Few crisis lessons learned
40 years after the Oct 6 massacre, violence is still seen as a way to eliminate rivals
Four decades after the Oct 6, 1976 bloodshed, one of the most gruesome chapters in modern Thai history has not yet been demystified by the Thai state, with some of the event's masterminds still powerful today, say academics.
Factors contributing to power struggles between the establishment and other political players have hardly changed and violence remains a way to eliminate rivals.
Kullada Kesboonchoo-Mead, a retired Chulalongkorn University political scientist said that to understand the 1976 incident, one should undo the myths and romanticisation of the Oct 14, 1973 uprisings.
The student-led movement for a more open political space and a constitution was brought to an end with 77 deaths and 857 injuries, ushering the first direct intervention of the King to appoint a prime minister, replacing the "Three Tyrants" -- then prime minister and supreme commander Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, deputy prime minister and commander-in-chief Field Marshal Praphas Charusathien and Narong Kittikachorn.
"The establishment had played democratic cards to court the liberal, fledgling middle class. But the real push to oust the unpopular dictators were military power plays led by Krit Sivara, then deputy army commander," said Ms Kullada.
But as a sense of victory gripped the left-leaning student movement, neighbouring countries were falling under the grip of communist forces.
As a result, the paranoid non-democratic establishment class allowed gangs of thugs and propagandist media figures to wage psychological warfare against the students, said the associate professor.
As dawn broke on Oct 6, 1976, the Thai police, armed with assault weapons, were authorised by the government of MR Seni Pramoj to launch an attack on demonstrators at Thammasat University, according to then Thammasat rector Puey Ungphakorn.
The indiscriminate attack saw the involvement of state-funded militias, namely Red Gaurs, the Village Scouts and Nawapol, Puey wrote in a note 22 days after he left the post at the university to go into exile in London.
"People were shot, killed, and wounded. The people who managed to escape from the raid faced the most brutal and inhuman abuse; some were lynched, soaked with gasoline, and burnt alive. A large number of them were beaten. News reports said 40 people were killed, but by unofficial accounts over a hundred were dead and several hundred wounded," according to Puay.
Thongchai Winichakul, a former student-activist and one of the 18 protest leaders tried and convicted on charges of lese majeste, communism and sedition, recalled bitterly: "It's a culmination of years of state-sponsored radical propaganda, vandalism and assassination plots."
Mr Thongchai, now a University of Wisconsin emeritus professor of history, noted that the role of the Red Gaur group in the brutality may be overstated.
"It was a rather small ultra-royalist and ultra-nationalist groups mobilised and organsied by the ISOC that were responsible for preceding incidents and the lynching scenes that day," he said, referring to the Internal Security Operations Command.
The late, renowned historian, Benedict Anderson suggested in an 1977 article titled "Withdrawal Symptoms: Social and Cultural Aspects of the Oct 6 Coup" that the new bourgeois strata in Thai society was responsible, along with right-wing groups and royalist media outlets and personnel for bringing down the leftist, isolationist student-led movement.
Yet, the sensitivity and complexity of the "movers and shakers", and more importantly the "masterminds", have kept contemporaries of that generation unable to speak out.
The prevailing Thai mentality that puts troubling chapters of history aside for the sake of unity and reconciliation has been encouraged by a lack of open debate about brutal incidents, including in the media. The controversial lese majeste law has also prevented honest discussion of this dark chapter of contemporary history.
There has long been an intention to demolish the strength of the student-led movement that promoted freedom, wrote Puey, who was forced to live in exile until his death in 1999.
"After the October 1973 incident which re-established the democratic regime, it was said the country would be orderly and peaceful if 10,000-20,000 students and people could be removed," said Puey.
"Anyone whom they disliked was branded as a communist. Not even prime ministers Kukrit, Seni, or certain other cardinals were exempted from this false accusation," he said. Another method was the use "Nation, Religion, and the King" as the instruments of false accusation against dissenters, he wrote.
"We just have to learn lessons from the past -- scandalous narratives have to be built up first if the powers-that-be don't want to see popular leaders, like Thaksin Shinawatra -- who of course has problematic issues -- stay in power," Ms Kullada noted.
Tyrants, she said, were created to justify a political crisis that would bring new leadership, and consequently a consolidation of the establishment's grip.
As the ruling generals have projected their nexus of power over the years to come, Ms Kullada said, it looks like the plotters will remain intact.
Marking the 40th anniversary of the tragic protest, today's article is the first in a series of three stories to be published until Wednesday.