October 10th: Special Seminar on Histories of amnesties in mainland Southeast Asia

Date & Time: Thursday, October 10, 2019, 12 to 3 p.m.
Venue: Tonan Tei (Room 201), Inamori Foundation Building

Speaker1: Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Speaker2: Dr. Maitrii Aung-Thwin, National University of Singapore

Without Account: A History of Coup Amnesties in Thailand
Tyrell Haberkorn, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Between 1932 and 2018, there have been twelve successful – meaning the coup makers seized power – coups in Thailand. Each time, the coup makers have protected themselves by passing an amnesty, in the new constitution promulgated by the dictator or junta, in a stand-alone law, and sometimes both. Each amnesty article or law has retroactively legalized the coup in question and protected the coupmakers from possible prosecution or other sanction. In each instance, the amnesty has turned rebellion into an administrative action and legalized the extrajudicial seizure of power from the people. Over time, the repeated amnesties have institutionalized the dispossession of democracy and the people’s role in the Thai polity. This paper traces the legal and political history of the repetition of the use of amnesty as a way to understand one aspect of the foreclosure of accountability and the production of impunity for the military. What legal and social political work does each amnesty perform individually, and how do they function as a history? What language and aspects of amnesty law have remained consistent over different iterations of the amnesties, and what new legal maneuvers have been introduced? What legal and political challenges to amnesty have been made, and which remain unthinkable? Framed by comparison with legal amnesties for coups in other countries, this paper reflects on what the history and repetition of coup amnesties means for the possibility of justice in Thailand. The paper concludes with a reflection on the most recent coup, the 22 May 2014 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order, the constitutional amnesty provisions passed, and the possibility of undoing them following a future democratic transition.

Tyrell Haberkorn works on state violence and dissident cultural politics in Thailand and is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), which rethinks the meaning of revolution in terms of legal rather than armed struggle; and In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), a new history of post-absolutist Thailand written through the lens of impunity. Tyrell also writes and translates frequently about Thailand for a broad, public audience, including Mekong Review, Dissent, Foreign Affairs, openDemocracy, and Prachatai.

Intra-village Grievances and the Subversion of Amnesty in Colonial Burma, 1930-1934
Maitrii Aung-Thwin, National University of Singapore

In late 1930, a violent uprising broke out in the rural rice fields of British Burma, resulting in attacks on forestry officers, railroads, and other symbols of colonial authority. Although initially limited in scope and scale to the district of Tharrawaddy, the uprising escalated into a multi-sited rebellion, covering the majority of the Irrawaddy Burma delta region and sections of Upper Burma. In response, the colonial government passed emergency legislation that gave them special powers of search, seizure, arrest, prosecution and sentencing that could circumvent conventional common-law legal procedures, making it easier to capture, imprison, and execute suspects accused of waging war against the King-Emperor. Among these special powers was the granting of amnesty to captured detainees in exchange for their cooperation as “approvers” or prosecution witnesses. These amnesty grantees became a key element of the colonial state’s ability to prosecute accused rebels, resulting in thousands of arrests. An examination of these records produce three key findings: (1) the awarding of amnesty to former accused rebels would become an important prosecutorial instrument of the colonial government in the absence of material evidence; (2) the testimonies of amnesty grantees would serve as the basis for key tropes of the rebellion narrative; and (3) villagers would use the amnesty mechanism in order to exercise retribution for personal intra-village grievances. This study suggests that the unrest associated with the rebellion was as much about divisions within rural British Burma as it was an expression of dissent towards colonial policies and practices.

Maitrii Aung-Thwin is Associate Professor of Myanmar/Southeast Asian History and Convenor of the Comparative Asian Studies PhD Program. His research interests include nation-building, social movements, resistnce, public history, socio-legal studies, and religious networks in Southeast Asia. His publications include a History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times: Traditions and Transformations (with Michael Aung-Thwin, 2013), The Return of the Galon King: History, Law, and Rebellion in Colonial Burma (2011), and A New History of Southeast Asia (with Merle Ricklefs et al, 2010). He was a member of the Board of the Directors for the Association of Asian Studies, Chair of the Southeast Asia Council, and President of the Burma Studies Group. He is currently a Trustee of the Burma Studies Foundation, Editor of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies and Deputy Director of the Asia Research Institute (Singapore).