“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
Thongchai Winichakul
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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On the morning of 6 October 1996, a symbolic cremation was held at the soccer field inside Thammasat University in Bangkok for over forty people who were killed in the massacre at the same place twenty years earlier. After the massacre, a little over half of that number were identified and claimed by their families, presumably for proper cremations. Nobody knew the whereabouts of the rest since the day they died. [1] The cremation was only symbolic because no corpse was actually cremated. Each of them was represented in a simple, undecorated sheet of paper with his or her name written on it. All of them were put in an urn – the kind that was normally reserved for people of high status -- that was elevated on top of a big platform on one curve of the soccer field. Some pictures of the identified ones were put on that platform for people to pay respect. But most had no picture, except the ones of what happened to them in the massacre. Yet, all were honored as individuals who had faces, bodies, names, and families like everybody else in the world, but whose lives ended abruptly on the Wednesday morning of the 6 October 1976.

The symbolic cremation was performed according to the Buddhist tradition. In addition, spiritual leaders of other faiths also provided services. Many respected civic leaders delivered speeches. Then a modified Buddhist ritual was “re-invented”. About fifty Buddhist monks and nuns presented at the event led a quiet walk anti-clockwise three times around the soccer field. Everybody at the cremation participated, led by those who carried wreaths and flowers in dedication to the fallen heroes and heroines. In the middle of the field, a small platform was a set up for a huge gong. The sound of the gong, the very low pitch and its echo, was the only noise accompanied the walk. It was a Dhamma walk, a form of meditation and merit-making, during which participants were instructed to consider the truth of life and death. After the walk, everybody paid the final respect to all “bodies” in the urn. We put paper flowers for the death underneath the urn, as we normally do in a normal cremation at a Buddhist temple. We prayed for them one last time. At that moment, the reality struck very hard on me. Most of them never got cremated properly after their death, let alone any other forms of respect for humanity. It took twenty years to have them cremated properly in public, from the place where their lives were unjustly cut short. In a Buddhist country where compassion and kindness are said to be abundant, twenty years was such a cruelly...long time.

Finally we made it, a simple respect every human being deserves, twenty years later.

The symbolic cremation was solemn but graceful. Twenty years later, former radicals of the 1970s in Thailand had accomplished what I consider as one of the most important missions in our lives: to publicly cremate and say farewell to friends who left us in the event that shaped thousands of lives of the whole generation forever.

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This was a political accomplishment. But unlike most others, it brought about peace of mind than any other activism ever. Many people cried very hard. So did I. Crying together in public for our lost friends, I think, was a sign that all of us, still alive, will not have to live with personal trauma alone any more. Collectively and individually, the cremation epitomized the commemoration and its accomplishments in breaking the silence surrounding the painful past.

Breaking the silence, nonetheless, does not mean that the limits of free expressions were lifted. Neither were the painful and ambivalent memories completely resolved. Nor was the state crime accountable. It is also true that the constraints are not merely those imposed by the state, but also inherent in the conflicting politics of memories, the competing interpretations of the past intervened from the present and future, and in the cultural and intellectual norms embedded in the society. Limits appeared in several commemorating acts and within the movement for commemoration itself.

This paper is primarily a descriptive one, to report the events and activities at the commemoration of the October 1976 massacre at its 20th anniversary in 1996. It explains the conditions for the possibility of the successful commemoration after twenty years of relative silence. The detailed accounts of several commemorative activities before and during the major event in October 1996 will raise a number of observations and questions regarding the individuality and collectivity of the subjects and objects of memories, the commemorated past and its present politics, and the limits or constraints of remembering the unwanted past in Thailand. Commemoration, argues this paper, is a form of challenge not only to the state but also to individuals and the whole generation of former radical activists of the 1970s themselves, to test the limits between silence and voices, and to push the limits even further.

First, let us take a look back at the massacre and reasons for the silence surrounding it.

The October 1976 massacre and the subsequent silence [2]

What happened on Wednesday morning of 6 October 1976 was the culmination of political polarization since the 1973 uprising that ousted the military dictatorship and launched Thailand into a new era of democratization. The increasingly radicalized student movement had expanded significantly but became more isolated from the non-radical populace, while the military and the right-wing movements, capitalizing on the popular fatigue with students’ relentless demand for drastic changes, became more confrontational and violent (Morell and Chai-anan 1981 161-176, 235-252, 276). The public were first worried, then scared off by the polarizing politics and violence. They gradually turned away from both confronting forces. This deprived the left wing of popular support, a vital element for the radical student movement. Meanwhile military propaganda had dehumanized the radical students, labeling them ‘scum of the earth’ (nak phaendin), the enemy of the “Nation, Religion and the Monarchy”, or lackeys of communist aliens (Vietnam in particular). A right-wing monk asserted that killing of leftists was not a religious sin since it killed the Evil One (Mara) (Keyes 1978:153). In retrospect, the eradication of the radicals and the return of military rule might have been inevitable. Yet, that brutality of that Wednesday morning was far beyond anybody’s anticipation. Our morals and political optimism had held our imagination in check. But reality is never kind. That morning’s stark events remain incomprehensible to many people’s minds.

From two o’clock in the morning of 6 October 1976, 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.

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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 nonstop 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.

The massacre was deeply disturbing, unsettling, and having a lasting impact on individuals and on society. It needs explanations, a resolution, or a closure in some manner that will help individuals and society to come to terms with the traumatic past. Sadly, there had been silence about the event for most of the time. Whenever it was mentioned in the discourse about Thai politics and democratization, the vague or evasive references to it were the norm. A number of significant factors contributed to the ambivalence of individuals as well as of Thai society as a whole in confronting this past, thereby perpetuating the silence.

First of all, the political ramifications of truth may be unthinkable, literally, for Thai society, since several individuals and institutions which command power and respect in the society, namely the monarchy and the Buddhist sangha, had been involved in the conspiracy that led to the killing. Many political elite remained very powerful at least until the late 1990s. Truth might have been devastating to the society and to those who try to get to the truth themselves. Silence is therefore mostly self-imposed, either out of fear or out of concern for the unthinkable consequences to the country. The massacre of 1976 was, so to say, in the realm of the unspeakable, of silence. Its full history is probably impossible to write under the present system of ‘Democracy with the Monarchy as the Head of the State’.

Secondly, the changing politics and discursive conditions since 1976 have made the memories and narratives of the massacre as produced either by the perpetrators or the victims ambivalent due to self-doubts and moral dilemma. For about two years after the massacre, the state’s narrative boasted in public throughout the country was a triumphalist one, claiming that, in the nutshell, the communists were defeated and the country was saved. Victims were to blame for chaos and danger to the “Nation, Religion, and Monarchy”, the three pillars of the country and Thai identity. Since then, both the threat of communism domestically and regionally, and the anti-communist phobia had gradually come to the end, while the civic and popular movements, many of which were driven people from the 1970s generation, were growing.

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During 1980 to 1995, there were cases in which the involvement with the right wing in the massacre was increasingly seen as a dubious record, or even an implicit disgrace and infamy from which many tried to distance themselves. Being prisoners of time, the perpetrators turn out to be the victims of their past deeds. Yet, the massacre was never explicitly discussed in public and the perpetrators never confronted.

The ambivalence among former radical students is more complex and has had a harder time to find expression. The massacre propelled thousands of radical youth to the communist party (CPT) in the jungles. By the mid-1980s, however, most of them returned home in total disillusionment. After dedicating years of their youthful life to a historic mission that, they believed, would bring lasting happiness to all people, most of them now felt totally lost and thoroughly dejected. Without a pride in their past radicalism, suffering and grief due to the loss of friends in the massacre and in the revolutionary war became personal trauma that was very hard to come to terms with. The price of those sacrifices suddenly looked too steep; sufferings had all perhaps been for nothing. The fact that the sacrifice, as seen in its time, was for a noble cause, and no matter how beautiful the idealism might be, cannot outweigh another fact: had those friends survived that Wednesday morning they could have had another chance in life like most surviving former radicals have today. The loss appeared empty of all meaning. For many former radicals, their lives had become a void with a specter of moral ambivalence that may never entirely be clear. Given such a trauma and ambivalence, the massacre was not a subject they could talk about without troubled reflections.

Third and finally, what makes it even harder to find a place for the October 1976 massacre in the collective memory of the country is the lack of Thai historical discourse about the state crime. Regardless of the truth if the Thai state had ever committed a mass violence against people in the past, it was not part of Thai history. Thai historiography is a saga of the unity of Thai people under the benevolent monarchs against the threats posed by foreign countries. A massacre by the state is, therefore, an alien concept. In the 1976 incident, the enemy was not from without but mostly Thai youths; the state was not benevolent; and the outcome was brutal, not peaceful. It defies all the usual components of the memorable past in Thai mentality. It is not even a good fit in the narrative of Thai democracy espoused by the liberals and many radicals themselves, for radicalism was now seen as the unfortunate loss of direction after the celebrated uprising in 1973.

The commemoration in 1996 was a significant break of the silence, although it is a long way to go toward the truth and proper place in Thailand’s collective memory and history.

Timing of the commemoration

I myself initiated the 1996 commemoration. Like other former radical friends, I survived the carnage that morning with a sense of uneasiness that grew by year. In the first few years of the perpetrator’s jubilation, the sorrow for the loss of lives was compensated by the high hope for a just revenge. While many fought for it in jungles, I spent two years waiting for it in a prison. But the socialist revolution as alternative to the state in our imagination gradually collapsed and faded away by the early 1980s. In reverse, the sense of grief and bewilderment was intensifying, not only about the future but probably more about the past, not only ‘what is to be done?’ but rather ‘what had we done?’. For better or worse, I still have a life to live through, comfortably in the ivory tower. But the past is with me everywhere I go.

Having been living with the growing industry of commemoration and the increasing scholarship on atrocities, genocides, and memories of the traumatic pasts, I realized how silent it had been in Thailand about the 1976 massacre. I learned that a tiny gathering at Thammasat occasionally on October 6 of some years to make merit to the deaths no longer existed.

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In 1995, the fact that the 20th anniversary of the massacre was only one year away became so striking on my mental calendar. In September that year, I decide to write a personal letter, and then faxed it to a few friends whom I guessed were the “hubs” of networks of old friends. I simply asked them to mark on their calendars for a meeting at Thammasat on 6 October 1996, a year after, to make merit to our fallen friends since 1976. I did hope for a good turnout. Humbly accepting the obscurity of the massacre in public memory, nonetheless, I did not anticipate a breakthrough commemorative event. In retrospect, as much as I would like to take credits for initiating it, I cannot. I did not know how perfect the timing of the letter was and I did not realize the potential of the commemoration.

The commemoration, arguably unprecedented in Thai history, was highly successful due to a number of converging factors.

First, it was conceived after most former radicals had gone through the phases of uncertainty in their lives. By 1995, most had settled economically. The commemoration might not have been possible, say, had the economic crisis hit Thailand sooner.

Second, quite a number of former activists had the opportunities and resources for renewing their political interests: with political parties, the NGOs, civic groups, even simply as active citizens. Their resurgence could be felt in political domain.

Third, it is believed that the strong participation by the activists and people of the 1970s generation, known later as the “October generation”, contributed significantly to the successful struggle against the military regime in 1992 (Anek 1993:87-88,127). Despite the silence regarding the 1976 massacre, the October generation was regaining confidence.

Fourth and finally, since the mid-1980s Thailand had enjoyed a relatively open politics with stronger civil society, press freedom, and the better human rights situation. The political condition was good for the revisit of an ugly episode in Thai history, no matter who started it and how.

The letter was circulated widely and rapidly. Soon after, former activists in groups and individually got to work, starting with the revival of the merit-making at Thammasat on October 6, 1995. During the year leading to October 1996, the increasing number of them independently organized and participated in varieties of commemorative activities, and a committee to organize the big event in October was formed. The project initially conceived as a merit-making for the deaths became the year-long events culminating in the major one at Thammasat in October 1996. It was a commemorative movement. From the start to the end of the commemoration, there were criticisms against it, like every other time when the massacre was mentioned in public, for muddying the water and not letting the bygone be bygone. This time, the whole generation helped muddying the water.

Reconstituting individuals

During the year, one of the activities unimaginable a few years earlier was the meetings and discussions to record the oral history of the radical movement in 1973-76 and their subsequent experiences in the jungle. Quite a few groups of former radicals traveled upcountry, spending a few days and nights together to recall and record their memories. For many, these gatherings were their first time after the jungle years to meet old friends in the context of revisiting the traumatic past, to openly talk about it and share their grief to the community of fellow veterans of the failed radical movement. For many, these were their first time that they no longer had to guard their past strictly to themselves but could take a pride in what they had been and had done, even as mistakes, in their youth. In a country where the concept of coming to terms with the past is unknown, where normally does not recognize the importance of speaking out or sharing their stories, these people were experiencing it, twenty years after the massacre, and about fifteen years after returning from jungles with total disenchantment.

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Many groups of former radicals initiated commemorative activities independently. Among them, the searches and reconstitution of individuals who died in the struggle were, in my opinion, the most difficult, least known but most admirable and most rewarding efforts. Given the political situation after the massacre, the deaths of the “enemies of the Nation, Religion and the Monarchy” were not properly accountable. The numbers of the deaths, injured, missing were unreliable and confusing. And nobody had taken care of these facts. The four bodies burnt in the street, for instance, were not identified. One of the two hanged that morning remained unknown. Some known deaths were not reported to their families. Most bodies were not recovered for proper cremations, possibly because their families never knew about their death, or afraid to show up to claim the bodies. Nobody knows what happened to those unclaimed ones. In a “good” sacrifice, the martyrs were always known collectively by an honorable name while their individual names also registered in documents and sites of memory. Dying as the outcasts, as the enemies of the nation, these bodies and identities were neglected, forgotten as if they were non-existent. Even among the radicals and the communist party, only a few names and faces were recognized. Most of the time, the deaths in the massacre were mentioned collectively as the martyrs of revolution. For twenty years, there was no research to find out about them individually. During the commemorative movement, several groups independently launched the efforts to compile information about friends who died in the massacre. As a result, some who used to be vaguely known were individually recognized, with their faces and names remembered. Moreover, for twenty years only a few families of the deaths in the massacre were regularly in touch by friends of their children, let alone any kind of acknowledgment or honor. Despite the searches, nonetheless, many remain unknown and more need to be done.

Meanwhile, the commemoration also inspired the searches for the remains of students as well as other guerilla fighters who died during the insurgency. They were also fading into oblivion, mostly remembered only by a few friends. Although, their faces, names, and identities were remembered very well, in most cases their bodies were buried hastily in temporary camps, in the battlefields or simply left on the front lines. During the commemorative year, there were efforts to recover the remains of those who died in the jungles. [3] It was very difficult task to locate the sites of death given that by the mid-1990s the landscapes of the former battlegrounds drastically changed. Many jungles areas were cleared and occupied; some even became nice gardens and parks. Former comrades from various insurgent zones organized several missions in search of the remains and bones. They had to recall and reconstruct many battles, in order to identify the locations where friends were buried or left behind. Needless to say how painful was every single one. In three major areas, namely the northern Isan, the southern Isan – both in the northeastern region of Thailand – and the south, bones of about a hundred or more people in each area were recovered. Eventually after the commemoration in 1996, former fighters in each area organized commemorations to cremate their fallen friends with proper honor and recognition to them and their families. In each case, a monument was erected at a local Buddhist temple with a big Buddhist stupa in the middle. Names of the fallen revolutionary fighters were inscribed either inside or outside the stupa.

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Inside, a small urn filled with the remains of each individual was orderly placed on the shelf with his/her name and sometimes picture too. In one stupa, a poetry celebrating the revolutionary spirit and the fallen comrades was engraved on the wall, with a red flag and memorabilia from the failed revolutionary wars. Another stupa that seems at a glance like a Khmer style pagoda is in fact modeled after an M-16 bullet. The political statement is up to a visitor to imagine.

These commemorations outside the main event in October were not well known. Nevertheless, they involved a large number of people, former radical students and beyond. In each single search, they had to revisit the past, recalling what happened, digging up their memories and confronting with their traumatic pasts while digging up the earth. They had to overcome the refuge of silence and the propensity to evasiveness. Yet they were aware of their existential present. Through these activities, past and present must be connected in certain ways that these people could live with and could make sense of their current lives. The reconstitution of each individual, both the fallen victims and the living ones, was very significant possibly without their awareness. For the dead ones, individuality – face, voice, name, identity, and family – is the condition for recognition of every single human being. This is to remind the living people of who they were – common folks like us, not a faceless enemy of the nation, religion and monarchy. At the same time, it is to remind us what have been lost in the crime – honorable persons whose lives are like ours, whose pain could happen to anybody including us. Singularity – not as a lumped collective crowd – is the ultimately proper way to honor a noble life. For the living victims, no matter how powerful a collective commemoration may be, there is no substitution for individual experiences whose trauma were as private as collective, and whose memories will never completely become collective. The activities that allow individual experiences to come to terms in individual ways with their individual pasts while participating in a collective commemoration were the best.

Even a minor participation like mine from half the globe away was a highly fulfilling experience. The case was a friend mentioned earlier, Jaruphong Thongsin, known among friends as “Ja”. That morning, he was at the Student Union building, making sure that nobody was left behind in the building until he became the one that was left behind. Nobody knows if he was still alive or not when his body was dragged along the soccer field. Later his body was one of those being laid on the ground while a man nailed a piece of wood into his chest. It is not known where his body was since that day. His name was listed among the deaths but for unknown reasons, it was also listed among the student leaders who remained at large and wanted by the police years after the massacre.

Ja’s father came from his hometown in Suratthani to Bangkok to search for his son. He went back and forth between Ja’s apartment, police stations, and many hospitals. He learned that his son was listed among the deaths but also still “wanted” by the police. Ironically, as long as he did not find his son’s body, his hope was still alive. Thanks to years of censorship, he never saw the pictures of his son’s death either. He returned home after a week without finding the whereabouts of his son, but with a slim hope that he might still be alive. At his hometown, there were rumors of people seeing Ja operate with the local communists. The rumor that should have made most parents worried had instead kept their hope alive. Ja’s friends, myself included, heard about Ja’s death since that day. It was confirmed a few years later by pictures acquired from foreign journalists. We saw the pictures countless times. Yet, over the years we did not know that his parents were still waiting for his return. To put it correctly, we never sought out his parents, making contact with them or giving them a visit, finding out how they were, whether or not they were still waiting for their son. His death was, however, well remembered. It haunted me every time whenever the ambivalence of moral responsibility crept up in my mind. So did it to many other friends.

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Despite that, as the years passed by with the heavier weight of past, I had less and less courage to meet with Ja’s parents since I do not know how to answer them, or myself, why their son would not return but why I am still alive.

Then came 1996 during the preparation for the commemoration, a friend decided to track down Ja’s parents. Then she went down to visit them, accompanied by a couple of journalists. With help from Ja’s brother and sister, she confirmed to Ja’s parents what they prepared to hear for twenty years. The wait was finally over, and they did not blame us at all for twenty years of no contact. Another responsibility was fulfilled; another ambivalence was resolved – just to tell a friend’s parents that their son would not return; just to bring a closure to one case, one family. Even so, how could we excuse ourselves for not telling but leaving them waiting for twenty years? It was so cruel to them. Their understanding and forgiveness made our neglect and lack of courage even more inexcusable.

Commemorating whom?

The most critical disagreements among the former radicals were who to be commemorated. Who really were our fallen friends? How should we remember them or how would we want them to be remembered by the public? To be precise, were they communists, Marxists, radicals, rabble-rousers, or simply the ordinary kids, democracy-lovers, soft-minded idealists who were unfortunately misunderstood as radicals? And no matter who they were, did we want them remembered as such? As absurd as it may sound, this unlikely question was not easy to solve. Disagreements remain to these days. It was so ideologically charged that the organizers were divided into factions with strong supporters in all camps, while it also made any observers dumbfounded at its ramifications.

Since the days my letter was circulated, a radical historian and a committed socialist, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, strongly criticized it and declared that he would not participate in the commemoration. The letter I wrote, he argued, depicted the movement and the activists of that time merely as the democratic lovers and idealists with vague idealism to be remembered and honored. The “noble cause”, as I used it in the letter, was an empty euphemism to avoid recognizing that they were in fact Marxist radicals and the movement was a socialist one. The commemoration as suggested would help further erase the memory of radicalism in Thailand into absolute oblivion. (There is no need to defend my letter in this paper.)

Over the years, former radicals had become a generation of active citizens with all shades of politics and ideologies but with a shared past. Their views on any issues are perhaps more diverse than the general public. Some become corrupt politicians and local mafia while many are, still, radical activists with the NGOs. Many remain politically active in their own ways while others are uninvolved but informed citizens. Participating in the commemorative movement, they brought with them diverse views on the meanings of the past, the conditions of the present, and the desirable future. The fallen heroes were variously remembered; the commemoration went multi-directional.

The major conflicts among the organizers, in my view, stemmed from the divergence of projected memories. Factionalism appeared as if it was between two clearly defined camps, exacerbating by personal vendettas. I tried below to describe the two “ideal” camps in conflict over many related issues: - the memory of the past student movement and those who died, how to present them for public memory, what or how the commemoration should be, what kinds of activities and implications, whether or not to confront the issue of violence and brutality, and to expose the perpetrators, and so on. In my view, however, there were many more than two tendencies in the ideological and political differences, each of which was nuances and eclecticism exactly because the past was shaped and projected by their diverse present. As individuals and as groups in the conflict, neither side in reality was as clear, consistent, coherent, or rigid as I describe here.

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In the first camp, there were people who wanted the martyrs to be remembered as non-radical, democratic activists, whose idealism was for a better, caring, and equitable society. They were definitely not communists, not the threatening radicals, and not enemies of the country and its people. A commemoration in this view hoped to “correct” the public that the students in the past were not dangerous radicals, for the public may be sympathetic to their contributions for a better politics and society. Speaking in the age of image making, some went as far as to say that the martyrs, thereby the movement in the 1970s, should be presented in such a way that was acceptable by the public. For these people, the major activities leading to the big event in October included a special address on the future of Thai democracy by a former Prime Minister, a highly respected senior social critic, and a few other well-known public figures. It was reported, though I cannot confirmed, that some people in this group wanted this activity to be a show case to the public of the commemoration to come in October, in the sense that it did not dwelled on the massacre, violence, deaths, state crime or past radicalism. Circumvented and recast by the projected image from the present, the controversial past was not much an issue. The commemoration, they argued, should look to the future instead of preoccupying with the past. This was how the public would remember the 6 October martyrs.

The opposite camp that finally prevailed in the organizing committee wanted the commemoration to deal head-on with the past: - to address as it possibly can the issues of violence and brutality in Thai society, past radicalism, and the collusion among powerful people and institutions that led to the massacre. At the minimum, they wanted to clarify once and for all that students were victims of violence that was originated by the powerful perpetrators. Hopefully, the public would properly recognize the honor of the martyrs and the loss that the massacre had caused to Thai society. For them, the forward-looking event that avoided the past was another form of forgetting, and disrespect to the fallen heroes. Although they were aware of the unspeakability surrounding the massacre, the revisit of the massacre to speak as far as possible about what happened was a necessary condition to clear up many other issues. The commemoration in this fashion would also invite the public, especially the younger generations, to know and appreciate the radical students of the 1970s, and to ponder how a brutality of such a scale could happen in Thai society.

Underneath the appearance of personal animosities, the conflicts of memory politics were also impersonal, with more serious and wider implications. Similar conflicts remained in many subsequent debates and commemorative events after 1996, for example, the arguments about the monuments of the October 1973 and 1976, about how to write these two events in school textbooks, and about the place of the socialist radicalism in Thai history. These cases are beyond this paper can fully address. [4] Moreover the two opposite sides may in fact represent the two poles of possibilities for the memories and commemoration of the massacre. In other word, the two ideal camps I described above constituted the circumscription of a terrain within which the varieties of memories (individual and collective), and commemorative events in 1996 and later operated and confronted one another. In 1996, they disagreed with one another seriously. Yet many participated by commemorating their fallen friends and the massacre independently in the ways they preferred -- some turned conservative while others celebrated them as revolutionaries.

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Confronting the state crime by individual memories

On October 5-6, 1996, the commemoration at Thammasat was a little chaotic but a huge success, thanks to the chaos. Public attendance was very high while the planned and unplanned programs went extremely well beyond expectation. The addition of the independently organized activities made the whole event dynamic and lively. The two-day commemoration included an exhibit on the massacre, academic discussions, public speeches, live music and performances, an outdoor art exhibition, publications, video shows of the massacre and other major popular uprisings, and religious rituals. What happened twenty years earlier was retold innumerable times, though, unsurprisingly, without referring to the unspeakable parts of that history. They went on without even minor resistance. The reaction or disruption from the rightwing was conspicuously absent. Apart from a few flyers by an insignificant group, there was no action or even public comments by the military or any conservative organizations. On the contrary, media coverage of the commemoration was unusually high in the weeks leading to the event, including a live telecast of some programs by an independent TV station.

Despite the varieties of activities, the commemoration was able to confront with the issue of state crime instead of being evasive or too abstract about it. A video recording of the actual event with actual sounds and pictures was shown repeatedly for two days. Several thousand copies of it were sold. The original video discovered in mid-1996 in the archive of the army TV station was said to be the propaganda material after the massacre to show its triumph over the communists in Bangkok. A brief section that I watched shows the police operations outside Thammasat and some brutal scenes with military marching songs in the background. Ironically, this army’s propaganda material became a best-selling evidence of the atrocity twenty years later.

But the more powerful account of the crime by the Thai state in 1976 was presented in an exhibition visited by hundred of thousand of people over the two days plus the extension for a month after the commemoration. Apart from the chronology of events leading to the massacre, the exhibits used pictures to tell the story of the ugly morning including the excessive violence on the indefensible students. A section of the exhibit was a life-size picture of one of the two hangings that was watched by the delighted rightwing spectators. The whole picture was pasted on a huge mirror. Visitors, then, could see themselves in the mirror as if they were part of the spectacle in the actual event. Every visitor suddenly became a witness of the indescribable brutality. Another section showed the contrasts between the radical students and the rightwing royalists in terms of their political views, political rhetoric and jargons, heroes and perceived enemies, preferred books and literature, to their lifestyles and dress codes. At the end of the section, a question was raised -- if these differences were justified reasons for killing the other. Undoubtedly the exhibit was the victim’s narrative. After twenty years of the official lies and evasion and of the victim’s relative silence, the story from the victim’s point of view was powerful and shocking to the visitors, especially the younger generation who had heard vaguely about the incident but never known or understood what happened and never realized how ugly it was. It took twenty years, one whole generation, for the victim’s voice finally broke out very loud and clear to the public.

Outside the exhibition hall was an outdoor art exhibition by many artists some of whom were the victims of the massacre themselves. It included a “live” art performance to commemorate a friend of theirs, a painter who was killed in the incident. An academic program also ran during the two days, with paper presentations and discussion on the massacre as well as on the broader and the structural violence in Thai society – from political assassinations and suppressions of civic leaders, to rape and every-day violence against women, violence against children and workers, to censorship and book banning. Inside the main auditorium of Thammasat were political music and plays, public speeches, and other performances.

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A drama depicted a common experience of the radical activists who lost their friends in the massacre and more in the revolutionary battles, and eventually became disillusioned, losing any hope they might have had for a socialist revolution and living in pain for years after that.

In the soccer field was a series of a dozen of huge posters, each of which filled with a face of the same person who can easily be seen from a hundred meters away. Upon a closer look, the face on each board was in fact made of hundreds of postcards. Each postcard was printed on one side with various sizes of spots in white on the black background or vice versa. The spots on each card, illegible in themselves, were in fact tiny parts of the gigantic enlargement of a linotyped photo of the face. The photo in black and white was enlarged to the point that matrices of spots and dots that made up the picture were exposed. Then each gigantic picture was cut into pieces, each of which was made into a postcard. The other side of each postcard was the message “We do not forget the 6 October”, with a clue what these dots were, an instruction and the printed address of the producers of what they called the “Wall Posters”. The instruction encouraged people to write anything they wanted about the massacre and send it back. Enclosed in the envelops that explained more who the person was, how he died in the massacre, and the need for every recipient of the card to help, thousands of postcards from a dozen of the gigantic photos were widely distributed among former activists and beyond. Upon returned, the postcards were then resembled into a gigantic photo of the face again.

The messages of this activity were in the photo (the face) as well as in the act of writing by individual participants and in the process of enlarging, disassembling, and resembling the picture. The making, unmaking and remaking of the picture was an expression of the making, unmaking, and resembling of an individuality, a person whose life was made and unmade, growing and broken up into oblivion. Although his life was supposedly distinctively large, it was unrecognizable. The recognition, in every sense of the word, would be possible only by the hands of commemorating participants. It depended on thousands of individuals to return every single card, emphasized the producer of this project, since a missing single card would make one poster incomplete. The commemoration of the fallen heroes required thousands of voluntary and willing participants to resemble even one victim’s individuality. The organizers themselves could not do it. Moreover, while each postcard was part of the whole, each remained individually distinctive with particular messages, mostly in handwritings, and names on each card. The thought that was contemplated and put into letters when each person wrote the card also remained there. Thousands of cards were returned, enough to resemble a dozen of the original enlarged pictures. The Wall Posters were filled with the power of remembering. The message along the side of the soccer field read,

“We do not forget the 6 October; We do not forget Jaruphong”.

It was the face of Jaruphong Thongsin.

Jaruphong’s parents and relatives of many other fallen heroes and heroines were among the dignitaries honored in the symbolic cremation described at the beginning. They were the firsts in line to lay the paper flowers under the urn before the flame was lit. Later that morning, a newly renovated meeting room at Thammasat Student Union Building, funded by the Friends of Jaruphong group, was inaugurated by Jaruphong’s parents and the Chancellor of the university. An account of the massacre, list of names of the deaths as known so far, the biographies of four Thammasat students who died on that day including the one of Jaruphong, were displayed on the walls of that room. The room was named “Jaruphong Thongsin”. Thammasat’s President told the crowd at the inauguration that it was the first room in Thammasat and probably in any Thai university that was named after a student. But he hoped that it was the last one. Hope there would be no more.

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Meanwhile a small ritual was independently organized by a Buddhist group to make and transfer merits to the deaths at every single location known for having people killed: - under the two trees where two men were hanged in spectacle, in the street and the field where bodies were laid down, nailed and burnt, and several other spots in Thammasat where bodies were shot down. In the evening, the final commemorating speeches, mine included, were given in front of a huge gathering of several thousand people in the soccer field. At the very end of the commemorative event, people paid one more respect to the departed friends with candles at the platform where in the morning the cremation took place.

Breaking but not lifting the silence

It took cruelly too long for these activities to happen. It took a whole generation, both in terms of time past and the active participants, to recover from hopelessness to life, to revisit and confront their memories of the painful past, and to get over fragmentation, factions, disagreement in order to restore the individuality of every fallen friend as well as the wholeness of their lives and idealism that were sacrificed for the oppressed and the revolutionary dreams. It took a whole generation, time and people, to honor the martyrs of the October 1976 massacre, to acknowledge the pain their families had endured quietly since then. Finally, we can say farewell to them, properly and loudly in public.

The commemoration also raised a number of questions how Thai society normally deals with the traumatic past, and with individuals who suffered from such kind of event. It exposed the problematic norms of justice, impunity, truth finding, and the flawed values in Thai society regarding humanity. Last but not least, it exposed the weak understanding and experience in conflict resolution. Not only the state’s repressive shadow, but these lacks and weaknesses were also limits and obstacles for the commemoration in 1996 and beyond.

First of all, the commemoration was probably the first of its kind for victims who had been regarded by the state and the public as well as enemies of the nation, religion and the monarchy, unlike the martyrs of the uprising in 1973 and 1992 who were recognized either by the state or the public or both immediately after the incidents. Thais were not used to it; many obstacles remain. It took place, for instance, in the political system, known as the

“Democracy with the Monarchy as the Head of the State”,

in which all the powerful people and institutions that were involved in the massacre remained in place. It also took place in the culture of elite’s impunity in which the powerful and rich often escape punishments and in which every coup leaders and dictators got amnestied, even after killing innocent people who protested against them, with approval by the judicial system. The participants in the 1996 commemoration observed these limits and practiced self-censorship throughout. The collusion among people in the high places and the public disinterest in disrupting this political culture of impunity are the conditions still firmly in place. Even a possibly controversial picture at the exhibit -- a picture of the student skit that led to the massacre, from a rightwing newspaper of those days -- was taken down, for it was not certain if the organizers would have been charged for lese majeste (again). That was a limit, a line that nobody was willing to cross. The silence was broken. But it was not lifted. The cloud of silence remains thick and heavy.

Secondly, from the beginning to the end of the commemoration, there were skepticisms if the event might open up the old wounds and the radicals might seek revenge. It had to be repeatedly said that we were not interested and would not be involved in any talk of revenge. The denunciation of state crime pointed fingers to no specific individual perpetrators. Had we done so, it might have been seen as seeking revenge, which was unacceptable by many among the public who sympathized with the victims but who were unwilling to pursue accountability. On the other hand, such skepticism was raised without mentioning even once who or what would have been the target for revenge. Was the possible target unknown? Or was it too well known, thus needed no utterance? The discourse on the perpetrators remains elusive, slippery, and was beyond limits.

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Thirdly, on the other hand, the organizers, and myself in particular, were asked many times during the commemoration if we were ready to forgive. Apart from the issue who should be forgiven, it had never occurred to those who asked, mostly columnists and reporters, what forgiveness is, how to achieve it, on what grounds, conditions, or what the consequences would happen to the perpetrators and the victims. For them and perhaps for the general public too, forgiveness seemed to be a simple, easy gesture that can be expressed, made and given out. At no point was there an effort to find out if any perpetrators would show remorse or feel sorry to what happened. Is forgiveness in Thai culture an easy unilateral gesture aiming at purifying one’s own mind regardless of its conditions or consequences in relations to the perpetrators or to the society at large? That seems to be the case. Many former radicals announced their forgiveness based on the Buddhist notion of loving-kindness, requiring no establishment of truth or the perpetrator’s response. Karma, it is believed, would do the job.

Fourthly, throughout the year, journalists, columnists and presumably the general public too, took for granted the victim’s accounts but without serious probing further for truth. There were calls for the clarification of this ugly episode of Thai history, but nobody made serious effort to do it. Despite that the blame for muddying the water faded away, no further serious investigation either. Possibly everybody knows that the water is already too muddy to be dealt with. I do not know of any significant increase in the interest among historians particularly the younger generations to study the period. Possibly there are not many historians in Thailand anyway. There were more published memoirs and commemorative volumes for individuals relating to the radical past. But most activities remain oral and performative, not the written ones.

Despite all the limits, the sacrifices for a better society, including the socialist idealism, were honored. The cloud of silence was irreversibly penetrated and partially dissipated. The commemoration inspired people to test the limits of the existing power and taboo, and to cross the line even as little as they possibly could. One small example told it all. An old friend of mine walked with obvious joy in the middle of the gathering on the final evening of the commemoration. When he saw me from twenty meters away, he called me, “Hi, Thong”, and made a proclamation that everybody between him and me could hear loud and clear,

“I want to tell everybody in my office and in the world that I was (am) a communist – (a pause) – So what!”

In Thai, the verb does not change according to the tense. So I was not sure he meant the past or the present. In any case -- So what!

Such a proclamation was an evidence of joy, a jubilation that perhaps he had never felt in a long time. It was not a triumph over the perpetrators – everybody knew that limits were there and what happened may never be disclosed forever. It was not a joy without respect to the fallen friends -- sadness was in every molecule of the air at Thammasat. It was a joyful triumph over oneself, over one’s own ambivalent memory and past, to bring the past and present together, to be proud of whatever or whoever one was and is. Although my friend might not know the term, thanks for its absence in Thai, he and many other radicals of the 1970s had come to terms with the past in their own ways, collectively and individually despite their disagreements in how to commemorate it.

This was a significant accomplishment that, in my opinion, was not anticipated, not initially expected, and not realized until the end of the event. For the first time, they could talk about it and tell their stories in public with pride and confidence. And this time people listened with understanding and sympathy. One of the common comments from these former radicals was the fact that it was the first time they could share their painful personal and collective histories of a unique generation who wrote a history that has been neglected.

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Several memoirs by former radicals were published during the year and after, though not to my satisfactory extent. Many more public commemorations and cremations at former CPT camps in the jungle were organized. For many of them, the stigma – the fear of being denied – was finally over.

The commemoration in 1996 shifted the power relations in discourse of the massacre. To be more specific, the victims can now speak despite limits while the perpetrators became cautious, evasive or went into silence, taking refuge behind those limits and seeking any possible protection providing that they do not have to speak. A controversy in 2000 between Giles Ungpakorn and Samak Suntharawet was a case in point. Gile is a son of the late Dr. Puey Ungpakorn, one of the best-known victims of the 6 October incident who escaped the rightwing mob to England. In 1977 while Puey was campaigning against the rightwing dictator in Thailand, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed parts of his body. Puey lived his final twenty years of life in silence, unable to speak or write again. In 2000 Gile challenged Samak, a well-known rightwing politician since 1976 who was running for the Bangkok Governor, to reveal his role in the massacre. Predictably, Samak denied any involvement in the atrocity but was very evasive. Instead, Samak immediately sued Gile for defamation. In Thailand, a defamation suit like this forced Gile to stop his argument against Samak in public, and brought down the curtain to the whole public controversy, deferring it to the court. This is an example how a perpetrator would deal with the 6 October case today – evasiveness and silence, avoiding engaging in any discourse on the incident.

We may also say that the 1996 commemoration has pushed the limits for the discourse and memory of the massacre. Ann evidence beyond all the activities discussed in this paper is the monument for the 6 October martyrs. Before the commemoration, ambivalent memory and silence had made the monument an impossible project for political, thereby financial and other logistical reasons. The project took off during the commemoration year. On the one hand, there were calls for the government to adopt the idea of a combined monument for the three bloodsheds in the history of Thai democracy, namely 1973, 1976 and 1992. It had never succeeded and nor did it in 1996 for reasons I discussed elsewhere. On the other hand, a separate project was launched in 1996 bypassing the government and instead asking Thammasat University to commit its space for the “Garden of Monuments of Thai Democracy”. The 100% privately funded project proposed to erect several small monuments, one for each significant moment in the history of democracy in Thailand that Thammasat was involved. The 6 October massacre was one of them. The monument for the massacre was among the first done and was opened in October 2000. It is a huge piece of granite, indeed rather bulky looking, inscribing the word in Thai “6 Tulakhom 2519” [6 October 1976] on the top surface of the rock. Surrounding the word on the same surface are the relief depicting victims of the atrocity, the male and female students who were hanged, raped, shot and burnt, and the face of Dr. Puey Ungpakorn. At the base of the rock is an inscription of a passage from a well-known account of the massacre written by Puey. [5] The strong presence of Puey at the monument is interesting, for the memory of Puey and Puey’s memory of the massacre represent a certain view among the former radicals and the public. The absence of any indication to the history of socialist radicalism is conspicuous.

The commemoration was definitely a breakthrough, a form of challenge through the mediation of individual and collective memories.

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It was, nonetheless, no magic that could dispel the ambivalence and silence once and for all. It remains to be seen to what extent the silence has retreated, in what ways the memory and discourse about the massacre have really changed, and in what ways the ambivalence remains among the perpetrators and victims. Needless to say, there are more to be done to challenge and push the limits even further.

notes

[1]The exact number of deaths at the massacre is not known even up to today. Two sources based on the official figures give the number at 43 and 46 (Khadi prawattisat 1978: 81-83; Sayam chotmaihet, 1976: ...). , two of which were policemen and one village scout, the right wing organization collaborating in the massacre. Among them, how many were male and female, how many were students, are not clear either. It is believed that the actual total was higher than that, possibly up to a hundred. Several hundreds were wounded. The official numbers of bodies that were identified and claimed by families are also confusing. If the total is actually higher, many more bodies must have been unidentified and lost ever since. Given this fact, the number of missing ones was never mentioned in any record.
[2]This section is taken almost entirely from Thongchai 2001.
[3]Unrelated to the commemoration of the 1976 massacre, among the earliest efforts to recover the remains of the insurgents who died during the war was the search for the death of Jit Phoumisak in the mid-1980s (Khaen Sarika, ???). Probably the most famous Thai radical intellectual, Jit was one of the country’s most gifted and prolific thinkers, writers, linguists, and historians. After eight years in prison, he joined the insurgents in 1965 but was ambushed on the front line only a year later. His death was mysterious until the search that not only reconstructed his final moment but also recovered his bones. A small commemorative stupa was subsequently erected at the site he was killed. The search was well publicized and likely became a precedent for later searches for the fellow guerillas fighters.
[4][Add notes on 1) Charnvit and Thanom’s son-in-law on Naowarat’s textbook; 2) on the debate regarding the October 1973 monument between Charnvit and Kasian in 1998; and 3) TW’s speech at the opening of the Oct 6 monument in 2000]
[5]Puey’s article (1981) was originally written in English, during his campaign against the regime in Bangkok. Despite some factual errors and arguable analysis, it has become the standard account of the massacre, especially among Thais. This owes to the fact that it was written by one of the most respectable public figures the country ever produced and himself a victim of the incident, and that it was among the earliest victim’s account available in Thai.