Interview: Duncan McCargo discusses his new book, Fighting for Virtue: Justice and Politics in Thailand

April 27, 2020

Throughout his academic career, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Director Duncan McCargo has closely followed Thailand’s coups, political protests, and periods of stability.

In his new book Fighting for Virtue: Justice and Politics in Thailand, McCargo takes a closer look at one understudied branch of Thailand’s “network monarchy”–the judiciary.

“The judicial system really came to the fore with a set of public debates about ‘judicialization’ following two speeches by the then king, the late King Bhumibol, in April 2006, when he called upon the judges to fix Thailand’s political problems,” explained McCargo. “In fairly short order, an election result is annulled, political parties start to be banned, quite a few people are hauled in on charges relating to freedom of expression.”

According to McCargo, during their quest to interpret the royal will, these judges were guided by a deceptively simple injunction at the beginning of the Thai constitution: “May there be virtue.”

But “what the notion of ‘fighting for virtue’ does if you’re not very careful is reduce a set of very complicated political and social problems to a very simple moral mission and moral imperative,” warned McCargo. “Thai judges are not Batman, and fighting for good against evil is often not terribly straightforward.”

We spoke with McCargo about what it means to “fight for virtue,” his research on Thailand and Southeast Asia, and the particular challenges of studying Thai politics. Watch the video below.