April 16, 2011

Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-majesté.

The following is a review of David Streckfuss' new book Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-majesté. London: Routledge, 2011.

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David Streckfuss's Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lese majeste builds on what was already an extraordinarily accomplished PhD dissertation taken at Wisconsin-Madison (1998) under the supervision of Alfred McCoy and Thongchai Winichakul. The original material has been revised and expanded in the context of Thailand's regime-shaking struggles since the 2006 coup d'etat that felled Thaksin Shinawatra and the accompanying excess of defamation and lse-majest claims. Truth in Thailand is also marked by the author's recent engagement with the theorists of the “state of exception,” Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben.1

It is with Agamben and Schmitt that Streckfuss can claim that Thailand's legalization of “abnormal times” since the 1950s entails a permanent suspension of constitutional order—or a state of exception in which sovereign power defines the possible. The ghost of Foucault is also present, though more as a disposition than an explicitly referenced master. Introduced briefly on the matter of “regimes of truth” (43-47), Foucault then largely fades from view, but the idea of productive discourse shadows the entire book. How could it be otherwise when Streckfuss aims to make sense of the order of things—of Thai-ness, of monarchy, and of nation, and the power that works through them?

Streckfuss thinks through these matters with ruthless clarity. Under his scholarly scrutiny the way in which Thai law has regulated the “characterisation of things” across a dispiriting one hundred years is laid bare. Central to this project has been what Streckfuss calls the “defamation regime”: “a social and political formation that over time develops a kind of 'defamation thinking' and 'impulse' that focuses on the insult of the defamatory statement, often at the expense of the truth” (xv). His expert narrative shows how courts, inspired by wider state discourses, try to establish the intent of those who have allegedly defamed the nation, the monarchy, or Thai-ness—and in so doing make visible the logic of the regime's self-image. In shining a spotlight on these legal moments Streckfuss is illuminating the underlying collective logic by which power has been consolidated in Thailand.

The book's thirteen chapters are rich in detail and observation, and many Old Thai Hands will learn much from each of them. Thematically organized, the chapters offer an incomparable history of lse-majest, law and Thai-ness, public opinion, and the science of traitorology. Of especial relevance given the recent discussion of the judicialization of politics in Thailand is Streckfuss's remarkable account in chapter 5 of the institutionalization of the “state of exception” by Thai courts working in conjunction with the police and military. Tracing the use of “indistinct, legal concepts such as 'peace and order' or 'threat to national security'” (113) and working through court transcripts, Streckfuss shows the essential reasoning behind the constitutional standing of the hundreds of coup decrees that have the status of law. No one hoping to understand the hybrid nature of Thailand's authoritarian-liberal mix can ignore this chapter, even if some (including me) will take exception to his argument that the country has been in varying states of exception for decades. Even if technically correct in the sense that extra-constitutional acts found Thai political order and shadow it—and that such acts announce themselves with disturbing frequency—the idea of a permanent “state of exception” can lead to overgeneralization. It can gloss, for example, Thailand's shifting regime forms since the 1950s and the differential relationship each has to law.

Many readers will be intrigued by Streckfuss's attempt to explain with Buddhist logic the actions that precede and follow coups d'etat, more than ten of which Thailand has witnessed since 1932. He writes:

This pattern [of a coup d'etat and self-issued amnesty and constitution] seems inexplicable unless we look at the practise as ritual purification—a public act certified by Thai Theravada Buddhism that recognizes a sacrifice (staging a coup), acknowledges a necessary murder (the killing of a constitution), and rewards giving (a new constitution, a new political order). (122)

Some might read as overly culturalist this account of coups d'etat as purification rituals that establish the pure intent of their protagonists (following a Buddhist inclination to stress right intent). At the very least the argument is provocative and offers original insights that expand our ways of thinking through the cultural aspects of Thai politics. Indeed, those hoping to understand the thinking of the Thai establishment and its social intermediaries may well feel they can finally name what has been hitherto a vague sense of Thai elite mentality. Streckfuss's desire to understand, and his dedicated patience in doing so, allows him to render visible the authenticity of a conservative Thai worldview that is often forgotten or cynically understood as mere venal interest. In short, Streckfuss has captured, on a political rather than aesthetic register, what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling” and its practical consciousness.2 This is what Streckfuss means when he speaks of a “defamation regime.”

It remains to be said that if a certain ironical grin accompanies Streckfuss's extensive and persuasive documentation of the defamation regime, present also is horror at the human cost that this regime extracts. Such sentiment hints at the deep humanism that drives his scholarship. No one can read the book's last page on the “Ghosts of Forgotten History,” reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's portrayal of the Angel of Progress, and not shudder at the thought of future Thai troubles on the way to democracy. When the “'Ghosts' of the Duson-nyor massacre, 6 October, Black May, and Tak Bai” (315) are finally granted an audience, Thailand will not be the same.

This monumental volume is destined to take a leading place in the field of critical studies of Asia.

The review appears in the: Connors MK and Streckfuss, D (2011) 'Michael K. Connors in conversation with David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand', Critical Asian Studies, 43:1, 139 - 149