is not an excuse.

It could be the death of you!

Ex Post Facto stories

 Legless world of words, days and nights

Still legless in Thailand!

John McMiken (Ian Reed)


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