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October 6 commemoration sliding down the memory hole

As the shadow of the junta spreads over the nation, including its universities, activists have felt demoralized that the democratic spirit in commemorating the 6 October incident was again having to compromise with military supremacy which currently is enthusiastically waving the royalism flag.

Political discourse over the incidents that took place 38 years ago has usually been ambivalent and ambiguous.
But attempts have been earnestly maintained every year since the 20th aniversary to remember an incident where 46 deaths were officially recorded in the clampdown, but where the memories of many people recall a hundred.

The military policy of squelching any political debate nationwide since the 22 May coup has, however, unnerved Thammasat University, the traditional host, into declining to organize an event this year that would usually include political gatherings of family and friends. Only religious rites will be allowed on Monday morning.

The 6 October 1976 massacre was an attack on students and protesters on the campus of Thammasat University and at Sanam Luang. They were demonstrating against the return to Thailand of former military dictator Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. It marked the end of the fledgling democratic and leftist spirit that had briefly been allowed to show itself in public in the three years since the 14 October 1973 uprisings that kicked out the Thanom dictatorship.

The day before the 6 October massacre, a photo of a mock hanging by Thammasat demonstrators was published in the Bangkok press. To many, the students in the photo appeared to be hanging Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in effigy.
In response, outraged paramilitary forces gathered outside the university that evening. Pol Lt Gen Chumphon Lohachala, deputy police chief, ordered an attack in the morning and authorized free fire on the campus.

The clampdown not only saw protesters shot but many were beaten and some of the bodies mutilated.
A junta headed by the defence minister, Admiral Sangad Chaloryu, seized power immediately after the massacre and installed a hard-line anti-communist and royal favourite Tanin Kraivixien as prime minister.

Students, unionists, academics, and farmer leaders flocked to the jungle to join the Communist Party of Thailand where they remained for several years before amnesty measures were launched and eventually the CPT became defunct.
"Both 14 October and 6 October have been declared as significant days for Thammasat University since two years ago, but now we cannot talk about it. The university mechanisms seem to accommodate the spirit of the junta rather than protect the spirit of the commemoration," said Vipar Daomanee, an independent scholar on women’s and human rights.

Ms Vipar, who also spent four years in the jungle with the CPT and who has been active organising the annual event, was kicked off the commemoration committee as she was considered too outspoken and argumentative, which this year is deemed dangerous in this bizarre era of censorship. "Even after 19 September 2006, we still had political gatherings to remember the 6 October event," said Ms. Vipar referring to the previous coup.

To be fair, a member of the National Legislative Assembly under the current junta Noranit Setrabutr, as Thammasat University president at the time, greenlighted the 'History Wall' sculpture project at Tha Prachan Campus as a depiction of this fearful chapter of history of some 20 years ago, she said.

Vipar said the current university administrators seemed afraid of the lingering impact of the events held last year in which a fictional drama entitled Jao Sao Ma Pa (The Wolf's Bride) was considered lèse majesté and two young dramatists involved in the play have been arrested since the coup.

They are now charged under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and have already detained without bail for some 50 days.
Some members of the commemoration committee, such as Jaran Ditapichai, also a core red-shirt member, were also afraid of an unwarranted junta attack against those with different opinions and from opposing sides through lèse majesté lawsuits. 
They are now in exile. "I don't know why they interpret the youths who played in the drama as insulting the monarchy," Vipar said, adding that members of the commemoration committee of last year’s 37th anniversary of 6 October and 40th anniversary of 14 October did not know anything about the play scripts last year.

Suthachai Yimprasert, Assistant Professor of history at Chulalongkorn University, said that censorship, or rather self-censorship, in shutting off discussions of very bitter memories was an unfortunate and cruel decision. "Contemporaries of the October Generation already have limited space to talk about this controversial chapter of modern history. And the only venue for them to clear a space and relieve their trauma is when they reunite and commemorate it. But now that space is shut down," said Dr Suthachai.

He said it might be sensitive for the conservative and royalist elites to allow any reminder of an event that was a stain on the country’s history since the current context is more or less similar to that of the 6 October massacre when the ultra-nationalists and ultra-royalists were in full power.

The historian said if the establishment in Thai society could actually eliminate the memories, or at least the annual reminders (the commemorations), they would surely do it.

"It's a dark side or a tainted spot in a history that has been written as good old folk in a caring and ethical society, because 6 October revealed the state, whose main job is supposed to be protecting the welfare, rights, and life of the members of society, as a killer of the people," said Dr Suthachai, also a former CPT member.

A small gathering will be held, though, on Sunday at Tha Prachan, and the father of one of the dead students, Charupong Thongsin, will participate with relatives of the 14 October Heroes, Vipar said.