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This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Interviews with injury victims in northern Thailand (Lanna) conveyed a pervasive sense of injustice in their daily lives but a notable absence of the language of rights. Despite the proliferation of rights-based discourses, organisations, and institutions in Thai society, interviewees tended to disfavour the pursuit of rights because they believed that resort to the legal system would subvert Lanna traditional practices and would add to the bad karma that caused their suffering in the first place. This article traces fundamental contradictions in northern Thai concepts of justice arising from the imposition of “modern” systems of law and religion by the central Thai (at that time Siamese) government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It views the legal modernisation project as a continuation of earlier efforts to impose central control over outlying regions by curtailing what were viewed as deviant cultural practices in order to weaken rival political, religious and legal traditions. The transformation of law in Lanna – from the Mangraisat tradition to a European-style legal framework – should therefore be viewed in conjunction with other cultural and political transformations initiated from Bangkok. Current expressions of disaffection and confusion about justice are rooted in this broader historical process.

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Asian Studies Review

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