Historical horrors
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Historical horrors

An artist uses an iconic photo to explore manipulation of history in Thailand's schoolbooks

Historical  horrors
Preecha Raksorn at his exhibition 'Once Upon A Time At Sanamluang'.

The Oct 6, 1976, massacre was one of Thailand's most tragic incidents -- a violent crackdown by the Royal Thai Police and right-wing paramilitaries against student protesters at Thammasat University and areas around Sanam Luang.

An iconic photo of the massacre was taken by Neal Ulevich, a photographer and eventual Pulitzer Prize winner, showing a corpse hanging from a tree in Sanam Luang with a man about to smash the dead body with a chair. Among the crowd is a little boy laughing at the brutal scene.

Although the Oct 6 massacre was reported globally, schoolbooks in Thailand do not mention it. To counter this, artist Preecha Raksorn created the exhibition "Once Upon A Time At Sanamluang" and used this photo to present perspectives of the incident.

"My work involves social issues regarding individual cases. I rarely create work involving politics. However, I now have a three-and-a-half-year-old son and worry about his life in the future. I am concerned that Thailand today has not changed much compared to the past," explained Preecha.

"I created this exhibition using a photo taken by Neal Ulevich because it portrays human violence and darkness. Thai people should learn that despite conflict, they should not kill one another. However, government agencies manipulate what they want people to see, including content in textbooks."

While researching schoolbooks, Preecha discovered there is one mention of the Oct 6 massacre in material for Mathayom 3 students, but it is brief and without detail.

Chair Man by Preecha Raksorn.

"I asked my friends who are teachers to show me textbooks that mention the Oct 6 massacre. The content in the exhibition came from the most expensive book with colourful photos, but there are no photos of the massacre. There was a photo of the former leader, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. This expensive textbook was authored by scholars. Cheaper books feature black and white photos, but the written content is similar. Some even report the number of deaths to be lower than it really was," said Preecha.

"Once Upon A Time At Sanamluang" was designed to appear like a school auditorium with a platform for formal talks and lectures. On the podium, a passage has been placed. It was taken from a Thai history book about the massacre, and states that university students protested against the dictator Thanom, and that in the early morning of Oct 6, authorities cracked down which resulted in the death of many.

On one side of the wall, photos are displayed as an exhibition on a school board. Inspired by colouring books from his younger days, Preecha shared the photo with people in different careers -- students, artists, teachers, a barber, a talent agent, a chef and a civil engineer. He asked participants to express their feelings about the incident by colouring the photo. He said that a student aged around 18 or 19 told him he did not know about the massacre. Unfortunately, conservatives did not want to be involved in the project.

"Once Upon A Time at Sanamluang" showcases photos from 16 participants who changed the image according to their perspective. Photo Number 8D was coloured by Akawit Kleebkajorn, a teacher. He divided people in the photo into two sides by colouring the shirts of people on the left red and on the right yellow.

Kwanchai Sinpru, also a teacher, painted over the original photo with the Dao Siam newspaper headline and a portrait of Phra Kittivudtho Bhikkhu with his controversial words: "Killing Communists Is Not A Sin."

A passage from a Thai history textbook on the podium.

Krit Chantrane, an artist, painted the image of the Thai national flag over the photo. Apisit Sitsuntiea, another artist, completely transformed the photo into a black crown, renaming it Black Crown.

"It is interesting. I wanted to see the perspectives of other people, especially people who do not study art. If I were a person of authority, I would organise a national painting competition around this photo so that students could learn about the event, but I don't have that kind of power," said Preecha.

The exhibition title was inspired by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a comedy-drama by Quentin Tarantino. The movie is based on the real-life murder of a Hollywood actress in the 1960s, but the ending was changed so that the victim survives while the murderers die.

On the other side of the gallery wall, there are illustrations by Preecha which narrate a story of the hanged man in Ulevich's photo, rising from the dead and fighting with the person who is about to attack his lifeless body. Preecha often uses comic-style paintings as he is a fan of Japanese manga.

"Comic books are unique. For example, there is an image of a person holding an axe to attack another person. The next image depicts a speech bubble with a screaming sound. These images allow readers to imagine what will happen. This is different from other media. Due to its intriguing presentation, I often use it in my work," he said.

It has been said that history is written by victors, but Preecha hopes that history textbooks will be based on the truth.

Comic illustrations by Preecha Raksorn.

"Presenting both sides of the incident is best, but usually impossible. Textbooks should be written by specialists and present content from both sides and discuss the real facts. People should also discuss at what age students should be allowed to see photos from the massacre. I believe 18 is appropriate. It is kind of strange that the content is included in schoolbooks for Mattayom 3 students, who are too young to see violent images," said Preecha.

"I hope people will see the exhibition. My job is to present my ideas. What viewers take away is up to them."

"Once Upon A Time At Sanamluang" runs at VS Gallery, Narathiwat Ratchanakharin 22, until Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit facebook.com/VSGalleryBangkok.

Participants' interpretations of Neal Ulevich's original photo.

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