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For Love, Money or Drugs: Policing Illicit Activities in Colonial Southeast Asia

Fri, April 1, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Washington State Convention Center, 3rd Floor, Room 306

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel


This panel focuses on the policing of illicit activities in colonial Southeast Asia. The many empires and states that divided the region shared an obsession with the “hidden” aspects of the daily lives of their subjects, not least because individual behavior seemed to threaten the social order and expose the sordid underside of colonial economies. What were the sources of this anxiety and how did state efforts to define and police criminal behavior result in new styles and forms of governance? To address these questions, this panel brings together four papers that explore various sites of encounter in the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: opium smuggling in Burma, counterfeiting money in Thailand, abusing drugs in Vietnam, and controversies over marriage and Islamic law in interwar Malaysia. Together these papers examine the creation of new legal instruments, scientific tools, visual technologies, and bureaucratic schemes which allowed offenses to be codified for the first time as “crimes” that could be adjudicated, punished and counted.

Whereas postcolonial scholars more often focus on the discursive aspects of criminality, as a description or metaphor of imperial decline, this panel considers criminalization --the process of transforming offenses into crimes -- as both a critical aspect of colonial state-building projects and as a site for innovation. Furthermore the interdisciplinary perspective of this panel facilitates comparative inquiry into how—under what conditions and by what processes—advances in expert knowledge, regional politics, and shifts in norms of respectability defined, and redefined, illicit activities.

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