When we think of "heritage", we usually think of historic sites, beautiful old buildings, traditional performing arts, sumptuous dishes and so on. These are things rooted in the past that are proudly passed on from generation to generation. They help us understand our history and ourselves and nourish our communal identities.
But sometimes, the past is unhappy: war, slavery, genocide, abuses of human rights, and other injustices. Often this history becomes contested, misunderstood or overlooked. Sometimes it is deliberately suppressed.
Such history lingers in the losses and painful memories of the people who survived. And it remains embedded in heritage: photographs, films, artefacts, sites, poems, songs, and stories. When the history is controversial, this heritage becomes "difficult". It is at risk of being unrecorded, forgotten or lost due in part to a lack of institutional support for its conservation. Officials and museums don't want to touch it.
But we need to conserve difficult heritage, too, because it helps society understand the past, learn to solve problems and heal.
In Thailand, our difficult past includes the brutal suppression of the students' movement on Oct 6, 1976. Or various uprisings by ethnic groups and farmers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These and many other incidents have long been ignored or downplayed by authorities. They do not appear in the textbooks our schoolchildren read to learn history. No official exhibits or monuments commemorate them.
Yet the events were real, and people who lost loved ones still have vivid memories of trauma. These legacies shape their collective identities. It is their heritage. We need to respect their identities and feelings by helping conserve their heritage and making it available to the public. Our government officials, institutions and funding should invest in this effort towards inclusiveness.
Numerous museums and exhibitions around the world have worked to conserve difficult heritage and put it on display, backed by official action and government funding. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the Polin Museum in Warsaw, for example, display texts, recordings, videos and other artefacts that convey the testimony of witnesses and survivors, raising awareness about this darkest chapter of history. The museum space allows visitors to understand and empathise.
In Thailand, we have few, if any, public museums exploring our difficult history -- part of a broad lack of strong heritage management. For now, in the absence of government support for difficult heritage, we are fortunate whenever volunteers and donors, community groups, curators and researchers work to fill the gap.
One example is a series of exhibitions and events about the Tak Bai "incident", a demonstration in Narathiwat province in 2004 that escalated into clashes between the protesters, mostly young men, and the army. Some 1,370 people were arrested and hauled in trucks to an army base in another province. By the time the trucks had arrived, 77 of the arrestees had died, mostly of suffocation.
The incident sparked outrage, worsening the conflict in Thailand's "deep South", the three southernmost provinces where Malay-Muslim communities have long sought greater recognition from the central government for their distinct identity, language and history. To be sure, the conflict does involve some extremists who support an armed insurgency. From 2004–2022, the conflict claimed a total of 5,836 lives, including separatist fighters, soldiers, police and local residents, according to the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre.
As for the Tak Bai incident -- no one responsible has been brought to justice. Families that lost their husbands, sons and brothers still suffer from fear, pain, and the impossibility of closure. That's where the recent heritage projects have helped. "Heard the Unheard: Remember Tak Bai 2004," for example, was a temporary exhibition organised by a team of researchers, museum curators, and local Tak Bai residents and staged in a gallery at Bangkok's Silpakorn University, for a week in March 2023. The exhibition was part of a series of efforts involved in setting up a Deep South Museum and Archives' Initiative Project, led by Phrae Sirisakdamkoeng, assistant professor of anthropology at Silpakorn.
The exhibition displayed everyday objects and recounted stories in the words of mothers, wives, and sisters of victims. A local researcher interviewed them, asking them to choose special objects that belonged to the victims. A total of 53 families collaborated with the research team.
For example, the story of a rubber factory worker and farm labourer named Masukri was told through the words of his wife in a wall text displayed next to his favourite cotton sarong: "He worked hard to support his family...He was a good man who went to pray at the mosque and liked to help other people, such as when local people organised some functions...That day he said he would take a trip to Tak Bai... The evening came, and he still did not come back. I was so worried. Next day, his sister came to say that he was dead. His family went to collect the body... I felt so angry... His body was buried in the cemetery near his mother's house. I cried and cried like my life came crashing down."
Many young students and other exhibition visitors said they had never heard of Tak Bai or the violent incident, and they were surprised to learn about it. The exhibits revealing the human side of the conflict touched the hearts of visitors who are mothers, wives and daughters. They admired the resilience of the survivors.
For the families who participated, the exhibition was an empowering experience that let them have a dialogue with people outside of their own community and share their feelings with other women who have lost loved ones in political conflicts.
The focus of museums in Thailand until now has been art and archaeology. They are established to celebrate culture and attract tourists. Now we need our cultural institutions to do more to explore our difficult history. This can help inoculate our society against problems. Silpakorn University and other universities deserve credit for hosting the Tak Bai exhibitions and events, showing that our public institutions can indeed help.
Inclusive heritage work requires a multi-disciplinary approach and collaborative efforts from all stakeholders. Volunteers, private donors and local communities are willing to help, but they should not have to do it all on their own.
Fortunately, Thailand has lots of talent among our historians, anthropologists, curators, cultural administrators, and educators. Let's support them with a strong public agenda, training and funds to fill our society's need for better conservation of all types of heritage -- especially when it's difficult.
Paritta Chalermpow Koanantakool, PhD, is a social anthropologist, former professor at Thammasat University and former director of the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate sustaining the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the neighbouring region. Each column is written by a different contributor. The views expressed are those of the author.