Same, same: but different

The 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning picture by Neal Ulevich of the Associated Press. Source: Flickr

Forty years after the October 6, 1976, massacre of students at Thammasat University, one of the more gruesome chapters in Thailand’s recent history, few lessons appear to have been learned.

The culprits remain in power and restrictions mean Thai journalists and scholars are incapable of addressing the root causes of the students’ protests. It sounds familiar to anyone who follows the current Thai junta’s ongoing efforts to gag its people.

In 1976 pro-democracy students were protesting at the return of ousted ex-dictator Thanom Kittikachorn after three years in exile only for the security forces and ultra-royalist mobs to surround the campus and butcher them. Students’ corpses were left hanging from trees at the campus.

The crackdown ended a three-year period of relative democracy and heralded 16 years of military rule.

No one has been prosecuted for the deaths.

“It’s a loop,” said Chutavuth Savetasavanond, 21, who studies international relations. “One moment of democracy, then dictatorship, then democracy and then dictatorship”.

In 1976, it was feared the US-ally was poised to fall to communism, like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia the year before.

The non-democratic establishment allowed gangs of thugs and a biased media to wage propaganda warfare against the students, argued Kullada Kesboonchoo-Mead, a former Chulalongkorn University political scientist.

The 1976 protests began in late September when Thanom returned after he was forced into exile by another Thammasat-led student protest in 1973.

By October thousands were gathering at Thammasat but radio broadcasts had condemned the leftist university as a hotbed of communist insurgents intent on toppling King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Tensions were rising.

Then on October 4 students staged a play at the campus re-enacting the recent lynching of two activists by the authorities.

One of the actors reportedly looked like Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the king’s playboy son.

The authorities encircled the campus backed by two royalist militias, the Village Scouts and the Red Gaurs. The military government that subsequently came to power claimed the students fired first, without presenting any evidence. The government claimed 46 people died but survivors said it was more than 100.

Former Thammasat rector Puey Ungphakorn wrote from 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 burned alive. A large number of them were beaten. News reports said 40 people were killed, but by unofficial accounts over 100 were dead and several hundred wounded.

“After the October 1973 incident, which re-established the democratic regime, it was said the country would be orderly and peaceful if 10,000 to 20,000 … people could be removed,” Puey wrote. He lived in exile until his death in 1999.

Survivors said they were forced to crawl to the university’s blood-soaked football pitch, were stripped to the waist and made to lie face down.

Photographers and television cameras documented the violence in graphic detail as students were shot at point-blank range while others were lynched by royalist mobs.

Photographer Neal Ulevich of the Associated Press said: “When I got there, it was getting more and more violent. Paramilitary troops heavily armed with recoilless rifles showed up. The left-wing students were not armed and were not shooting back. They took refuge in the university buildings.

“Tremendous volleys of automatic weapons were fired across the soccer fields into the classrooms. There were bodies all over, glass breaking. There was no place to take cover. I was very scared.”

After the students surrendered, Ulevich said: “I saw some commotion in the trees. I walked down there and I saw a body hanging. He was certainly dead, but the crowd was so enraged that a man was hitting the body on the head with a folding chair. I stood there to see if anybody was looking at me. Nobody was. I took a few frames and walked away.”

Students were burned alive or raped.

Today the massacre remains deeply sensitive, pointing to the country’s refusal to engage in any debate about its ailing king and his role in politics. Media self-censorship and the lese majeste laws that prevent criticism of the monarchy mean there is little in-depth discussion of events like Thammasat.

Ironically, Ulevich’s photo was praised but not reproduced. “When I won the Pulitzer, the Bangkok papers noted it on page one. They were very proud that a photographer from Bangkok had won the Pulitzer. They didn’t show the pictures,” the photographer said.

The culprits or their subordinates are still in power and have nothing to gain from truth and reconciliation.

In a rare interview in 1979, Bhumibol denied “playing politics” with the Thammasat protests that led to a coup he endorsed.

Factors contributing to power struggles between the establishment and other political players have changed little and violence and arrest remain a way to remove rivals.

Kullada Kesboonchoo-Mead, a former Chulalongkorn University political scientist, says that to understand Thammasat it is necessary to look at the October 14, 1973, uprising.

The student-led democracy movement ended with 77 deaths and 857 injuries and led Bhumibol to appoint a prime minister.

The 1973 movement had left the Thammasat students bullish while they largely neglected the growing distrust towards them elsewhere in society.

Thongchai Winichakul was a former activist and one of the 18 student leaders tried and convicted on charges of lese majeste, communism and sedition. He said: “It’s a culmination of years of state-sponsored radical propaganda, vandalism and assassination plots.”

Thongchai is now emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin.

A major change since 1976 is that today’s students appear more cowed and hesitant. Forty years ago they had campuses and cafes where they could congregate to discuss their next move. Today’s young have the state inspecting their personal messages and jailing anyone who steps into the political sphere. It is hard to find many echoes of the optimism of the 1973 movement among today’s students.