Remember, Remember, the Sixth of October

Posted on October 5, 2011 by

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Written by Chayanin Wipusanawan

As students of Bangkok’s Thammasat University, the 6th of October is the date we learn, from the first day in this school, as our ‘day of infamy’. To the general public, the date is usually remembered as one of the ‘bloody days’ of modern Thailand, alongside 14 October (1973) and May ’92.

It is usually believed that the many of the younger generations lack the basic knowledge of just what happened on that day. I will not go as far as making such claim, but from my own experience, I graduated from secondary school with little knowledge about Thailand’s modern political history, or even Thailand (or world) history in general. Also, according to the writings available today, the incident was not publicly discussed until the twentieth anniversary fifteen years ago.

So what happened on that day?

6 October Memorial at Thammasat University. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Thirty-five years ago, on 5 October 1976, thousands of students from universities and trade unionists were protesting, inside Thammasat campus, against the return of Thanom Kittikachorn, a military ruler who was ousted three years earlier in an uprising led by students. Among the things they performed on a day earlier was a mock hanging, in protest of the murders of two unionists that occurred in late September.

The hanging became a trigger, as the figure was reported to resemble the Crown Prince, concluding that the students were hanging the prince in effigy. (It was later alleged that the photograph published in newspapers was doctored.) Ultraroyalist media, notably the Tank Corps Radio, were quick to label the protesters “Communists”, a serious accusation for Cold-War US-backed Thailand, and called for immediate actions.

Here below is part of an article by Thongchai Winichakul, who was a student leader at that time and is now a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (From Thongchai Winichakul, ‘We Do Not Forget the 6 October: The 1996 Commemoration of the October 1976 Massacre in Bangkok.’ Presented at the workshop on “Imagining the Past, Remembering the Future” Cebu, the Philippines, March 8-10, 2001)

From two o’clock in the morning of 6 October l976, police and raging paramilitary groups co-operatively surrounded Thammasat University, where four to five thousand people had gathered peacefully all night to protest the return of one of the former dictators ousted three years earlier. Occasionally throughout the night, gunfire from personal handguns was heard from time to time, and self-made explosive devices were thrown into campus buildings. It was a very tense morning, two days after two activists had been hanged while putting up protest posters, and only hours after a student theatrical skit re-enacting the hanging had been accused by the military of staging a satire of the hanging of the Crown Prince in effigy. Students were never given an opportunity to rebut this allegation in public. By sunrise, it was already too late.

At 5:30 am, a rocket-propelled bomb was fired into the crowd inside Thammasat. Four were killed instantly and dozens injured. That bomb signaled the beginning of the non-stop discharge of military weapons that went on until about 9 a.m. Anti-tank missiles were fired into the Commerce building which by then sheltered a third of the crowd. Outside the university, after the besieging forces had stormed into the campus, they dragged some students out. Lynching began. Two were tortured, hanged and beaten even after death on the trees encircling Sanam Luang,* the huge public space that separates Thammasat and the Grand Palace by only a two minute walking distance. A female student, chased until she fell to the ground, was sexually assaulted and tortured until she died. Inside the campus, apart from the unknown number of casualties from weapons, more were lynched. A student leader, Jaruphong Thongsin, a friend of mine, was dragged along the soccer field by a piece of cloth around his neck. Later, six bodies were laid on the ground at Sanam Luang for a man to nail wooden stakes into their chests. On the street in front of the Ministry of Justice, on the other side of Sanam Luang opposite Thammasat, four bodies — unknown if being already dead or still alive–were piled up with tires, soaked with petrol, and then set aflame. These brutal murders took place as a public spectacle. Many of the onlookers, including young boys, clapped their hands in joy.

It was a Wednesday morning in which death by gunshots seemed to be the least painful and most civilized of murders.

*See the infamous photo of a protester hung and beaten by a chair in front of the cheering crowd here. (Do I have to warn you that the photo might contain violence?)

Protesters were forced to strip to their waist and lie down on the football field inside Thammasat. (Found on 2519.net)

The formal paramilitary units that surrounded Thammasat University included the Border Patrol Police, and several state-backed informal militia groups took part. (The often mentioned groups are the Red Gaur, Nawaphon, and the Village Scout.) The official number of fatalities was 46, although some estimated it to be over a hundred.

On the evening of 6 October, the military junta seized the power. Newspapers were shut down. The three-year break from the tradition of military ruling came to an end.

Thousands of protesters were arrested on that day. 18 of them were later charged with serious allegations such as treason, violations of Anti-Communist act, etc., and were detained for two years before given amnesty in 1978. Many of the students fled to the “jungle” to join the Communist insurgents. Puey Ungpakorn, rector of Thammasat and former Bank of Thailand governor, escaped the lynch mob and took up exile in Great Britain. No one was sentenced for the incident.

I am no expert on this matter, so I won’t go any further to comment on the socio-politcal forces of the era or who were really behind the bloodshed. I have no personal experience with it, and I am not qualified enough to talk how significant this event was to the Thai political development. But we do not have to be a leftist, socialist, nor a political activist to see how brutal the whole incident was. We can see how rage and blind subscription to a version of morality can become an atrocity when we see the crowd cheering on a person being beaten repeatedly because they believed the person was threatening their values.

Thai people always kid ourselves that we are a peaceful nation, a Buddhist nation, a land of smile, and so on. The political scenario may have changed. We are no longer in the Cold War. Communism is not a real threat any more. But look around us here, are we sure that this brutal instinct has gone for good? No one is calling for revenge to whom they think is a threat to their “world”? No one is assaulted or killed for their political view? There is no crowd chanting for vigilante? How nice!

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