October generations are colour-coded
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October generations are colour-coded

Today, families of the victims of the Oct 14, 1973 uprising and pro-democracy activists will attend a ceremony to mark the 41st anniversary of the historic mass protest which toppled Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and his dictatorial clique.

A historic moment at the Democracy Monument during the October 1973 uprising that toppled military rule. Four decades on, the pro-democracy movement has evolved into colour-coded politics with very different versions of democracy. (Photo by Satharn Pairaoh)

The ceremony comes a week after the 38th anniversary of the Oct 6, 1976 massacre last Monday, which was remembered quietly due to the current political atmosphere.

In fact, past October commemorations, at least over the past 10 years, have emphasised the different political stances of those involved in the two political upheavals — the so-called October generations.

The Oct 14 remembrances appear to cater for people in the yellow-shirt faction, some of whom later joined the whistle blowing campaign led by the People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) and the coup-installed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and National Reform Council (NRC).

Mainstream society and the state see the 1973 uprising as a democratisation process.

Many in the October generations think it's safe to remember the Oct 14 incident as the history of winners, while selectively forgetting the 1976 bloodshed and those protesters who were violently cracked down on.

Even new political activists who emerged in the 1992 Black May struggle against Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon are more willing to identify themselves with the Oct 14 incident, rather than the 1976 massacre.

These people look back at the 1973 incident as a movement that was fighting for political freedom without having a hidden political agenda, even though academic studies have indicated that conflicts within the military were a key factor that brought down the authoritarian rule of Thanom, his son Narong, and Prapas Charusathien.

Some Oct 14 student leaders later conceded that their triumph 41 years ago established a new group of ultra-royalist military leaders just like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who rose to power at the end of 1950s.

However, some relatives of the Oct 14 heroes and several non-student participants have been uneasy with the leadership of some of the organisers, branding their style "too intellectual".

They feel more comfortable at commemorations of the 1976 massacre which have been held by red-shirt leaders affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra-sponsored parties, namely Thai Rak Thai, People's Power and Pheu Thai.

Also connected with the red shirts are many young activists and independent intellectuals who are critical of political intervention by the military and the judiciary as well as the increasing power of the ultra-royalist camp.

Interestingly, the red shirts who were suppressed by the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration have compared their fate with the victims of the 1976 brutal crackdown 38 years ago.

Some have high regard for the Oct 6 protesters as the forefathers of political struggle. 

While the military regime prohibited political talks at the 1976 commemorations last Monday, people on social media shared images and video clips concerning the Oct 6 massacre, especially the picture of slain Vichitchai Amornkul, a political science student from Chulalongkorn University, who was hanged at Sanam Luang and hit with a chair as the crowd cheered.

More importantly, some people likened the atmosphere before the May 22 coup with that of the Oct 6 massacre in terms of the many hate speeches given and ultra-royalist propaganda used to mobilise the masses and the justifications for the use of force.

In both political periods, the military cited their role as guardians of the monarchy — from the communist threat in the 1970s and from the current political divisiveness — as the justification for their political intervention.

Anyone critical of the monarchy feels forced to leave the country for their own safety or risk being summoned to the National Council for Peace and Order's "attitude fine-tuning" session. 

Understandably, prominent members of the October generation, like Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Thammasat University's history lecturer, and Watt Wallayangkoon, a poet and writer, who both survived the 6 Oct massacre, have spent their lives in exile.

Their decision to leave the country was out of concern over the abuse of the lese majeste law that curbs freedom of expression and honest criticism.

The return of the late Col Apiwan Viriyachai, former deputy House speaker from the Pheu Thai Party, last weekend is a tragic example of how those perceived as an enemy of the right-wing establishment can be victimised in fierce ideological conflicts.

Given the current leadership's focus on returning happiness to the people, I want to end with a quote from Jewish-German scholar Walter Benjamin: "To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright."

Achara Ashayagachat is Senior News Reporter, Bangkok Post.

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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