Organized Panel Session
Southeast Asia has an unusually high concentration of countries that impose the death penalty for drug-related offenses. Why do states in this region share such forceful laws against narcotics? This article locates the answer in Southeast Asia’s history of colonial state formation. It identifies a process that links early 20th century projects for raising revenue from opium in countries formerly under Anglo-European and Japanese influence, to a sweeping wave of capital punishment laws across the region in the 1970s. Colonial-era arrangements for taxing opium influenced post-independence power struggles, by bequeathing stocks and infrastructure to elites as a ready source of finance and patronage-building. Using evidence from Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, I demonstrate how elites competed to control these legacy assets, using anti-narcotic campaigns to undercut another’s support base, and trace the process through which a political instrument for eliminating rivals escalated into harsh drug laws. Unlike conventional understandings of states as developing punitive laws in response to perceived social threats, I argue that the initial introduction of repressive anti-drug legislation has more to do with power struggles among state elites than with pressures from below. This article adds to scholarship theorizing legacies of colonial rule upon today’s state-society relationships by stressing the role of elite competition for understanding laws for capital punishment, an especially extreme expression of state power.