The content in this page ("Beware the perils of selective history" by Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation) is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

Beware the perils of selective history

The past is always subject to editing, omission, co-optation and selective memorisation.

This was manifested recently when the red shirts flocked to listen to their leaders' speeches at Muang Thong Thani's Thunder Dome. Before people like Jatuporn Promphan and Nattawut Saigua took the stage, a video showing how resistance to the September 19, 2006, military coup took shape was screened.

Conveniently omitted or edited out was the crucial role of the September 19 Network Against the Coup, which was a mixed bag of anti-Thaksin democracy activists who decided they had to come out and oppose the coup, which ousted Thaksin anyway.

The half-dozen or so members of the network include Thanapol Eiwsakul, editor of the leftist Fah Diew Kan magazine; Chotisak On-soong, a political activist who later became infamous for his refusal to stand up for the royal anthem at a Bangkok cinema; and Sombat Boon-ngam-anong, who later inspired the use of the colour red to oppose the junta-sponsored 2007 charter.

Thanapol and Chotisak are not red shirts and the fact that such people got out to oppose the coup even before any pro-Thaksin figures did made the simplistic us-versus-them history problematic.

A more simplistic plot of us versus them is needed and ordinary red shirts are being directed to remember only the deeds of their current leaders who came out much later.

Even Sombat, the man who inspired the adoption of red and the leader of the Red Sunday Group, is often regarded by some reds with suspicion because he dares to criticise Thaksin Shinawatra publicly when he thinks criticism is merited.

The attempt by the red-shirt movement to use June 24 as the date for its next show-of-force street demonstration is another bid to invoke the past and bathe itself in the aura of The Promoters, who led the revolt that ended absolute monarchy 80 years ago on June 24, 1932.

Whether people like Pridi Banomyong, the late co-leader of the revolt, would approve of the use of such a symbolic date, we may never know, but the attempted co-optation is there for all to contemplate. The past cannot defend itself from omission or co-optation, especially when the people involved are no longer alive.

If we look at the present, we can see that countless things occur each day and so it is impossible to record them all or retell all of them at a later time. History is thus already selective by default, but those who selectively remember or narrate events for political gain make history their "tool" to help them shape the present and the future.

One must be wary when history is invoked, or told in a simplistic manner and without irony or complexity. It is easier to fan passions than encourage understanding - especially when history is told by those who stand to gain something from it.

In a similar fashion, the history of the massacre of October 6, 1976, when a right-wing mob lynched dozens of suspected communist sympathisers, mostly university students, and left many dead is often edited out of the collective memory of royalists.

Be wary of just one version of sanitised history. Be aware of the hegemonic power of history telling. The red-shirt leaders have their own take on anti-coup history. Contrasting versions of the past - laid bare before the public to debate and discuss - are always preferable to one version of history, red or not red, royalist or republican.

All these explain why history often tells us more about those who control and narrate the historic "tale" than about what had really happened in the past.

At times, the task of narrating the past can be like writing a better-than-reality job resume - only the positive parts are put on paper while those that diminish the cogency or unity of the message are often edited out.



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