Moving on from the cycles of Oct 6, 1976

Moving on from the cycles of Oct 6, 1976

Oct 6, 1976: Border Patrol Police watch the survivors of the massacre they and their rightist groups caused. (File photo)
Oct 6, 1976: Border Patrol Police watch the survivors of the massacre they and their rightist groups caused. (File photo)

Four decades can be a watershed. For Thailand, what happened on Oct 6, 1976 when a right-wing backlash brutally crushed a budding, left-leaning political movement has now come full circle. The imperative for the country is to internalise the lessons of the past and find ways to move forward into the future. As ever, a spirit of compromise and accommodation not just across colour-coded divides but also across generations and political fault lines is imperative.

The 1970s were a tumultuous time in Thailand. In the near abroad, communist expansionism made profound inroads into Indochina. In rapid succession during April-May 1975, Cambodia fell to the Maoist Khmer Rouge, Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army, and communist insurgents took over Laos. On Thailand's western front, then-Burma became reclusive and autarkic from 1962. Over the same period, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its most intense, manifesting in the fight for and against communism in many "third world" hotspots.

At home, Thailand's political order that was established and entrenched during military-authoritarian rule and the Cold War from the late 1950s had become a victim of its own success. With greater access to university education and information on the back of sustained economic development, an inchoate intelligentsia had taken root. It eventually challenged the status quo by calling for democratic rule in the face of a military dictatorship. The political situation came to a head with the dictatorship's incumbency coup to re-consolidate power in November 1971, leading to public demands for the return of constitutionalism and democracy. Unsurprisingly, the military ignored these demands, and hunkered down for a long fight.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

It failed and was overthrown by a Bangkok-based, student-led uprising on Oct 14, 1973, thanks in part to the dictatorship's corruption and abuse of power. It appeared at the time as if democracy had finally arrived. But the ensuing months became volatile and uncontrollable. A variety of political movements and agendas sprung up. The Communist Party of Thailand was vibrant and operational. Democratic institutions were fragile and unable to placate popular demands and grievances. Many in the established political order saw the rise of the left as an existential threat. Political liberalisation became increasingly unwieldy and unworkable amid communist penetration and the potential capture of the Thai state.

By October 1976, the pendulum inevitably swung back. A pro-military rightist build-up that included the mobilisation of vigilante groups and saboteurs, backed by state funds and media propaganda, struck back. The backlash was capped by wanton killing and maiming of students at Thammasat University on Oct 6. For all involved, even the military and police who perpetrated the handiwork, it was a dark chapter and a permanent scar in Thailand's collective psyche. What had started out as an anti-military movement in 1973 warped into anti-establishment sentiment by 1976. There was to be more political violence, such as in May 1992 and over the past decade of red-yellow divide, but none will surpass Oct 6.

Yet Thailand now faces a reckoning that harks back to 40 years ago. Back then, the Thai masses outside Bangkok were not connected to the political system. More than ever, the vast majority of this country is now aware of their stake in Thai politics, owing in part to ongoing revolutions in information technology. Back then, the established political order, anchored around the bureaucracy and a military-monarchy symbiosis, was still in its formative stage, under perceived threat of a communist takeover. This same political order is now resurgent but faces an uncertain time ahead.

Lest we forget, this political order that has been resilient to this day did two good things for Thailand. It kept communism at bay, and it enabled Thai economic development, although at a high cost of military-authoritarianism and suppression of civil liberties and basic freedoms. The benefits of these two achievements are self-evident, especially in view how Thailand's immediate neighbours have fared over the same period.

But this political order must now be renegotiated and recalibrated in view of the royal transition after a seven-decade reign that has seen Thailand modernised from a backwater village to a gleaming metropolis, warts and all. The status quo that was restored in October 1976 has been remarkably smart and adaptive in maintaining its interests and prerogatives by opening up the political space and allowing development to stay on track. This same status quo has been restored yet again after the twin coups over the past decade. But it is now untenable. Being smart now would require even more adaptation and accommodation.

The political changes in October 1973 and the military-sponsored violence in May 1992 took place within the established order with heightened roles for royal arbitration of political conflict. The political changes in October 1976 and from the September 2006 putsch that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's opportunistic pro-masses populism are seen as challenges from outside the established order, and have been turned back as such.

At the end of Thailand's endgame, the various authorities and personalities involved should see that what used to constitute the established political order can no longer hold because of the royal transition. A new political order based on a new consensus and common understanding will have to come in its place.

The best way to get there is from within, where the insiders and established centres of power and individuals recognise the need for compromise and inclusiveness. Thailand is a very different place than it was 40 years ago, and its power configurations and governing institutions have to be adjusted correspondingly. Complying with this reality is Thailand's way forward. Denying it and Thailand risks becoming a long-term basket case.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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