The events that transpired at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976 are difficult to forget; yet, they remain imperfectly remembered. A rising crescendo of violence overtook peaceful protestors as paramilitary police and right-wing vigilantes swept through campus. Military grade weaponry tore into student activists from ever decreasing distances while royalist auxiliaries and spectators crashed in alongside security personnel. The massacre culminated in lynching and mutilation as militias desecrated the living and the dead. M-16s, recoilless rifles, and M-79s gave way to stakes, ropes, and fire. Such exuberance was applauded by establishment pundits as displays of loyalty to nation, religion, and king. The country could only be saved from the communists by killing them off. Thai officials claimed 46 deaths ensued, the actual toll was probably higher.
As both observer and victim, Thongchai Winichakul is exceptionally well-placed to recount and remember this terrible event in Moments of Silence.1 However, this careful accounting also uncovers multiple layers of misremembrance, ambivalence, reluctance, and silence. Thongchai places the evolving memories of victims and victimizers into a chronopolitical framework. The chronopolitics of memory, or the effects of political change on memories, is narrated from a fixed point in the past into an uncertain present. October 6, 1976 was a discrete incident that punctuated the Thai state’s dominance over society through violent spectacle. Furthermore, it set in motion events that led to what Thongchai terms ‘unforgetting’, the inability to articulate memory into a legible narrative in public discourse.
Memories immediately after the massacre were saturated by totalizing Cold War ideologies. Thousands of students seeking revenge for lost friends transferred their struggle from an urban to agrarian locus. A quasi-Bolshevik revolutionary movement led by Bangkok-based intellectual elites gave way to a Maoist armed struggle in the countryside. The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) received its largest ever influx of recruits. Denied legitimate spaces in Thai cities, student activists retreated to peripheral borderlands, viewing them as the only places where they could grieve and remember the massacre for what it truly was, an unwarranted assault on non-violent protestors attempting to prevent a slide back into military rule. Emotions and memories triggered by the massacre, rather than deep ideological convictions, drove students into CPT ranks. For the perpetrators, the massacre at Thammasat University had saved the Thai nation from communist subversion. Unlike most Thai coups, the one that took place on October 6, 1976 was driven by ideological factors. 1975’s Indochina revolution had brought communism to Thailand’s doorstep. Buddhism and the monarchy, newly empowered by the United States in order to contain communism, were in danger. Those killed in the massacre stood outside Thai-ness. Some went so far as to claim they were infiltrated Vietnamese agitators. Surely, state agents had a right to deploy maximum force against grave threats.
Such excesses proved counterproductive. Those in power had exacerbated rather than crushed the communist insurgency. More pragmatic elements in the military staged an internal coup against Thanin Kraivichien’s arch-royalist regime in 1977. Kriangsak Chomanan’s incoming clique understood that endogenous, rather than exogenous, factors fueled Thai communism. As a result, student activists, including Thongchai, put on trial for organizing the October demonstrations were granted amnesty in 1978. This was followed by a blanket amnesty of communist insurgents by the Prem government in 1980. Student fighters, already disillusioned by the CPT’s dogmatic obedience to Maoist doctrine and Beijing’s shifting strategic concerns2, readily left the jungles. By 1982, Thailand’s communist insurgency had essentially been defeated. Timely strategic shifts by the Thai state ended armed conflict while wreaking further violence on collective student memories. The October 6 massacre and subsequent guerilla struggle had all been for a grand delusion. Prior to the amnesties, memory of the massacre had given students cause to fight and strive for a better future. Subsequently, the suffering they had experienced at Thammasat and after appeared to have been in vain. Armed struggle only led to more death and ultimate failure.
Reconciliation granted from above did not mean impartial investigations into events and the dispensation of justice.
More insidiously, amnesty only came on condition of reconciliation. Reconciliation granted from above did not mean impartial investigations into events and the dispensation of justice. It was more a cold peace premised on mutual silence by the perpetrators and their victims. The palace’s involvement was simply not discussed. After several years of crushing disillusion, most students moved on. They went back to their studies, built families, and careers. A number became high-ranking members of Thailand’s burgeoning economic, intellectual, and political elites. Past radicalism was discarded in favor of conventional middle-class lives wedded to the security provided by established institutions. In the liberalized political climate of the 1990s, more open discussion of the October 6 events could take place. Thongchai played a pivotal role in organizing a major commemorative gathering in 1996. This memorial combined lectures, art displays, and religious ceremonies to honor victims and discredit ideological extremism, but it was never allowed to ask who authorized the massacre and why. Those questions remain shrouded in silence.
Yet, certain forms of silence could be good. In a particularly wrenching section, Thongchai recounts the desperate search of two parents for a lost son.3 Having gone missing after the massacre, Jaruphong Thongsin’s parents, Jinda and Lim, followed what leads and rumors they could, driven by the hope that their son might still be alive given his body had never been identified. Jaruphong’s father Jinda kept a private diary recounting his search. He managed to reclaim remnants of his son, such as clothes and books, but never Jarupong himself. These entries abruptly ended as the trail went cold. Silence connoted a refusal to accept his son was gone. It would be decades before Thongchai, Jaruphong’s former friend, assembled the necessary evidence to conclusively prove that Jaruphong had indeed been killed on October 6. Upon presenting this evidence to Jaruphong’s parents, he realized the unintentional outcome. Truth cruelly completed Jinda’s unfinished dairy and shattered his fragile silent hope. At times, certain things are best left undiscovered. Other forms of good silence considered in Moments of Silence are those brought on by religion and physical debilitation. Having experienced torture and abuse in the aftermath of the October 6 massacre, Paisal Wisalo turned to Buddhism as a means of transcendence. Rather than bearing ill-willing and seeking justice against his tormentors, Paisal withdrew into quite meditation and a peace brought on by forgiveness. Seeking revenge would only perpetuate evil and cycles of violence. To be sure, sociopolitical factors facilitated state violence, but those factors were no more than the sum-total of individual choices. Individual refusals to engage in malice and revenge would culminate in social peace. Dr. Puey Ungphakorn, Thammasat University rector during the massacre, engaged in a global speaking-circuit to condemn Thai state violence. His lectures and presentations drove him to the point of utter exhaustion followed by a massive stroke in 1977 which left him unable to speak and hardly able to write. He spent much of the remainder of his life abroad. Nevertheless, until his passing in 1999 Puey bore mute witness to the Thai state’s past brutality. Thongchai makes a passing analogy here to Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s own mute soliloquy on mass violence, but the comparison is, alas, all too brief and merited deeper consideration.
Induced silence and misremembrance were aggravated by Thailand’s increasingly pervasive culture of hyper-royalism. The saturation of public space by royalist propaganda elevated King Rama IX to semi-divine status, thus rendering any criticism of the palace as equivalent to blasphemy. By the 1990s, hyper-royalism had embedded itself so deeply in Thai society that it had become an essential component of public culture. Royalist elites could trust the public to police itself. Historical distortions absolving the monarchy of any wrongdoing emerged via autonomous social dynamics. Criticizing the king became almost unthinkable. Varieties of misremembrance reinforced Thailand’s normative history, an idyllic vision of the past that praised prior and current monarchs as virtuous defenders of the realm. Established institutions protected the people from malevolent foreign forces, be they imperialist or communist, threatening to destroy the Thai nation. Such forces could not be questioned, only worshipped.
Thongchai also devotes considerable attention to the perpetrators’ memories.4 Despite official endorsement and numerous amnesties protecting the killers, their involvement in the massacre had become a liability by the 1980s. Most fell into silence in order to avoid discussing their problematic past actions. When prodded by Thongchai to discuss their participation in the attack on Thammasat, most saw themselves as mere pawns simply following orders from on high or excused their excesses on grounds of youth, immaturity or complex historical circumstances. Former militia members felt they had saved the country from communism only to be betrayed by a society that forgot their contribution to maintaining nation, religion, and king. Thongchai appears at his most frustrated when parsing perpetrators. He readily acknowledges that as a victim of the October 6 violence he could never interact with former militia members in a completely impartial manner. His inability to identify a militiaman photographed while beating a lynched activist over the head with a folding chair is emblematic of irretrievable fact and incomplete remembrance, the very things that preclude justice and closure.
In his penultimate chapter, Thongchai offers an appreciative critique of Kanokrat Lertchoosakul’s The Rise of the Octobrists in Contemporary Thailand.5 This carefully researched 2016 monograph charts the rise and fall of leftist activists since the 1970s. Thongchai’s rejoinder argues that Kanokrat has taken too rigid a view of the term Octobrist. The Octobrist label was far from a fixed identity ignominiously superseded by royalist ideology. Octobrist to Yellow Shirt transitions occurred due to altering sociopolitical contexts and priorities among former activists. Even those Octobrists that remained committed to progressive politics obtained power and influence due to the services they could render onto Thaksin Shinawatra’s political machine. Their past radicalism was not a determining factor in Thai Rak Thai electoral landslides. The October 6 massacre did not form unbreakable bonds impervious to subsequent developments. Neither are the bonds to monarchism indissoluble.
Democratic activists continuously discredit the establishment from without in the hope that it will eventually unravel from within.
Should Thongchai choose to revisit this work in a future edition, he might engage in a discussion of the Thai monarchy’s present-day desacralization. Unlike his father, King Vajiralongkorn has not made concerted efforts to deepen or sustain linkages with a multiclass royalist coalition. Instead of circulating among his people, the current king jet-sets to a luxurious Bavarian retreat where he indulges his pleasures and attempts to run Thailand via remote control. Such extravagance at a time of severe economic contraction, brought about by the pandemic, has won him few adherents beyond a diehard royalist core whipped up by soldiers and civil servants in mufti. The non-transferable nature of barami in a Theravada Buddhist country could not be clearer. Bhumibol failed to institutionalize royal charisma, just as Chulalongkorn failed to impart his merit to his sons over a century ago. Perhaps Thailand’s future lies in its past.
At first glance, the Thai monarchy’s deceptions, manipulations, and silence appear far less fragile than the good silences recounted in Thongchai’s text. Crudely put, monarchic silence is motivated by self-preservation. It continues to deploy an extensive panoply of coercive and cultural power to protect its privileges, albeit to declining effect. Indeed, those responsible for October 6 may have been little more than small frightened men with big weapons. Democratic activists continuously discredit the establishment from without in the hope that it will eventually unravel from within. Moments of Silence throws another grain of sand into the monarchist machine. It further undermines a silence well worth shattering.
Acknowledgements: For Katya, moia muza i rusalka.
Banner Image: The memorial in Thammasat University. Photo: Kittipong Chararoj / Shutterstock.com
- Thongchai Winichakul, Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2020).
- After Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 and the subsequent Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979, Thailand allowed China to supply Khmer Rouge insurgents through Thai territory in exchange for Beijing cutting off aid to the CPT.
- Thongchai, Moments of Silence, pp. 143-155.
- Thongchai, Moments of Silence, chap. 9.
- Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, The Rise of the Octobrists in Contemporary Thailand (New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 2016); Thongchai, Moments of Silence, chap. 10.