“First Thing, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers”

A few months ago, my mother-in-law received official documents from a legal firm outlining charges against her for illegally keeping some unspecified property on state land (needless to say, she was wholly innocent of this and we never found out what property or what land was supposed to be involved exactly). Apparently, a case would be brought before the courts and the punishment could be severe – cue, therefore, a great deal of stress, anxiety, tears before bedtime and so forth. It took a fair amount of going from one police station to another and submitting various documents before the lawyers concerned accepted that they had somehow lit upon the wrong person (was it a case of identity theft or simply incompetence?). Finally, a letter arrived saying that the case never went before any court, that no proceedings were begun and that, in effect, it never existed. While this brought about some relief, as can be imagined, it does raise certain questions about the quality of legal proceedings here. Which brings me to the saplings case – various offices are now blaming each other for bringing forward obviously unsubstantiated charges (it always appeared that there was no meaningful evidence but it might have been that the state had some kind of secret evidence it was going to produce at some stage). It is of course the Thai way to try to blame one or a few individuals when things like this happen rather than acknowledging the systemic issues that are really involved. The purpose of the case (like the other ‘corrupt policy’ cases such as the lottery issue) was obviously a pretext for justifying the disgraceful 2006 military coup by pretending that it was about corruption rather than its real cause. Will this pretext now be quietly dropped and consigned to the ‘it never existed’ category of court cases? I think it was Plato who said that the physical and spiritual character of a state can be judged by its doctors and lawyers.

Words or Pages

I was talking yesterday about the cost of writing to order – how much for a book on this or that for hire. I said that in Britain or North America it was common to be paid per word and, consequently, how many baht per word would be suitable for different kinds of market. I was reminded that, in Thai, it is very difficult to identify the number of words because they have a tendency all to flow together in a piece of prose. Consequently, payment per page is normal, although also problematic.

The merging of words is characteristic of Thai although not unique – it seems to be possible to have several nouns strung together in German, for example. Other characteristic features include the separate (and quite extensive) vocabulary used when referring to royalty as opposed to common people and the tendency to omit various words when both speaking and writing. Verb tenses and pronouns are among the more common types of words to be omitted and the listener is expected to be able to understand or infer the meaning from context. This can lead to some difficulty in comprehension, especially for the foreigner (or me, anyway) trying to work out what is going on.

Is it possible that these forms of ambiguity are influential in the way that Thai law is written and interpreted? Thai prose that I have seen often suffers from the fault, from my perspective, of not being structured appropriately. Instead of the writer introducing a series of points and developing an argument, perhaps deploying pros and cons and all that other stuff westerners are used to doing from schooldays, it generally seems to be a series of statements joined together grammatically rather than thematically – and then this is repeated several times in slightly different phraseology. This continues until the desired length is reached and then it ends.

It is not permitted to criticize decisions made by courts – I am not sure if it is every decision from every court or just some of them and I am reluctant to test the waters by finding out by trial and error. This is a pity from the perspective of people trying to understand how things are written the way they are and why.