Theater of Cruelty

When there is politics in the courtroom

Fighting for Virtue. Justice and Politics in Thailand
Forfatter: Duncan McCargo
Forlag: Cornell University Press (USA)
THAILAND / A powerful elite in Thailand – Myanmar's neighbor – has been trying to resolve the country's political problems with the courts for the past decade, which has only exacerbated the situation. In a new book, Duncan McCargo warns against "legalization."


I was aware that academic freedom in Thailand was not too good when I attended the International Convention of Asia Scholars in Chiang Mai in 2017. Still, I was surprised at the sight of armed soldiers guarding the entrance to the conference center, silently watching us parade in with our small nameplates around our necks.

After the conference, the organizers issued a statement saying that our Thai colleagues from the host institution had problems with the authorities because some of the conference participants had not been able to feed themselves to the soldiers: "This is an academic conference, not a barracks," someone had apparently said. in passing. And that was just too good for the military junta, which has ruled Thailand since 2014.

Often harsh judgments are an expression of a lack of empathy and imagination.

Director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) Duncan McCargo says in his new book, Fighting for Virtue. Justice and Politics in Thailand, also about the pressure that Thailand's academic freedom has been under. A pressure that is exerted not only by the military and the authorities in general, but also by the people themselves, who patrol each other's freedom of thought and expression. During McCargo's fieldwork in 2012, critical professors at Thamassat University were “harassed” by their own colleagues and students. The lawsuits he describes ethnographically are primarily about restricting freedom of thought and expression.

Military Junta In Thailand. Photo: Pri.Org
Military Junta In Thailand. Photo: Pri.Org

The Shinawatra

Fighting for Virtue focuses on the role that the judicial system in Thailand has been assigned in the fight to bring the political unrest in the country under control. According to McCargo, there has been a "judicialization" of society during the last ten years of King Bhumipol's period (2006-2016). Thailand is not formally politically governed by the royal house, although the royal house plays a crucial role – albeit in a complex way.

The book's arguments are based on document analysis, interviews and observation. The field work was carried out primarily in 2012, before the military coup in 2014, and shortly after the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra's popular – but hated by the urban elite – had been elected as the new Prime Minister. Many people probably remember the images of the massive red shirt movement that brought the Shinawatra to power and the royal house loyal yellow shirts that fought them. That attitudes toward the Shinawatra are so polarized in Thailand has been a source of instability since Thaksin's reign in the early 00s.

The people themselves patrol each other's freedom of thought and expression.

McCargo's point is that an elite affiliated with the royal family since 2006 has been trying to control this political instability through the courts. But has achieved the exact opposite.

His point is also that it is not unequivocal that this desire to resolve political issues through the courts actually came from the royal house – at least not from the now deceased King Bhumipol, who on several occasions publicly distanced himself from prosecuting critical voices. Yet McCargo's interviews with Thai judges, as well as his trial ethnography, show that the judiciary perceives itself as venerable royal loyalists when they sentence people to years in prison using the rubber insult on His Majesty.

Deceased King Bhumibol. Photo: Wikipedia And Pixabay,
Deceased King Bhumibol. Photo: Wikipedia And Pixabay,

Catharsis failed to occur

I Fighting for Virtue a series of (political) lawsuits unfold in all their absurdity – and horror, because it is real people who are locked in as pieces in a larger game of political control over Thailand. The Shinawatra are also under indictment for both, but have been informally allowed to slip into exile before they could appear in court.

In his concluding section of the book, McCargo makes his suggestion on how Thailand could solve its political problems: The judges should stop behaving like self-appointed gunmen for the royal house and instead focus more on ensuring justice for the benefit of the people. as a whole. That's the way it is everywhere, McCargo thinks, without really pointing out where. But it is simply possible for a well-functioning judicial system to deliver a kind of catharsis for the benefit of all – even the accused.

Instead of such idealistic claims, it would have been more interesting to have McCargo's point made that "legalization" is not only a problem in Thailand, but in many parts of the world in recent years.

Arrogant and relevant

McCargo comes with many incorrigible opinions. Throughout the framing part of the book, you also get just as many views legally – about the judges' talent, integrity, imagination, understanding of society's social dynamics. These are not uninteresting themes, but the way they are unfolded is – to put it bluntly – not very dressy, especially when it comes to a British academic studying an Asian country that has previously been under European colonial rule.

According to McCargo, many Thai judges are good at memorization, but miserable at critical analysis, good at being loyal officials (at least in their own self-image), but bad at understanding how a society works in all its complexity. In addition, their often harsh judgments are an expression of a lack of empathy and imagination.

But his general tone is omniscient bordering on the arrogant.

This is possible, and it is not because McCargo does not substantiate his claims at all – among other things, he explains this situation with the judges' historical separation from other social classes, and with the way the recruitment process and career path are screwed together. But his general tone is omniscient bordering on the arrogant. This – probably unintentional – arrogance also shines through when McCargo jovially thanks his «assistants», Pete, Ying, Niw, Ploy and a whole lot of others, who are not allowed to be mentioned by their full name or discipline, but as I – if I know academia right – guess what has done even very substantial scientific work.

This substantial scientific work, in turn, shines through the book, which is rich in both historical and current information on the role of the judicial system in Thailand's politically tense situation. And the lines that McCargo fails to draw fully to similar states in other parts of the world, you can then even imagine.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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