Tyrell Haberkorn (Public Lecture): Towards an Accounting of Late Cold War Human Rights Violations in Thailand

The 6 October 1976 massacre and coup first ended nearly three years of open politics in Thailand, and then began an extended period of arbitrary detention, torture, and killing of citizens who came to be seen as Communists, dissidents, or simply ran afoul of state officials in Thailand. While evidence prior to the massacre and coup supports the idea that the definition of ‘human rights’ in use by the state did not account for the violations of the rights of certain citizens deemed to be enemies, shifting geopolitics and the emergence of the international and domestic human rights movements during the late Cold War period (1976-1988) made this no longer tenable. This paper begins by drawing on state archival documents, primarily a series of exchanges about torture and detention between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Corrections, to trace the emergence of a new awareness about human rights within the state and to then examine how the state accounted for human rights violations. New forms of bureaucratic obfuscation emerged and to account for human rights violations became part of the very process of evading accountability for them. Then, as a response to what the state documents do not reveal, drawing primarily on the materials of new domestic human rights organizations, as well as solidarity and diaspora groups, the paper then creates an alternate accounting of the rights violations that took place during these years. The profound discrepancies between the two different histories of human rights violations offered by the records of the state and human rights activists invite reflections on how the process of creating an accounting of human rights violations is shot through with questions of evidence and politics, questions that are no less urgent for scholars than they are for state officials or human rights activists.

Tyrell Haberkorn is a Fellow in Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. She writes about state violence, human rights, and dissident cultural politics in Thailand. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), Voices of a Free Media: The First Ten Years of Prachatai (Bangkok: FCEM and Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014), In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming) and one of the editors of a Reflections of the Past: Selected Poems from Sattrisan Magazine, 1970-1976 (Silkworm Books, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she is a frequent contributor of translations of writing by political prisoners, cultural commentary, and poetry to the online newspaper Prachatai.

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