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Scum of the Earth

Originally published in Thai on Matichon Online
Article by Nidhi Eoseewong
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn

If one thinks that the song “Scum of the Earth” is merely another patriotic song produced by the Thai government, then one has gravely misunderstood.

The lyrics of all of the songs referred to as patriotic -- beginning when the Sayamanusathi was put to music and up until the songs of Luang Wichit and all the others -- aim to promote the unity of Thais to fight against enemies who were outsiders.

Outsiders may exist only as a shadow. We did not know who was an outsider from the reign of Rama 6 up until when the Japanese were trying to extend their power throughout Southeast Asia. Once Thailand was occupied by the Japanese Army, the Allies became our enemy. Then the Communists became the enemy during the Cold War.

But the song “Scum of the Earth” was explicitly composed and disseminated in order to suppress those enemies who were insiders.

In truth, the justification to love the nation in order to fight with external enemies has an entirely internal political goal. The politics here are partially indirect and partially direct.

The state of being alert and prepared to fight with external enemies provided special powers to the government for domestic enforcement and control. This also created an image of the firm ties between Thailand and the free world, which was the source of material assistance in the form of money, guns and helicopters, and immaterial assistance such as the presence of the voice of Thais on the world stage and scholarships for soldiers and civil servants.

In actuality, the Thai government knew full well that those whom they made into enemies were not from Moscow, Peking, or Hanoi, but were Thais. For example, the government had a list of names and detailed information about the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Thailand. But the government was satisfied with claiming that their enemies were the lackeys of Moscow or Peking. Labeling them this way dispossessed them of the right to have a voice in Thai politics.

The repression of those people, by means both legal and illegal, could then also be carried out without opposition from any quarter.

For this reason, patriotic songs (in the Thai formulation) are songs that always construct the enemy as external, whether implied or stated directly.  Such songs did not result in ordinary patriotic love of the nation. Love of the nation may be expressed through many different kinds of action. Some of these actions may not be favored by the government at all, such as opposing a corrupt government or assisting and augmenting the power of marginalized, voiceless Thais to become owners of the nation and come together with us fully. But the love of the nation that the Thai government bestows upon Thais is always one in which we must fight against external enemies.

The song “Scum of the Earth” cannot be placed in this category of patriotic songs. The reason is that those who are the namesake of the song are Thais just like the composer, singers, and those who promoted its constant dissemination on the radio.

In truth, the Thai government used assassination to get rid of its political enemies from 1947 onwards without any need to use a song like “Scum of the Earth” to foster assent among the people. For the most part, they implied that those assassinated by the state were linked to outsiders. (For example, the four cabinet members who were assassinated were made out to be connected to Chinese communists in the Malayan Federation. Otherwise, why would the state go against them?)

But by 1975, this once-effective method of getting rid of the enemies of the state had lost its efficacy. For example, even though they killed farmer leaders, the farmers’ movement continued. Even though they killed the Secretary-General of the Socialist Party, the party did not fall apart and still fielded candidates for election (and did better than expected in the elections).

In short, we can say that those insiders viewed as enemies were the “masses,” or the large number of marginalized people whose specificity was unseen by the state. Targeted assassination was unable to destroy their movements. The only way to wipe them out was to carry out a massacre in the city streets, and in so doing create and spread extreme fear to those inside the movement and society beyond it. They mutilated the corpses in a barbaric manner so that Thais would not dare come together to rise up against the state again.

But once the fear subsides, such an action may reverberate as hatred of the state. This is because it was a massacre of Thais by Thais in the center of the city.

For that reason, the song “Scum of the Earth” relies on the agitation of “insiders” and “outsiders” in Thai society in order to make those killed in the city streets into outsiders, or those who are not fully Thai.  The song begins, “There are those who use the name Thai, and their appearance is Thai, and they live on the land, and from the land; but in their hearts they would destroy it.”

Upon hearing these words, the meaning immediately comes to mind. For Thais who were indoctrinated like this from the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, they could only be Chinese (Isn’t it funny that those who extracted the most profit from Thailand are Westerners, and yet they have been exempt from being seen as despised outsiders?) People in this category,  including their descendants, who have become fake “insiders” faced extortion by state officials like farmers. They were better to extort than farmers because they lived their lives in the market economy and so had more cash.

The song “Scum of the Earth” was one part of the preparations in the year leading up to the massacre of 6 October 1976. The preparations also included references to the student leaders as “Tee” (Chinese boy) on the military radio. Ordinary university students came to be a threat to Thai society, warning who could study to the level of university, if they were not Chinese descendants? The masses went from being fake insiders to rising up to demand to be among the owners of the nation. They then became absolute outsiders.

After the massacre, Mr. Samak Sundaravej, who was catapulted into the position of minister of interior by the coup, gave an interview and claimed that those who were assassinated in the streets were Vietnamese. They could not speak Thai. The value of the lives of those unable to speak Thai was equated with that of one mosquito. Mr. Samak perhaps hoped that the song “Scum of the Earth” had successfully provided a mental foundation for Thais to be prepared to view the lives of outsiders as equivalent to those of mosquitos.

The song “Scum of the Earth” conveys that the lives of those whom the people who wield state power view as “scum of the earth” have a value equivalent to a mosquito. They may be picked off and discarded at any moment. Reference to the song by military officers carried the same meaning as speech threatening to take the lives of those whom powerholders deem to be their enemies, such as “Be very careful,” etc. One hears such threats more frequently when the army holds political power.

In the present, song “Scum of the Earth” has less potency. It merely stands in as a threat to individuals. It is unlikely to serve as a foundation for a massacre in the city streets. The power of the song (and every song in the world) is always derived from its political, economic and social context, and not its melody or lyrics alone.

Everything in Thailand has changed completely. Being Chinese or  Vietnamese does not result in one’s ejection from the insider category. Many prime ministers have openly declared their Chinese ancestry. International relations have undergone a 180-degree turn. (Asking for devotion in the form of the shirt off one’s back and the pillow under one’s head no longer carries political meaning, since it would be equivalent to asking everyone to give up their shirt.) The Thai economy is more tightly intertwined with the global economy than it was in 1975-1976. A massacre in the city streets like 6 October would impact the peoples’ livelihood directly. Even the profits of the public enterprise capitalists would not escape effect. There are also now much stronger domestic organizations separate from the state, ranging from political parties to sports associations.

The smiles of the crowd as they watched the mutilation of the corpse on 6 October 1976 came from being malinformed and disinformed. Their smiles also came from their blindness, which can cause the emergence of hatred as well as love. But even Thais who do not know all the news and information still know a great deal more today than they did then. The levels of love and hatred are also much lower and incomparable to what they were then.

The song “Scum of the Earth” therefore holds no meaning greater than a threat. This threat can be used against individuals but cannot be used against the masses.

As we know from the writing of Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.”

Note: This essay was first published in Thai in มติชน on 25 February, shortly after army commander-in-chief General Apirat Kongsompong called for the song “Scum of the Earth” (หนักแผนดิน) to be publicly broadcast. General Apirat’s call came after anti-dictatorship political parties criticized the role of the military in the polity in the lead-up to the 24 March election. The anticommunist song, which dates from 1975, was used to vilify and dehumanize those accused of being communists and anyone who questioned the ruling order in the months leading up to the 6 October 1976 massacre. Nidhi Eoseewong provides the context for the song and its use in creating an atmosphere of violence against dissidents in 1975-1976.  His analysis has only become more relevant since the election and the subsequent series of events.—trans.