Protest, die, repeat?
Many believe the political violence of the past can visit Thailand once again
Sunday marks the second anniversary of the 2014 military takeover, the second coup d'etat in Thailand in a decade and the 12th successful one since absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932. And three months from now, in August, the highly controversial charter referendum will take place.
Better than most other countries, Thailand knows that history does tend to repeat itself. Not in perfect symmetry, but with differences of time and context. And as we stumble our way to the future, maybe one way to make sense of it is to look back into the past.
With history being a study of past events, with no single event or period ever independent from the rest, the important question is: how far back do we have to go in order to make sense of the present? Does it suffice just to go back to when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra came into the picture?
If that's the case, then the 2006 coup, led by Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, is a lesson for us, and especially for the NCPO, for wasn't the Gen Sonthi-led takeover, though different in circumstance and character, essentially the same fight as this one? And how did it end? Successfully and peacefully, when the Council of National Security drafted an interim charter and appointed Gen Surayud Chulanont as premier? Or was the actual and eventual outcome the bloody 2010 crackdown?
Or maybe that's not enough, and we have to go back even further, as writer Sarawut Hengsawad -- better known as New Glom (Roundfinger) -- did in a recent Facebook post. It created such an uproar on social media that Sarawut had to turn his post private, for it ventured into the dark territory that's the Oct 6, 1976, Thammasat University massacre.
"The more I read comments and posts in some Facebook pages, the more I feel that not learning about our mistakes in the past is so frightening," wrote Sarawut. "That's the reason why the past keeps coming back over and over again.
"The blood that was cleaned up without any explanations to later generations, not included in school textbooks, is creating that type of people again, those who are ready to beat up a person hung under a tamarind tree along with those standing around, smiling and cheering satisfactorily. That October is not far from today."
The uproar was not unexpected. The 1976 massacre was one of the most atrocious marks in Thai history, an attack by state forces and right-wing paramilitaries on student protesters that left 46 people dead, 167 wounded and 3,000 arrested after an alleged insult against the monarchy. (The death toll claimed by many survivors was over 100, with reports of people being hung and beaten, set on fire, and, in the case of many women, raped.) It's a taboo subject, offensive just to bring up, let alone to compare with the present or any other era.
Asked in a recent interview if the conflict in Thailand could be escalated to a repeat of Oct 6, 1976, Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, political science scholar at Chulalongkorn University, said it's unlikely, citing the exterior pressure on the previous event of the Cold War.
"With social media, you can write whatever you want, venting your emotions and coming up with worrying scenarios," said Chaiyan. "In the case of the Oct 6 event, the government at the time was very weak, unable to control the situation between the right and left wings. In the current political situation, it's very unlikely that there will be any killing of those who insult the [royal] institution."
Chaiyan pointed out that it's only those who are against the establishment, wanting to undermine the government, who want such a thing to happen again.
"There's this attempt to liken the present to the time of communist hunting, but communists are all over -- they're ghosts now," said Chaiyan. "Some people are trying to create that sort of atmosphere, trying to make it feel like it's a time of violence, but that's not the case." Thammasat University vice-rector Prinya Thaewanarumitkul said that he doesn't think society is as heavily divided as it once was.
"Yes, society is divided, with the two sides fighting each other. There's the sensitive case of section 112," said Prinya. "But the Oct 6 event wasn't about section 112 -- it was an incitement to go onto the campus and kill students. I don't think we should spend time thinking about the similarities between now and the Oct 6 event. We should talk about the future, how to go forward."
Yet when Sarawut refers to such belligerent Facebook comments, his concern isn't entirely unfounded. Online comments with hostile sentiments and threats to kill those who, allegedly or otherwise, insult the institution are rampant. And even though the online world does give users a sense of anonymity and detachment, that doesn't mean these sentiments don't represent how things are in the real world.
What's also worth pointing out is that the Rubbish Collection Organisation, a group of vigilante lese majeste hunters that caused quite a stir when it was founded last year, is still well and active today, having garnered more than 200,000 Facebook likes. Although playing down claims that the group constitutes a lese majeste witch-hunt, and that they're only pushing legal action against palace critics, the fact that their founder, Dr Rienthong Nanna, implied that offenders were trash worthy of being discarded is extremely worrying. This is undeniably reminiscent of paramilitary forces like Village Scouts, Nawaphon and Red Gaurs, perpetrators of the Oct 6 event.
Fah Diew Kan magazine editor Thanapol Eiwsakul believes that in place of the conflict between state ideology and the threat of communism, what we have today is a clash between red shirts and yellow shirts. Thanapol says that the similarity between the two periods is that the institution is employed as a tool for dealing with the opposing side.
This brings to mind the recent, controversial lese majeste case of Patnaree Charnkij, mother of anti-coup Resistant Citizen Group leader Sirawith "Ja New" Seritiwat. The reluctance on the authorities' part to reveal the evidence for her charge other than the word "ja" has led to criticism that perhaps, rather than the charge on Patnaree, section 112 has in this case been employed by the state as a tool for stifling her activist son.
"What's scariest, then, is not the use of the media to incite a sense of hatred," said Thanapol, referring to the propaganda of the state at the time. "The final breaking point that led to the killings in 1976 was the claim in the name of the institution."
Thanapol is referring to the outrage caused by a play staged by student protesters the day before the massacre, allegedly featuring a scene of the mock hanging of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the trigger of an attack by military, police and paramilitary forces.
Similar to Thanapol, Prajak Kongkirati, a lecturer at Thammasat University's faculty of political science, said that what Sarawut or New Glom are saying is not at all far-fetched. What he believes Sarawut is trying to say is that there's now a society-wide climate of fear and hatred.
"There's the dehumanisation and demonisation of those who think differently, the notion that the injustice and violence that occurred to those on the opposing side is what they deserved," said Prajak. "The current situation is actually more frightening than in the 70s, because the sense of hatred is more deep-rooted."
Prajak added that at present, the hatred is not just political polarisation but is actually social polarisation. The incitement of hatred isn't just generated by the state but the people themselves, using social media as a tool to monitor, condemn, attack or witch-hunt those whose opinion you disagree with. Prajak says that of course there's a chance this tragic history will repeat itself, and not only in Thailand, because the politics of fear and hatred tend to end up in violence.
"If we look at the current crisis -- which has dragged on for more 10 years, since 2005 -- Thai society has already witnessed many violent incidents, with significant loss of life and injury," said Prajak. "Some people might forget that the number of deaths in recent crisis actually exceeds that of the student-led uprising in 1973 and the massacre in 1976."
Asked what the possible triggers are to violence, Prajak identified four: economic hardship, corruption scandals, indiscriminate repression and a general feeling of injustice.
"The feeling of injustice is a very important factor, which the leading classes in society tend to underestimate or not understand," Prajak added. "With all these factors together, the people will run out of patience with the state, and this sense of dissatisfaction will spread widely and quickly."