I found myself seated somewhere on the campus of Chulalongkorn University working on a manuscript of this review. It was the day of the 58th Annual Traditional Football Match between Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities. The two royally composed university songs, CU’s “Mahachulalongkorn” and TU’s “Yoong Tong,” could be heard echoing across the campus from the National Stadium. For students today, it is activities like the football match that define university life.
In other words, this review of books dealing with the political events of 6th October 1976 is being written and will be read in a context very different from the one which held then, one in which there is very little public awareness of the politics of more than a quarter century ago. Today, only Thai students with an interest in Thai history have any knowledge of what took place on this date. Unlike in Chile, where former leader Pinochet was recently on trial for using force against innocent people during more or less the same period, in Thai society today, there is little interest in bringing to justice the culprits behind the violence of October 1976.
However, to researchers of Thai politics and society, these are important books. These two publications attracted the attention of a large number of participants at the International Symposium on Thai Studies in Nakorn Phanom Province in early January. This article centers on the question of whether these books, given the current political climate, or lack thereof, succeed in proving that the State was responsible for what took place 25 years ago—as suggested by the title of the first book—or whether it is possible only to “sift out the truth”—as the title of the second book implies.
The events of 6th October took place during the heat of political battles between the left and right wings. They culminated in the cruel suppression of the students gathering at Thammasat by police and a right-wing mob. A large number of innocent people were killed or suffered emotional trauma. A coup d’état followed forcing many Thai students to go into hiding or join the Communist Party of Thailand, which had strongholds in remote areas of the country. Thailand was effectively in a state of civil war, with the Communist Party and government forces battling for approximately four years.
The publisher of these books is The 6th October 1976 Investigating Committee, which was set up in July 2000 to gather information about a missing chapter from recent Thai history by compiling verbal accounts from volunteer eyewitnesses. Sitting as the chairperson was Professor (Emeritus) of Rangsit University Dr. Chontara Satayawattana (the author of the second book under review), and holding the secretarial position was Assistant Professor Ji Giles Ungpakorn (co-author of the first book) of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.
Atchayagam Rat Wigrit Garnpienpaeng (Crimes committed by the state) has three main objectives. In the first part, Ji Ungpakorn attempts to compile all available written accounts of the 6th October events. These are mostly explanations of “the truth” as seen through the eyes of the student leaders involved. Without imposing his own conclusions, the author simply presents these diverse viewpoints as starting points for discussion of the key issues raised in the last two sections of the book.
The next section consists of an in-depth examination of historical forces that led to the events. The study was done by Dr. Suthachai Yimprasert, a historian from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts and a former student activist. Even though he wasn’t at Thammasat that morning, his alleged involvement in student politics prompted him to flee. Suthachai’s thorough and multi-faceted study presents several factors that led to the bloodshed, in which at least thirty-nine people were killed and 145 others injured. He concludes that the crackdown on the students and the subsequent coup d’état had been planned in advance by the government, which justified its actions by accusing the students of staging a play that bordered on lèse-majesté. Suthachai urges Thai society to accept the truth that the student victims were in fact “heroes” who aspired to create a better society. Suthachai has successfully enriched this historical chapter with as many details as possible, making it a reliable source for future reference.
In the final section, Ji Ungpakorn, one of the most interesting writers on the 6th October events, rules that what happened was a crime committed by the State. His approach is different from that of others who have written on the same subject. First of all, he was by no means a student leader. Nor was he involved in the student movement. In fact, he only returned from England, where he spent most of his life, five years ago. The reason why he proclaims himself “an October person” (the term used to refer to students and other educated people who were directly involved in the 14 October 1973 and 6 October 1976 events) is because he is the son of Puay Ungpakorn, the Thammasat University president who, as a result of the events of 6th October, was forced to flee the country and eventually died in exile.
Ji Ungpakorn is therefore an academic and social activist whose background was not directly shaped by political situations in Thailand. Nor has he been so deeply scarred by the events that he is unable to make an objective analysis. All this, in fact, works to his advantage. He deliberates on the events like a true judge whose impartiality is not clouded by any illusions, as when he professes himself to be a Marxist despite others’ disillusionment with the Communist Party of Thailand.
Thus, Ji’s deliberation on the 6th October case must be regarded as having been done from a distance by someone removed from the actual events. Ji builds his case carefully before reaching the conclusion that the events were a crime committed by the State. He cites counter-evidence and counter-arguments like a professional trial lawyer. He counters all four accusations made by the State to justify the crackdown on the students and people on 6th October: first, that the students had staged a play that bordered on lèse-majesté; second, that by stockpiling weapons at Thammasat the students were guilty of treason; third, that the clashes between the so-called “patriots” and the students had gotten out of control, forcing police to break into Thammasat; fourth, that the students, by spreading communist ideology, were a threat to national security.
Ji dismisses each of the accusations using factual evidence and arguments. His judgment that the students’ gathering was a legitimate act is made without regard to the students’ deeds or to their ideology at the time or to any of the philosophical or factual disputes presented in the first part of the book. In this section, Ji assumes the role of a prosecutor and a jury who convicts the state of committing a crime and calls for the judge to bring the culprits to justice. He proposes that a truth commission be set up as has been done in many other countries.
Grid Plae Glad Nong Grong Khwamjing Doi Phuying Hok Tula (The women of 6th October: Sifting out the truth by opening old wounds) is a compilation of testimony given verbatim by women eyewitnesses. The writer, Chontira Satayawattana, is a former student activist who spent seven years in hiding. She was pregnant when she was charged with involvement in communist activities and sent to prison, where she subsequently gave birth to a daughter.
The book lives up to its title. The writer successfully sifts out the truth through verbal accounts and memories recounted by the female eyewitnesses. An unprecedented feat, the book not only allows volunteer witnesses to vent their painful feelings and memories but also presents newly discovered information. For example, according to a former intelligence student activist, a radio police message intercepted just before the events took place confirms that police reinforcement had been ordered prior to that morning. This evidence leads to the conclusion that the decision to enter Thammasat on the morning of 6th October was not a case of a situation getting out of control, but was actually an action planned in advance.
Every paragraph written by Suthachai and Chontira is replete with the names of individuals and institutions that are still highly influential even today. This is an important reason why we cannot hope to see Ji’s verdict taken seriously or a truth commission set up any time soon. As an outsider, Ji may be perceived as naïve. And the day remains out of reach when his demand for justice is met and his hope to be a torchbearer for truth and a force for change is realized.
At least Ji Ungpakorn is successful in presenting facts to those wanting to know the truth, but his call for justice is likely to be drowned out by the two royally composed songs echoing across the campus today.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. This review was translated by Somjit Jirananthiporn and Michael Crabtree, Chalermprakiet Center of Translation and Interpretation, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University.