Justice and Politics in Thailand

This is an original, heavily researched, fascinating, highly readable, and ultimately frightening book.

Chris Baker, Bangkok Post, 10 July 2020


Fighting for Virtue makes an original contribution to critical debates about the rule of law in Southeast Asia. It will be an essential point of reference for anyone interested in understanding the morbid politics of the final decade of King Bhumibol’s reign. For both these reasons it deserves to be read widely.

Contemporary Southeast Asia


The greatest merit of Fighting for Virtue lies in the evidence that emerges from the hundreds of hours McCargo spent in Thai courts and his myriad formal interviews and informal conversations with “judges, prosecutors, police officers, defense lawyers, defendants and their families, witnesses, academics, journalists, and campaigners”. McCargo lets the judges, and everybody else, speak for themselves (and even incriminate themselves), so we are presented with a multifaceted view of the administration of justice in Thailand.

Journal of The Siam Society

Duncan McCargo held a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship from 2011–14, which funded him to spend the whole of 2012 conducting ethnographic fieldwork and interview research on the Thai justice system. This research was published as Fighting for Virtue: Justice and Politics in Thailand (Cornell 2019), a book that was conceived during a 2010 residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, and was written up primarily during a year in residence at the School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

Fighting for Virtue investigates how Thailand’s judges were tasked by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) in 2006 with helping to solve the country’s intractable political problems—and what happened next. Across the last decade of Rama IX’s rule, Duncan McCargo examines the world of Thai judges: how they were recruited, trained, and promoted, and how they were socialized into a conservative world-view that emphasized the proximity between the judiciary and the monarchy.

McCargo delves into three pivotal freedom of expression cases that illuminate Thai legal and cultural understandings of sedition and treason, before examining the ways in which accusations of disloyalty made against controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to occupy a central place in the political life of a deeply polarized nation. The author navigates the highly contentious role of the Constitutional Court as a key player in overseeing and regulating Thailand’s political order before concluding with reflections on the significance of the Bhumibol era of “judicialization” in Thailand.

He has also published a number of articles on aspects of transitional justice, including a 2015 Journal of Democracy piece in which is highly critical of what he terms the ‘transitional justice industry’. Neither truth commissions nor international tribunals have lived up to the high hopes invested in them over the past two decades. Duncan McCargo believes that both the Thai case and broader developments in transitional justice illustrate the limitations of legalism as a mean of solving political problems. Ultimately, he argues, states and societies need to put greater trust in politicians, rather than creating ever more elaborate mechanisms that allow courts and judges to regulate politics.

A list of Duncan McCargo’s publications on justice and politics in Thailand and beyond is available here