Ghosts of a Massacre-Straits Times

February 12, 2012

Nirmal Ghosh on unquiet memories

Nirmal Ghosh

Straits Times: February 9th, 2012


Sitting under the broad ficus tree at Thammasat University’s campus in historic Bangkok, it is difficult to imagine the stomach-churning violence that engulfed the university in 1976 – the year I began university in Kolkata.

It was a vastly different world then; the Vietnam war had just officially ended but the Cold War was still very much on. There was no such thing as cable TV; in many countries there was no such thing as TV. It was still the era of the radio.

On Oct 6 that year, military and police units and righ- wing mobs savagely attacked several thousand left-wing students protesting the return to Thailand of Thanom Kittikachorn, the military dictator ousted in a massive uprising in 1973.

There is video footage online from that day. The official death toll remains 46. The real death toll is widely suspected to be more than double that. A general amnesty ensured that nobody was held to account.

The unquiet spirits of that gruesome day when students were shot, beaten and kicked, dragged out on to the Sanam Luang grounds and hung from trees as mobs, inflamed by right-wing hotheads convinced that the students wanted to destroy the monarchy, bayed and cheered and even little children watched, have surfaced again.

Today, Thammasat is again the centre of controversy. Seven law professors calling themselves ‘Nitirat’ or ‘People’s Law’ have suggested amendments to Article 112 – Thailand’s lese majeste law – and have also suggested that Thailand’s monarch should swear allegiance to the constitution, thus preventing any monarch from endorsing a military coup.

A fierce war of words has erupted over the Nitirat proposal. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with absolute monarchy officially abolished in 1932. Yet King Bhumibol Adulyadej – now a frail 84 – is the country’s ultimate moral authority and under him the Chakri dynasty has arguably reached its zenith.

The monarchy is officially above politics. But in reality any accusation of disloyalty to the monarchy is a powerful political weapon for competing power centres, including political parties and the army whose principal allegiance is not to the civilian government but to the monarchy.

Thammasat University rector Somkit Lertpaithoon on Jan 30 banned the Nitirat group from campaigning on university premises to amend Article 112, fearing”conflict and chaos’ if they continued. Thammasat has seen small demonstrations since by students, both in support of and against Nitirat. The rector days later backed down slightly and said academic discussion was allowed.

Thailand’s powerful army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has weighed in against the Nitirat group, warning them to stop their campaign. This week, it was reported that the Navy chief Admiral Surasak Roonruangwong has also joined in, saying ‘I think every armed force is following this group’s activities to see if it will affect national security. I agree with the majority of people that the campaign serves no purpose at all.’

It is not clear on what basis he concluded that the ‘majority’ of people see no purpose in the campaign. To the best of my knowledge no truly comprehensive opinion poll of referendum has been held on the matter.

General Prayuth reportedly said: ‘Don’t exploit Article 112 to instigate disturbances. I’d like to ask whether you could accept it if your parents are insulted.’

‘Parents’ is a euphemism for the King and Queen.

The government – keen to avoid any trace of a taint of being against the monarchy – has categorically said article 112 will not be amended.

Yet, the campaign is set to continue. One article in the Bangkok Post this week quotes Puangthong Rungswasdisab, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, saying that the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 was collecting 10,000 signatures to seek an amendment. Several thousand had already signed, she said.

Ms Puangthong said the army chief may not have studied the details of the proposed amendments before criticising advocates for change.

‘What we are doing is not new. Civic groups used to collect signatures to petition for legislation. This is a right guaranteed by the constitution,’ she said.

‘What authority will the army chief invoke to stop us? Does the army think its major duty is to stage a coup to protect the institution [of the monarchy]? The army no longer has legitimacy to stage coups.’

Several commentators have said the atmosphere is reminiscent of the buildup to that frightful October 36 years ago.

‘The most salient difference between the current royalist backlash and crackdown on fair dissent and reasonable reform, and its precursors that culminated in October 1976, is the absence of the Cold War,’ Chulalongkorn University professor of political science Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote last week.

Thailand’s lese majeste law is the harshest in the world. Under the law anyone defaming or insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in jail. Hundreds of lese majeste complaints – which can be lodged by anyone against anyone – have been filed since the royalist-backed coup of 2006, which removed the increasingly authoritarian but popularly elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

(He was later convicted for corruption and his political party disbanded and a large chunk of his wealth seized; that has not stopped his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra rising to power last year on his popularity while he himself remains in self-exile, dodging the two-year sentence handed him by the Thai courts).

Back in 1976, one of the right-wing songs widely sung to denigrate left-wing students was Nak Paendin, translated as ‘Scum of the Earth.’

In 2010, I heard the song for the first time, at a small gathering of ultra royalists at Victory Monument in Bangkok. They had assembled to protest against the ‘red shirt’ who had massed in Bangkok to challenge the establishment.

Today, it is being sung by ultra royalists to describe anyone deemed against the monarchy. Calls for amendments to Article 112 on grounds that it violates human rights and does the credibility of the monarchy more harm than good, have been equated with an attempt to destroy the monarchy.

In 1976, there were explicit calls for violence against the students. Today, there are the same explicit calls. One caller to a radio talk show said he would like to ‘cut their (Nitirat’s) heads off’. Pressed by the radio host on whether he knew the details of the group’s proposal, he admitted he had no idea.

‘One hopes that the caller is a rarity in today’s Thai society, but recent Thai history is not on one’s side,’ remarked a Thai journalist who goes by the pseudonym Kaewmala.

‘The brutality… in 1976 was committed by their fellow countrymen,’ Ms Kaewmala wrote in an online article last week. ‘Hatred against the students was stoked by the deadly mixture of ignorance, blind faith, unfounded fear and disinformation.’

‘A a generation later, a group of seven law lecturers.. are being accused of having an evil plan to topple the monarchy, being lackeys of (former prime minister) Thaksin (Shinawatra), being Red (shirts), or simply being suspected of harbouring some mysteriously ill intention.’

In an interview on the website, Tyrell Haberkorn, Research Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change of Australia National University, said the language used against the students in the days before the 1976 massacre and that used against Nitirat were ‘similar in their tone, dehumanisation, and explicit calls for violence.’

And ‘When (army chief) General Prayuth Chan-ocha publicly states that the members of Nitirat should leave the country.. [it] is important to ask what kind of a signal, direct or indirect, it sends to citizens.’

Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul, now a professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, was one of the students at Thammasat on that day, which in today’s Thai school textbooks is referred to as a ‘riot’ or ‘disturbance’.

In an email he wrote: ‘Thailand never learns anything from any controversial past. That’s not how the country deals with the past. The past is always sanitised and didactic to reproduce only the dominant ideology. The Oct 6 massacre is probably the noisiest dissonance, a haunting voice of the past that refuses to go away, probably until justice is served.’

Sitting at Thammasat, it is difficult to imagine history repeating itself especially given the different context. Perhaps as the saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more it changes, the more it is the same. It is an ominous thought, yet seasoned commentators have evoked it.

Only the wind in the leaves of the Bodhi tree may know the answer.


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