A Revolution in Song: remembering Jit Phumisak through music

On 5 May 1966, Jit Phumisak was killed in Ban Nong Kung, Sakhon Nakhon. 53 years have since passed.

Today, Jit is remembered in many different ways. For the student activists of the 14 October 1973 uprising, this bespectacled serious-looking young man in the old photograph is a revolutionary hero and an intellectual who fought for the people.

For people in Ban Nong Kung, Amphoe Waritchaphum, Sakon Nakhon, he is “Acharn Jit” (“Teacher Jit”), an important figure in local history. At the same time, he is “Chao-pho Jit,” a guardian spirit who might tell them how to win the lottery if they place an offering of cigarettes and “red star beer” – i.e. Heineken beer – at the stupa at Prasittisangwon Temple, where his remains have been interred.

As a historian and a linguist, Jit left many important scholarly works, such as “The Real Face of Thai Feudalism” and "Etymology of the terms Siam, Thai, Lao, and Khom, and the Social Characteristics of Nationalities" for Thai academia.

Not only that, Jit was also a thinker, a poet, and a songwriter. His songs are still remembered and sung today, especially “Starlight of Faith” (“แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา”), which has appeared in political demonstrations by almost every group. Jit wrote both the music and lyrics to most of his songs, with the exception of a few where he used existing tunes. He was reportedly a capable musician and was part of the traditional Thai music group at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, where he was a student, and the Thai Labour Museum now holds the chakhe zither he once used to compose music. Jit has also written critiques of Thai traditional music, and the book “Art for Life, Art for the People” is now considered as one of Jit’s most important works.

Jit’s music has always reflected his political ideas, especially his proposal in “Art for Life, Art for the People,” that art must serve the people. His songs therefore are a call for listeners to fight for the underprivileged and the working class, and a tribute to labourers. Jit’s songs are still remembered today as symbols of political defiance.

Jit Phumisak at “Lard Yao University”

Jit’s songwriting goes back to 1956, when he was still a student at Chulalongkorn University. Jit wrote around 20 songs throughout his life, and even his earliest works express his socialist ideas. For example, “The Workers’ March,” which he wrote around 1956-1957 to use in celebration of the 1957 Labour Act, is a tribute to the working class and a call for them to join forces. “The Anti-Imperialism March,” written around the same time, was a call for Thai citizens to rise against American influence, since Jit saw the U.S. as an imperialist nation taking over the Thai economy.

In 1958, Jit was accused of being a communist. He was arrested and imprisoned at Lard Yao Prison, a place which he and other inmates called “Lard Yao University.” It was during his imprisonment that Jit wrote many of his most well-known songs, such as “Starlight of Faith” “The Call from the Motherland” (“เสียงเพรียกจากมาตุภูมิ”) and “The Sea of Life” (“ทะเลชีวิต”). While these songs are not marches, nor are they calls to arms, they are still expressions of Jit’s political ideology and are songs about persistence in hopeless times, when one does not know how to keep fighting. In “Starlight of Faith,” for example, he says that the “star of faith” is still shining and guiding people’s hearts, despite all hardship and obstacles.

Atibhop Pataradetpisan notes that the star is a recurring symbol in many of Jit’s song, not only in “Starlight of Faith.” For example, the words to “The Sea of Life,” a song Jit wrote for other political prisoners who shared his ideology, are “I ask the star to be kind. Please guide my friends, give them strength to fight against danger until they make it through.” Atibhop argues that, since the red star is a recurring symbol in many of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT)’s revolutionary songs, the star Jit referred to in his songs is most likely not just any star, but the communist party’s red star.

Jit also wrote songs for the plays the prisoners staged in Lard Yao Prison, and he has also written love songs. However, despite being love songs, they still carry his socialist ideas, for example, “The Kingdom of Love” (“อาณาจักรแห่งความรัก”), which is not about romantic love but a love of the underprivileged class. The song says that “true love from the heart spreads out in the sky, as would a bird taking flight. The kingdom of love extends to the people” and encourages listeners by saying that “One’s life is not worthless. Stay; wait for the bright future. Spread the love, now limited, out to the hearts of those who suffer throughout the land.”

“Comrade Preecha”

In 1964, after he was released from prison, Jit joined the CPT. He was then known as “Comrade Preecha” and was part of the CPT force working in the Phu Phan mountain area in Sakhon Nakhon.

Jit was tasked with writing revolutionary songs for the CPT, because at that time, the People’s Liberation Army did not have its own music. This is possibly why Jit composed several marches during his time in Phu Phan, and why most of the songs he wrote as a CPT operative speak more openly of the communist movement than his earlier works.

The People’s Liberation Army March” (“มาร์ชกองทัพปลดแอกประชาชนไทย”) was one of the songs Jit wrote in service of the CPT, and the words say that “the party leads the Thai people in the liberation war. Follow the party with one’s heart, faithful and brave.” In “The Phu Phan Revolution” (“ภูพานปฏิวัติ”), another song Jit wrote for the CPT, he describes the party flag waving above the mountains, “fighting the storm without fear” and the people’s liberation army as “the people’s soldiers” who would travel anywhere and who would stand their ground as unmoving and fearless as the Phu Phan mountain itself. Having taken inspiration from a forest fire he saw on Phu Pha Lom, Jit also uses the imagery of fire to describe how the revolution might spread through the land. 

In comparison to his earlier works, these two are more openly in support of the communist movement than, for example, “Revolutionary Heroes” (“วีรชนปฏิวัติ”) which Jit wrote during his imprisonment. Inspired by Khrong Chandawong, an activist who was arrested and executed on the orders of Sarit Thanarat in May 1961, Jit wrote this song as a call for the people to continue fighting in place of the revolutionaries who had died for their cause. Despite the song being about the people’s fight against totalitarianism, it never says anything about the CPT, even though Jit had allegedly been involved with the CPT since 1953, according to Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol.

But it is not only in Jit’s revolutionary songs that he expresses his socialist ideals. Even in his love songs, like “The Kingdom of Love” mentioned above, or in “Jom jai duang kaew” (“จอมใจดวงแก้ว”), there are references to the fight to liberate the people. “Jom jai duang kaew” was a song he wrote for his guard Comrade Kalahom to give to his lover. The song is about a revolutionary who is leaving his lover behind to join the revolution, and the singer talks about how their love will not last because of the suffering that comes with poverty. The singer tells his lover that he will have to leave to join the people’s army, with the hope that, with the people’s revolution, they can be together.

Jit took his own advice – the one he proposed in “Art for Life, Art for the People”. His ideal of art which serves ordinary people, which reflects society in order to lead to the creation of something better, can be seen in the way he wrote his songs. By writing with his socialist ideals and by writing about the people’s suffering and calling for liberation, Jit is using art to point to the possibility of a better society.

Death and rebirth

If he were alive today, Jit would be 89 years old.

No one can tell what Jit would think of Thailand today, if he had lived through the political changes of the last 50 or so years. No one can tell which side he might take. What we can see is that Jit’s story has been retold over and over. He is now remembered as a symbol of a person who persisted, while his communism has been left behind.

As Smanachan Buddhajak argues, Jit is better-known in death than in life. His ‘rebirth’ might have come when his writings were reprinted around and after the 14 October 1973 uprising. This constructed the image of Jit as an artist who fought for the people. Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri said that “the reason they say that Jit was born again for the second time after 14 October 1973 is because the youth of that time dug up his works as a thinker, writer, and revolutionary. Because of this, what he did in the decade between 1947 and 1957, which was forgotten due to the Sarit-Thanom dictatorship, became powerful again.”

Nevertheless, while Jit the revolutionary is remembered, Jit the communist has been forgotten. Thikan Srinara argues that the revival of Jit’s writings and the publicizing of his biography contributed to the erasure of his role in the communist movement. Citing Somsak Jeamteerasakul’s doctoral thesis, Thikan argued that the CPT also played a role in Jit’s popularity after the 14 October uprising, before the erasure of his image as a communist began after 1977, when Jit’s scholarly works were published more continuously than his other writings, and people began to study his life as a person, not as a left-wing revolutionary.

This is all an attempt to reconstruct Jit purely as a scholar and political fighter, which allows Jit’s story and his music to appear in political demonstrations organized by almost every group. Suthachai Yimprasert noted that “Starlight of Faith” has been sung in almost every protest, from the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) to the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) to the New Democracy Movement (NDM), and even the ultra-right-wing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

All of these groups are at vastly different points on the political spectrum, and may not stand for the same ideals Jit stood for during his lifetime. And yet, Jit’s image has been claimed and used by all of them. However, other than the erasure of his communist identity according to Thikan, Atibhop argues that it is possible that his image as a political fighter is more important and more effective in rallying the people, because these groups are fighting against state power. Because of this, Jit as a symbol of the fight against the state is more important than whether he was a communist. Not even the UDD mentioned Jit’s involvement with the CPT, and the meaning of “Starlight of Faith” has been reduced to the fight of an individual for some kind of abstract belief, rather than about a socialist revolution.

From the day of his death, Jit Phumisak has been reborn time and time again. From a forgotten communist fighter shot dead in the woods, Jit became a revolutionary hero, and passed into collective memory as an artist and thinker who fought for what he believed in. And he will be born again and again. In a way, he has become immortal. As Charnvit said, “people have been inspired by Jit. People want to learn from Jit and there are those who want to carry on his aspirations…The people and this society will never be able to forget him. It is believable that, in the future, there will still be people who want to learn from him.”

 

Reference:

  1. Atibhop Pataradetpisan, “Music, Culture, Power.” (“เสียงเพลง วัฒนธรรม อำนาจ”). Matichon Books
  2. “The wind changes, but not the heart: the crystal of life and Thai revolutionary songs” (“สายลมเปลี่ยนทิศ แต่ดวงจิตมิได้เปลี่ยนเลย : ผลึกแห่งชีวิตและเสียงเพลงปฏิวัติไทย”) (edited by Wat Wanlayangkul)
  3. Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol, “If Jit was still alive” (“ถ้าจิตรยังมีชีวิตอยู่”). Samanchon Publishing
  4. Smanachan Buddhajak, “Fifty years after Jit Phumisak’s death: From Lottery-hinting Ghost to Acharn Jit” (“50 ปีการจากไปของ จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ จาก ‘ผีใบ้หวย’ สู่ ‘อาจารย์จิตร’”). (https://prachatai.com/journal/2016/05/65617)
  5. “Mai het praphet thai” (“หมายเหตุประเพทไทย”) Episode 107 “How is Jit Phumisak remembered?” (“จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ ถูกจดจำแบบไหน”) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ80aLgZ6xs&t=573s)
  6. Thikan Srinara, “Deconstruction of the Communist image of Jit Phumisak after the CPT” (“การกีดกันความเป็น ‘คอมมิวนิสต์’ ออกจากจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ หลังพคท.”) http://ejournals.swu.ac.th/index.php/JOH/article/view/2578/2592