By Pokpong Lawansiri
Today is the 34th anniversary of the October 6, 1976 massacre. The BBC World Service’s Witness Programme reports the significance of the massacre in Thai politics. The programme includes the interview with Thongchai Winichakul, a former student leader-cum-historian, and the recorded voice of the late Puey Ungpakorn, the rector of Thammasat University who was forced to flee in exile after the massacre.
The massacre, which has been neglected and often forgotten in Thai society (or made to be forgotten by the Thai establishments), took place on the early morning of this day 34 years ago at Thammasat University when right-wing militia and border police attacked a peaceful gathering of student activists and protesters who had been protesting against the return of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn, a military dictator, who returned to Thailand in disguise as a Buddhist monk.
Thanom, who ruled Thailand from 1958-1973, was ousted in a popular uprising that took place three years before the massacre.
I attended today’s commemoration which was attended by close to a hundred participants. Most of them were were victims and witnesses to the massacre or family members of the victims. A decent numbers are student activists, trade unionists, and NGO activists.
To my surprise, Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang, one of the core leaders of the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), was also present despite rumors and accusations that he played an important role at a military commander in leading the brutal massacre on that date.
An Octoberist who organized the commemoration told me that Chamlong had attended the event before but had not been there for a few years after a mother of a victim questioned his presence at the event few years back whether his attendance would bring her dead daughter back.
I personally have a connection with the massacre. I was 13 during the 22nd anniversary of the massacre in 1996 and happened to be at Thammasat University during the commemoration.
The exhibition showing the photos and videos (a portion of the video of the massacre is here) of the students being set on fire with petrol, bodies being dragged by the right-wing militia, and a lifeless body being hung from a tree in Sanam Luang and being beaten by a chair with the right-wing crowd looking extremely happy. It did not make sense to an early teen who had been taught over and over that Thais are peace lovers and that we are a Buddhist nation.
The massacre, which took the lives of at least 46 protesters and pulled the country back to years of military rule, was never highlighted in my high school social science class. The massacre which ended with the military coup d’état brought the political division to another level. Hundreds of books were banned. Student activists were hunted down, forcing many who were not even Communists to join the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT), the armed wing of the Communist Party of Thailand. The conflict between the PLAT and the military government lasted for a decade until the amnesty programme in late 1980s.
Many of my friends who are activists or politically active agree that the exposure to the worst massacre in the Thai history (in terms of the level of brutality and savagery) has an effect in demystifying a bubble image of Thailand that Thais are peace lovers.
If the massacre is carefully studied, we can understand the mentality of the Thai elites and establishments and how they are ready to use violence on its citizens if they believe that the people’s wishes could shatter the status quo, including their readiness to justify the state’s violence by branding the opposition as being un-Thai.
As the Thai current political situation has been repeatedly compared to post-October 1976 massacre, we can just hope that the current government can make use of the tragedy and learn from it.