How Thai and Burmese torturers talk

Dr Nick Cheesman

Event details

PSC Seminar Series

Date & time

Tuesday 21 March 2023


Bell School Boardroom 2.54, level 2


Dr Nick Cheesman


Maxine McArthur

In 2021, a group of anti-narcotics cops in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand suffocated a man to death with plastic bags. The torture and killing would have gone unreported but it was captured on a video, which a lawyer posted online. The video, in which the voices of the torturers are audible, serves as a starting point for this presentation. In it, I revisit Elaine Scarry’s (1985) thesis that torture is not an element of interrogation, but the opposite: interrogation is internal to the structure of torture. In torture, the captive’s ground becomes increasingly physical and the torturers increasingly verbal. That is to say, the political dynamic of violent degradation in torture is located not in how captives speak when tortured, but in how torturers themselves talk.

How do torturers talk? And how do answers to this question present opportunities for rethinking the relation between law, violence, and political order? I address these questions by describing research on torture in Thailand conducted during 2018-19 and 2022, supplemented by data from Myanmar prior to the 2021 coup there. I argue that in Thailand and Myanmar, torturers’ talk works not to elicit facts but establish subject positions. It is pedagogical, not epistemological, concerned not with the production of knowledge but with the affirmation of the rightness of torturers’ views and practices. What is at stake is not the truthfulness of captives’ answers, but their demonstrated ability to learn and perform assigned roles in the torture situation. The task for politically engaged research on torture, among other categories of state violence, is to describe and understand the part that such pedagogies of torment play in arrangements for the domination of some people by others.

Nick Cheesman is an associate professor in the Department of Political and Social Change, The Australian National University, and most recently, a visiting professor at the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, University at Buffalo. His “Torture in Thailand at the limits of law” is online with Law and Social Inquiry.

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