Monday, April 18, 2011

A Double Hanging in Mandalay (1985)

(This edited translation is from former Warden Yan-aung Maung Maung’s autobiography.)

The criminals condemned by the courts were nearly shocked to death once they heard the sentencing judge or magistrate reading the death sentence to them in the court. Even the hardcore criminals who already considered themselves half-dead as they knew they were guilty of their heinous crimes couldn’t even smile while they were being sentenced to death by hanging.

So many people asked me this same question; do you have to let the condemned go if he or she wasn’t killed in one hanging?  That is just a myth. In every death warrant the words to be hanged till death is prominent and even if one rope doesn’t kill him for some reason the second rope is waiting for him.  No condemned one has ever come out alive from hanging in our prisons.

I have witnessed many hangings in the earlier part of my prison service. But in all those hangings I was just an insignificant participant as a junior prison officer since the hangings were personally overseen by the senior warden. Only in 1985 when I became a senior warden I did my hangings and I personally hanged seven men. I still remember two names from my only double hanging. Aung Mya and Than Myint.

Hangman Warden

In wars soldiers kill each other in the heat of a battle but the cold-blooded hanging in a prison is never like that. Hanging is judicially ending a person’s life by a legal procedure that exactly follows the prison hanging manual to the letter. That’s why it is called The Capital Punishment the biggest criminal punishment by law.

Back in Britain, I was told, the hangings were done by the professional hang-men not the prison officers like in Burma. When I was a junior officer I once asked the warden how he felt about hangings he had personally done before and this was his answer.

“I always felt like quitting my job whenever I had to do a hanging. It wasn’t that bad when the condemned was dragged onto the gallows and the drop-door lever was pulled. I just wanted to finish the job and get over with it.

Only after the corpse was taken outside and the whole business was over the bad feeling inside began. I had to take off the uniform and get rid of them as I could never wear the same uniform ever again. After the shower and new set of uniform on I immediately had two or more drinks, neat without ice or water. Only then my inside got warmed and I calmed down.

But I still had bad feelings whenever I looked at my own hands. It would take at least one or even two months to get back to my normal self by slowly talking myself that I was only doing my duty as a warden.”

And he was the only warden I knew who never let others do the dreadful job of putting the noose around the condemned’s neck and tightening it. Putting a noose around the prisoner neck was not that difficult but the important part is tightening the noose properly. The regulation one-inch Manila hemp rope used for hanging has a ring called Metal Eye on one end. That Metal Eye has to be directly beneath the left or right jaw so that when the prisoner dropped that would be just behind the ear and broke the neck. If the noose wasn’t tightened and placed properly the noose would rotate and come off together with the hood.

My Turn to Hang

There are a lot of works in hanging a prisoner. As a preparation for a hanging we had to order one inch diameter Manila hemp rope. Then a heavy weight was attached to one end of the rope and other end tied to a high beam and let the rope hang for two three days to take out the stretch and thus any tendency to coil.

We also had to weigh the prisoner and measure his height and his neck diameter. Only after that process the rope length (drop) had to be worked out by the exact formula from the prison hanging manual.

In Burma, a former British colony, the judicial hanging takes the form of measured or long drop hanging as practiced in Britain since 1874. The distance the condemned drops when the trapdoors open is calculated according to the weight, height, and physique of the condemned and is designed to break the neck and thus severed the spinal cord to make executions more humane than other forms of hanging.

Hanged in Iran?
 Hanging with little or no drop usually causes death by slow strangulation due to the weight of the body on the noose, causing it to tighten, so constricting the air passage. The condemned typically struggle and suffer for sometime, as long as half an hour in extreme cases, after suspension due to the physical pain caused by the noose tightening around the slowly stretching neck.    

In the British long drop hanging it takes less than a second for a person to reach the end of the drop after the trapdoor opens. The force produced by the person’s weight multiplied by the length of the fall and the gravity and the position of the noose causes virtually instant fracture-dislocation of the neck which leads to death.

Typically the fracture-dislocation occurs at C2 or C3 of the cervical vertebrae with about two inch gap and traverse separation of spinal cord at the same level causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death.

Once the rope was prepared my first task was to set the gallows. In all Burmese prisons the gallows are the copies of Alipore Gallows from the Calculatta’s Alipore Central Jail in India. It basically has two parts. The base is a large concrete hole in the ground covered by two large hinged trap doors linked by a mechanism to a lever. The top part consisting two posts and the cross beam is removable and normally disassembled and kept in a store room.

Alipor Gallows?
 So we opened the trap doors and brushed the rust off the lever and mechanism beneath the doors with kerosene first and later with the diesel oil. After that the posts and cross beam were taken out of the store room and then cleansed and polished with diesel oil. Once the gallows had been set up I had to fix a Sunday and ask the permissions from the divisional and township courts.

Once everything was ready for the hanging I began to read the files of two condemned men, Aung Mya and Than Myint. Like other hangman-wardens, knowing how ruthless and brutal the two criminals were would give me certain degree of comfort for me in doing the unpleasant work of hanging them.

Aung Mya and Than Myint: the Condemned

The two young men Aung Mya and Than Myint were childhood friends born and grew up in a small town in the Magwe Division of Middle Burma. Aung Mya’s father worked for a Government factory and Than Myint’s was a porter at the port. Their characters were totally opposite. Since very young age Aung Mya was a good boy and he always avoided trouble and fights.

But Than Myint was a bad boy and he was always looking for trouble and never refused a good fight. And he dominated and bullied Aung Mya all their lives. Weak Aung Mya was afraid of stronger Than Myint and followed him in whatever bad things Than Myint did. Two of them together became the bad boys of the town and eventually they were kicked out of the school at their year 8 and finally Than Myint ended up in Pa-khoke-ku prison doing 2 years for a robbery.

Without his dear friend Aung Mya became decent again after a year in monkhood at the local monastery and started working for the factory where his father also worked. His parents were happy but their happiness didn’t last too long as Than Myint was released and he came back town. By then Than Myint was behaving like a hardcore criminal as the ex-convicts usually do and Aung Mya tried real hard to avoid him in the town.

But one day he ran into Than Myint at the port and they ended up in a cheap liquor shop. Only after two or more glasses of local moonshine Aung Mya belatedly realized his old friend had a plan to take advantage of him. This was their conversation at the liquor shop and the beginning of their ways to the Mandalay Gallows I was now setting up for their double hanging.

“Aung Mya, don’t you know … that girl Pu-tu-ma likes you a lot?”
“Which Pu-tu-ma?”
“That Pu-tu-ma from the Pu-tu-tu-lay betelnut-shop at our port.”
“Oh, I ain’t interested!”
“But, I am!”
“If you are interested, why don’t you try yourself?”
“Yes I did, but she doesn’t like me and even insulted me. She told me to my face that I am an ex-convict without a job and she rather marries a beggar than me. So I asked her if she would consider you and she replied you are better than me since you have a steady job.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Ha, I can help it, just look at these……..”

Than Myint then pulled out two letters and a small photo from his shirt pocket. Photo was Pu-tu-ma’s and letters were the reply love letters to him from her. Back of her photo even bore the words With Love to Ko Aung Mya. Suddenly Aung Mya remembered the friendly behavior of that girl and felt bad for her.

“Than Myint, you shouldn’t trick a young girl like that!”
“You, an ex-monk, you don’t know shit about this cruel world. You think Pu-tu-ma is serious about you. No way, she has so many boyfriends. I’ll show you one day about that. My plan hasn’t finished yet.”

It was right. Than Myint’s evil plan wasn’t finished yet. The day that plan ended was the day all three of them ended their short lives, so to speak. That day Aung Mya and Than Myint half-drunk from local moonshine liquor patiently waited for Pu-tu-ma to show up alone at the deserted grounded-freighter abandoned on the riverbank. The girl thought she was seeing her lover Aung Mya alone.

They had sex while Than Myint hid and watched. After that Than Myint came out, showed her a knife, and violently raped her. She then grabbed the knife and cut his arm. In rage Than Myint held her tight and forced Aung Mya to stab her first then he finished her off by stabbing the hapless girl multiple times.

That was their hangable criminal case. The brutal rape and murder of a young innocent girl my daughter’s age. Now I had a very good reason to hang them both till death. And I won’t feel bad.

The Double Hanging

The day they were hung. The judges had arrived. The prison doctor was ready waiting to confirm the deaths. The junior warden and his troops had already taken positions at the rear of the gallows. All the electric lights were brightly on and the four kerosene pressure lamps for the emergency in case of power blackout were also burning.

Apart from the shue-shel noises from the pressure lamps everything was quite and noiseless.

British Hanging (1879)
I stood at the front of the base of the gallows and carefully observed my men doing their duties step by step. The guy who was assigned to pull the trapdoors lever was tightly holding the handle of the long lever in both hands and at the same time staring without even a wink at me for my final signal. He didn’t look anywhere else the whole time. 

Aung Mya and Than Myint were already on the gallows and forced to stand inside the two white circles on the trapdoors. Aung Mya on the right and Than Myint on the left. With huge white hoods on and in the white jail garb they looked like two white cocoons standing up. Their hands were already cuffed from behind since in their cells and the men were now tying their legs tight with ropes.

Once everything was ready one junior warden shouted an order and the troops of warden stood to attention. Nooses were already around the necks of Aung Mya and Than Myint and already tightened. So I asked them to say their last wish.

First appeared Aung Mya’s voice. Not loud and not clear just blurred.

“For every future life ….  not a bad friend like in this life ……….”

Even before Aung Mya finished his sentence Than Myint’s voice came out loud and clear.

“Shit, Aung Mya, you Bastard …….”

I pulled out a white handkerchief from my trousers’ side pocket as the prearranged signal and the man at the lever pulled the handle while grinding his teeth. Jaing, with the loud noise from the trapdoors hitting the concrete sidewalls of the gallows base the two white cocoons dropped and disappeared out of sight. Both ropes taut without oscillating and twisting.

Than Myint was still dominating and bullying Aung Mya till the last seconds just before their unnatural deaths.