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Abstract

Law in Mae Sot, Law and Thailand is an ethnographic study of law in Mae Sot, Thailand, an industrializing town on the Thai-Burma borderlands. It approaches its object from the perspective of a legal aid clinic in the town, an organization that focused its efforts on the Burmese migrant communities who fuel the area’s economic growth. Since a seminal case in 2003, in which 18 Burmese migrants were awarded 1.17 million baht ($1,625/person) in compensation for unpaid wages from Nut Knitting Factory in Mae Sot, thousands of Burmese workers have explored the possibility of legal remedies to address the systematic underpayment, overwork and exploitation they face. In a country not known for the progressivism of its courts, the appeal of the law as a promising site of redress for Burmese workers was striking. Law in Mae Sot, Law and Thailand reads the efflorescence of migrant legal claims as symptomatic of a broader suffusion of legal discourse into Mae Sot. It explores how law became a privileged site of social and political life, and how variously situated actors used and changed law to actualize some of its possibilities. The dissertation focuses on three nexuses – law and temporality, law and place, and law and its materialization(s) – in order to describe the ways in which law was and was not authoritative in Mae Sot. The dissertation is built around an analysis of the ways in which legal actors managed the normativizing possibilities of law at different moments and sites of legal practice. It starts with the ethnographic observation that, in most contexts, lawyers and migrants, perhaps counter-intuitively given their choice of instrument, refrained from describing situations using legal categories -- even ones as seemingly simple as legal and illegal -- and from invoking legal standards and statute to address or solve conflict. They preferred instead to frame interaction through non-legal normative orders, from ones governing polite interaction to notions of “duty” and desire. It was only in specific contexts that lawyers, legal aid workers, translators and other figures of law in Mae Sot evoked law as a normativizing discourse. The dissertation tracks what the suppression or invocation of categorical legal thinking implies for the possibilities for future oriented, transcendent projects -- capitalist transition, regionalization, and the creation of ‘good’ subjects -- to structure Mae Sot. The productive tensions between, on the one hand, the formal, symbolic prominence of law in the town and the marginality of its logics is a thematic central to this dissertation. I theorize this tension as an entailment of what I call an ‘anti-categorical’ formation that pervaded the town. This concept describes a historically emergent assembly of projects and stances, which this dissertation describes, that come together in diverse instances to mediate the relationship between law, capital and effective action. The simultaneous importance of law, as one of the projects that met in interaction, and the avoidance, in the same interactions, of its normative categories is what led me to characterize such assemblies as “anti-categorical.” The repetition of these moments -- the evident standardization of the techniques of management latent to their assembly -- is why I argue that the anti-categorical is a formation. It was both an emergent one-off, framed through inexorably unique conditions, and it was a constitutive pattern of practice. How best to theorize anti-categoricality and the ways in which it shaped Mae Sot? The dissertation is structured around five answers to this question, theorizing the connection of the anti-categorical to place, the history of cause lawyering in Thailand, translation, the materiality of legal forms, and the concept of “satisfaction.”

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