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Constructing the Identity of the Thai Judge: Virtue, Status, and Power

  • Kitpatchara SOMANAWAT (a1)

A central aspect of Thai legal consciousness since the mid-twentieth century, widely shared among the general population, has been a perception that judges have an exalted status entitling them to make broad-ranging pronouncements about social and political issues as well as legal matters. Popular legal consciousness of the Thai judge has to a large extent been shared by the judges themselves, as well as by their families and followers. The power and authority of Thai judges go far beyond the limited formal role they are given in Thailand’s civil-law system. This article suggests that the exceptional status of the Thai judge derives from a process of identity construction, emphasizing four traits that set the ideal judge apart from ordinary people. The first is that a Thai judge must be a “khon di” (good person), with specific reference to the traditions of Thai Buddhism. The second is that a Thai judge must be polite, kind, and socially refined—a “phudi” (proper gentleman). The third characteristic of the ideal Thai judge is that he or she must be highly educated and knowledgeable about the law—a “phuru” (learned and wise person). The fourth trait is that a Thai judge must be a “phupakdi” (loyal servant of the king), not only loyal to the monarchy as an institution, but to the late King Rama IX as a person. When the identity of the Thai judge is constructed from these four constituent elements, the pronouncements of the judge acquire legitimacy, even when they range beyond the narrow letter of the law. The article explores this central aspect of Thai legal consciousness by analyzing the construction of judges’ identities through a distinctive set of historical documents—the cremation volumes (nangsue ngan sop) that are published and distributed at the funerals of noted public figures. These volumes contain a wealth of biographical information as well as related legal and historical material that shed light on the life and work of Thailand’s most prominent judges during the past 50 years.

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Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University; PhD Candidate in History, Chiang Mai University. This article was edited by David and Jaruwan Engel to whom I am grateful. I also thank Saichol Sattayanurak of Chiang Mai University, Kasian Tejapera of Thammasat University, and Lynette Chua for their comments. In addition, I wish to acknowledge the Centre for Asian Legal Studies, National University of Singapore, for providing me with partial funding and the opportunity to present an early draft of this article at the Asian Law & Society Association inaugural conference in Singapore in September 2016. Correspondence to Kitpatchara Somanawat, Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University, 239 Huay Keaw Rd, Suthep, Muang Chiang Mai, 50200, Thailand. E-mail

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Asian Journal of Law and Society
  • ISSN: 2052-9015
  • EISSN: 2052-9023
  • URL: /core/journals/asian-journal-of-law-and-society
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