A conversation with Apinan Buahapakdee , whose role in a mock hanging was manipulated by the ultra-right wing media, leading to the 6 October 1976 massacre. As time has passed, he wants Thai people and the media to be mindful about hate-mongering.
Note: this interview was originally published in Thai on 6 October, 2019
(Source: Documentation of Oct 6)
"Actor in lynching re-enactment resembles the Crown Prince
The country in fury!
Centre crushes hearts of Thais throughout the country"
The Dao Siam (Siam Star) newspaper front page on 5 October 1976 published a huge photo of Apinan being hanged in a role-play, doctored to make him look like the Crown Prince (now King Vajiralongkorn). This was part of a performance at Thammasat University’s (TU) Tha Pra Chan campus to draw attention to the hanging of 2 electricity workers who were allegedly murdered and hanged for distributing anti-dictatorship leaflets a month earlier.
The message smeared mud over the people’s protests against the return of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn in monk’s robes. Thanom had been ousted in the 14 October 1973 incident, the first victory of the people against dictatorship that only served as a prelude to the massacre 3 years later as protesters in TU fell victim to the worst brutality from police, soldiers and ultra-right wing civilians that Thailand has ever seen.
Apinan, now a retired official of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reflected upon the incident, showing understanding, grievance and a way of moving forward.
“We thought that Saturday October 4 was the day that Thammasat students were coming to take a test at the one place, the Faculty of Arts where all the first year students studied. If all the first year students joined the protest, it would have the power to do a lot. So we created street theatre on an issue that was motivating and aimed right at the hearts of the audience, giving them the idea that they must join the protest.”
Apinan, then a 2nd-year student, talked about the motive behind the performance. According to him, the drama group was assigned by agreement with other student activity groups to do something to rally people to join the anti-Thanom protest which had started on 28 September 1976 at Chulalongkorn University and later moved to TU and nearby Sanam Luang.
The street theatre plot generally narrated the illegitimacy of Thanom’s return. The murder by hanging of Chumporn Thummai and Vichai Kaetsripongsa, 2 employees of the Provincial Electricity Authority in Nakhon Pathom Province, was re-enacted as part of the performance. The performance went on for 30 minutes, causing around 1 in 5 students to skip the exam.
According to Apinan, this is how the plot went:
“We had students lying down as steps. Then a performer dressed as a student went as if to take an exam. Walking along, the student would be wondering about the line of bodies lying injured and dead in front, blocking the way to the exam hall. Then, one of them stood up and the student asked ‘Who are you? Why are you here? I am going up for an exam.”
The student lying down as a step spoke: “We are the students and people that together struggled in the 14 October incident. We were wounded and died because we were calling for democracy. And will you still go for an exam when the incident where we fought and died has come back?”
The actor playing the student replies: “I will of course go to the exam. I have a duty to take an exam. I have a duty to study. There is progress and glory waiting ahead.”
“Okay. You can go for the exam. You have to step over our dead bodies, one by one.”
The student would go on and step over the dead bodies. The student would eventually not be able to take it anymore, throwing away the books and skipping the exam.
Originally, Viroj Tangvarnich (who later become the country’s best-known traditional Chinese teacher) was the only one to play the role of the hanged worker because of his light body weight. However, 30 minutes was too hard for him so an additional actor was needed.
“In the morning, before the performance, I happened to walk into the protest because I had arranged to go to the cinema with my friend but my friend didn’t come. I didn’t know what to do so I wandered around the protest. When I arrived, I saw Viroj playing the hanged man. A moment later, he complained that he couldn’t do it so they were looking for an additional actor. The condition was, the hanged man had to have a small, light body. In the end, I had nothing to do so I volunteered to play it myself.”
From drama to real terror
The street theatre caught the media’s attention because the organizers had informed them in advance. That was when a photo of Apinan in the hanging scene was taken and doctored in a way to resemble the Crown Prince. Dao Siam’s photo was published on 5 October.
The massive ultra-right wing protest that was stationed nearby TU perceived the protesters as communists who wanted to overthrow the monarchy and were furious when they saw news of the performance. They surrounded TU while state-owned radio and TV coverage painted the performance in a negative light.
The organizers at TU declared later on 5 September that the performance was not meant to express hostility towards the Crown Prince. But the media could not report this in time to be published the same day because they were surrounded by right-wing protesters.
And what happened in the next morning is cruel history.
“Earlier, there was a rumour that the students had hanged the Crown Prince, the students had deliberately shown malice by the picture of hanging the Crown Prince. This made it very confusing whether a picture was hanged or a person dressed up to look like the Crown Prince was hanged. This became a trend and many radio stations were pushing a huge call for action saying that the students were hostile and intended to overthrow the institution of the monarchy”, said Apinan.
“Many on the right wing who had the ability to give a speech were called to appear on live TV and live radio shows. A lot did it, instigating a great number of village scouts to gather at the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V (3 km from TU) in the afternoon.”
After learning the news, Apinan rushed from his home to the besieged TU. He made his way into the university without anybody noticing that he was the one who was on the front page.
“I entered Thammasat in the middle of the night. People had surrounded it outside. They did not know who I was. There were people holding the Dao Siam newspaper, pointing at my photo like this and that. So I went to take a look. It did not look like me at all. I don’t know whose photo it was. The face looked like it was doctored and the photo was taken from below. My normal face does not look like [the Crown Prince]. No one has ever told me that my face is similar.
“I stuck my face in to take a close look and nobody even noticed that ‘this is the damn guy’ because I actually did not look like it. I saw that it was not me, but it was me, but it did not look similar.”
As tension loomed, 3 representatives from the Student Centre of Thailand and the 3 performers, Apinan, Viroj and Anupong Pongsuwan, sneaked past the hostile right-wing to meet with Mom Ratchawong Seni Pramoj, the Prime Minister, at 05.30 on 6 October in order to explain the situation.
A few hours later, TU was stormed and the coup led by Adm Sangad Chaloryu was executed in the evening of the same day.
Apinan and the others were put in jail after the coup. They spent 2 years there on trial for trespassing in a government building, murder and attempted murder, murder and attempted murder of on-duty officials, arson, communism and rebellion. 4 performers including Apinan faced the additional charge of lèse majesté.
Free fall of grief and injustice
Because of the technology of the time, it took many days for Apinan to be informed of the massacre. He fell into the pit of despair when he learned of the consequences of the performance.
“When I was taken to prison, I felt really angry because I was made into the perpetrator that caused the attack, the killings, the injuries and caused many to die. I was partly sorry, partly furious. Why did we become the victims who caused others to die? My mind was so much in confusion.” Apinan said he cried many tears in the early days in prison, understanding that he was the one who caused the massacre.
The void in his heart is what drove him to bring the real perpetrator to justice. However, his attempt failed when Adm Sangad staged another coup in 1977 and later issued an amnesty for everyone involved in the 6 October incident. Apinan and the others were freed from prison, bearing more pain as they walked free.
“It was the amnesty that left everything unfinished. Those who really benefitted from it are those who did wrong. I did nothing wrong and wanted to prove it. If they put me in jail for 4-5 years and I can prove it, that’s what I want. I want it proved. But in the end, I could do nothing.
“My father and mother couldn’t stay in our old home in a Bangkok slum. The neighbours worked for a living and were not so educated. They did not understand the situation. Whatever anyone said they went along with it. They blamed me.
“My family was accused of being communists. Finally, my father and mother decided to move to another province because they also could not take it.”
Moving forward while understanding the pain
Apinan continued his university education after being released. He decided that he wanted to be as useful to others as he could. He participated heavily in university activities and became a community developer and journalist after graduation. However, journalism did not suit him so he ended up working at the tourism-promoting TAT magazine.
“I travelled a lot and published many books. I was not able to do what I intended to do but I also did not hurt anyone. I have always made myself useful. While working in tourism, I also worked indirectly in community development, always helping friends who are community development volunteers in another way.”
As time passed by, he crystallized his perception of the 6 October massacre as the uncontrollable fruit of hate-spinning where every side took part in spinning the wheel.
“It was the peak of stoking the fire. In the end, it created ill will. Whoever was directly involved was not the only person who was a murderer. But the murderers are also those who helped. In the end, all are murderers. It is something that cannot be undone.”
“If you want to stop it, you have to stop it right from the beginning, which is really difficult. There are so many people. In the end, whatever will happen, must happen.”
When asked whether he would not have taken part in the performance if he had known that it would lead to a massacre, Apinan hesitated to answer, yet still spoke with confidence that there was nothing wrongful about the performance.
“If I had known ... the performance was not wrong at all. If I were able to go back, I would still do it. Er, if I went back, I couldn’t, I would know it all.
“But there was nothing wrong with that performance. The ones who manipulated it to destroy the students are the ones who really did wrong. They themselves fully know that it was unrelated, but they still made it related because they may have noticed that the actor is a bit similar. If they talk and stir things up, if they say it’s the same, people will believe.”
The then-actor hoped that the 6 October incident would serve as a lesson for Thai society to stop and think about the hostility caused by hate and irresponsible media, and would bring people to their senses.