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Reading Hobbes’s Sovereign into a Burmese Narrative of Police Torture

In: Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law
Author:
Nick Cheesman Fellow, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University; Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 2016–17 nick.cheesman@anu.edu.au

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Throughout February 2012, a court sitting at Myanmar’s central prison recorded a defendant’s narrative of torture by policemen to have him confess to a bombing two years prior. How was this record made possible? What does the narrative reveal about the relationship of police torturers to the political community giving them authority to act? Working from Agamben’s intuition that in the moment of violence the policeman occupies an area symmetrical to the sovereign, inasmuch as his use of violence is justified in the name of public order, I suggest the account of police torture in this case can be explained in terms of Hobbes’s theory of attributed action. Like Hobbes’s sovereign, the Burmese policemen had the prerogative to decide when and how to use violence against the detained subject on behalf of the state. That the defendant could later recount to a judge the torture done to him was only because he lacked standing to lay claims against sovereign police, who he himself, as a member of the political community, had authorised. Ironically, the record of his narrative was possible precisely because his claims were without efficacy.

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