Writing Against Impunity: State Violence in Thailand

Our guest blogger today is Tyrell Haberkorn, the author of In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand, the latest addition to New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies. In Plain Sight was published this month.

When I recently held In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand in my hands for the first time, I felt a sense of bittersweet urgency. Seeing one’s work in finished book form is always exciting. That’s the sweet part. The bitter part is that the publication of my book on the history of impunity for state violence in Thailand coincided with the stability of the harshest military dictatorship since the late 1970s. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which fomented a coup in May 2014, is approaching its fourth anniversary with no clear exit from power in sight. Impunity, or the persistent and repeated failure to secure accountability for state violence, reigns supreme. Urgency arises from the ongoing need to act against impunity and, in the case of scholars, write against it.

I researched and wrote In Plain Sight as a scholar-activist who divides her time between the present and the recent past, and among reading in archives and libraries, observing human rights court cases, and translating accounts of state violence. Beginning with the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy in June 1932 and ending with the coup by the NCPO in 2014, I asked: What does the history of a nation look like when told from the perspective of citizens whose rights are violated, rather than the perspective of victorious and powerful leaders?

What I discovered is that Thai citizens have experienced a range of forms of extrajudicial violence at the hands of state officials, including torture, disappearance, assassination, and massacre, across regimes both dictatorial and democratic. In nearly all cases, state officials have escaped sanction and accountability. This impunity has been produced and sustained through the unwillingness of state officials to find their colleagues responsible, the intimidation of victims of violence and other citizens, and weakness in legal systems and other institutions. Impunity takes place in public, is pedagogical, and is meant to be witnessed, from the instance of state violence to the evasion of accountability, and finally to the creation of evidence about it.

The title of the book comes from the most surprising lesson I learned while writing the book: state violence and impunity take place in full public view. My expectation was that finding evidence would be difficult. Instead, I mined archival and other publicly available state documents, newspaper articles, memoirs of civil servants and victims of state violence, and court observation to reveal a history of impunity. Many of the violent events I write about in the book have previously been unexamined or overlooked, but the primary reason is not a sheer lack of information. The events, as well as the evidence of violence, are in plain sight.

The urgency of writing against impunity is underscored every time another person’s human rights are violated. I finished the research for In Plain Sight a few weeks before the May 2014 coup. For several years it had seemed that there might be an end to impunity, rather than a resurgent dictatorship. Political prosecutions, particularly for peaceful expression of dissent, are pervasive. Activists are taken from their homes by soldiers and held for periods of incommunicado detention, designed to intimidate rather than secure any kind of justice. Torture, particularly of those accused in national security cases, is common. As in earlier periods, the law is primarily a tool of repression under the NCPO, not one for challenging it.

The individual lives of those affected by dictatorship form the ongoing urgency of writing against impunity. Scholars cannot stop state violence, but we can document and write about it and ensure that it is not forgotten. This means that after basking for a moment in the glow of holding my book, I put it down, picked up my pen, and went back to work.

Tyrell Haberkorn is an associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.


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