The unjust massacre that is fuelling the democratic movement

The annual commemoration of the 6 October 1976 massacre, one of the most brutal crackdowns in Thai history, has this year been the biggest and most widely acknowledged due to the rise of the mass democratic movement. Transitional justice and deep-rooted problems were brought up, national security and the monarchy included.

Commemoration participants laid down white roses to pay condolences to those who fell in 6 Octobers 1976 at Chulalongkorn University.

6 October 1976 was commemorated in Bangkok at Chulalongkorn University (CU), where anti-Thanom protests began and were later suppressed, and Thammasat University (TU), where protestors were killed and dragged into Sanam Luang. None of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice.

Deaths honoured

Wichitchai ‘Piak’ Amornkul, a 2nd year political science student from CU, was killed, and his corpse was mutilated, hanged and beaten in the middle of a cheering crowd. The dead have been quietly remembered for 4 decades, until more light was brought into the commemoration at CU this year.

The Political Science Student Committee has named meeting rooms after Wichitchai and Dr Boonsanong Punyodyana, a CU alumnus and Secretary General of the Socialist Party of Thailand who was assassinated in February 1976, to honour their sacrifice.

Left to right: Prof Surachart Bamroongsuk and the 28th batch alumnus representative participated in the Wichitchai's meeting room opening ceremony.

The 28th alumnus cohort were invited to witness the opening of the room named after their friend. They left white roses and solemnly touched Wichitchai’s portrait hanging over the wall.

One of them, E, who requested not to give their real name, said Piak was a sportsperson and knew many people due to his open personality. He went to TU to help friends as a security guard, a very dangerous duty when the movement was demonized as communist and socialist with the aim of overthrowing the nation, religion and monarchy.

E said that according to friends, Piak and his friends were scattered when the anti-protesters and security forces succeeded in storming TU. They found out about his death later, a very cruel and brutal death that none of his friends or related circle want to even talk about.

“Those who had to die on 6 October 1976 are an important lesson for Thai society that hatred can make people hurt each other in ways that should not happen. The lesson from Piak Wichitchai or others that lost their lives on 6 October must be appreciated with pride,” said E.

Lesson toward democratic struggle

Prof Surachart Bamrungsuk, a professor from CU and a leading figure in the Student Centre of Thailand which organized the protests that suffered the crackdown on 6 October, said in a speech that the state violence that day reflected the state’s perception of the students as their political enemy which had to be dealt with military force.

Prof Surachart Bamrungsuk

He said the progressive student movements stemmed from the 14 October 1973 revolution that ousted the dictatorial regime. Students started to engage with farmers, workers, and others that faced injustice in the hope of a better society, but those in power saw these activities a threat to the status quo.

“It was the first time that we had seen high-powered weapons. We saw the power of the recoilless rifles, the destructive power of the M79 grenade launchers which were normally used against enemy tanks. But the students were not enemies, and there were no tanks in Thammasat University,” said Surachart.

“It was the first time we saw the outright use of M16 rifles. That day, we heard the sound of M16 bullets regularly hitting the walls of Thammasat University buildings all the time. All this was not the filming of a war movie, but shooting with the lives of students as targets.”

“On that day, people in society were made to hate students. Consuming this kind of narrative made the consumers ready to transform themselves into predators with the lives of students as prey. And Piak was one of the hunted.”

‘The performance was not wrong’ victim whose image spurred 6 Oct massacre insists

The 6 October crackdown was followed by a coup in the evening of the same day. The government led by Thanin Kraivichien later imposed extreme restrictions on socialist and communist thinking in Thai society, pushing many students into the jungle to join the armed forces of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) that were scattered around the country.

The radical right-wing security policy brought Thailand to the edge of an even more violent nationwide civil war. This tension ended when the Thai government decided to fight the CPT politically, draining it of manpower and legitimacy, resulting in the end of the conflict in 1983. Surachart said this was a reflection of the importance of war on the political front, then and now.

He said the democratic struggle today is more complex than in the past. Today’s dictatorship had turned itself into a semi-dictatorship, legitimizing itself through an election. The struggle to de-legitimize it must use 3 tactics: expose, protest and avoid clashes. Security sector reform is very important for stabilizing democratic regimes.

“Do not expect that the fight against authoritarian regimes will succeed by organizing just one protest. There is no such thing as ‘one battle winning the war’ because political war has never ended on one battlefield. The success of transition will be an important path toward military reform. A successful transition will reform the military. But if the transition is not successful, military reform cannot happen.”

“The creation of new politics without military reform will only be fragile, waiting for the coming of the next coup d’état. We may have to think about reform of security of the whole country in the future.” said Surachart.

How 6 October is important to the new generation, and the new wave of struggle

Assoc Prof Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a lecturer from CU Political Science Faculty who has researched the recent rise of the democratic movement among the young generation, said they relate to the 6 October incident more than 14 October 1973 even though the latter was a victory where the people ousted a dictatorship.

Kanokrat explained tat the 6 October incident is the embodiment of this generation who are also engaged in the unfinished fight against dictatorship. 14 October, despite its initial success, still failed to establish a democratic regime, a failure which led to the massacre 3 years later.

The public panel at the commemoration joined by Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, Prajak Kongkirati and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

Asst Prof Prajak Kongkirati from TU Political Science Faculty said many speeches in recent countrywide protests referred to the 1932 democratic revolution, 6 October 1976 and the crackdown on the red shirts in 2010. Despite these being seen historically as defeats, this young generation emphasizes that they are unfinished missions and point to the impunity that allows the perpetrators to walk free.

“They are saying that these 3 incidents, which look like defeats in terms of history, are asking us to clearly understand Thai society. These incidents expose the hideousness of the Thai state and Thainess and how it could kill people,” said Prajak.

Prajak said impunity must be addressed and solved during a political transition. He proposed 4 steps toward transitional justice:

  1. Making society no longer accept violence of this kind anymore, the ‘never again’ mindset.
  2. Finding the facts
  3. Bringing justice to those involved
  4. Compensating those who have suffered in either monetary or psychological terms.
  5. Reforming the security forces that are involved in human rights violations. Both commanders and subordinates that take part in abuse must be brought to justice.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the Progressive Movement leader, said that impunity and excessive propaganda for the traditional institutions still linger in society. As of now, society mainly has a few missions to complete together:

  1. Amend the 2017 constitution by the people
  2. Military reform
  3. Judicial reform
  4. Bureaucratic reform toward decentralization
  5. Economic system reform to end monopolization by a small group of capitalists
  6. Monarchy reform

On the question of the fear of addressing monarchy reform, Thanathorn said it is very important to address the issue. Those who speak for others must not be left out there alone and suffering harassment. Society will be able to find the solution to Thailand's political crisis only when they accept that the monarchy is one of the problems making Thailand undemocratic.

“If you do not speak, you will lose friends. There will be no one who dares to speak in your place. There will be no one who dares to speak the truth in your place. This is the very first reason that you will come to stand with them. This is the time in society for us to come out to stand alongside each other because the forces that we are fighting are enormous. You have nothing but numbers.

“When we speak about the monarchy, we have not spoken with hostility or hatred, but with reason, with the maturity of addressing what problems there are that make Thailand undemocratic.

“We speak with goodwill before it is too late. We speak with goodwill before Thailand has another 6 October. We speak with goodwill that, if every side comes together to find the solution and talk about this issue openly, the monarchy, democracy and Thailand can co-exist.”

Protesters and guards protecting Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a leading figure of United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration in submitting the monarchy reform demands to the police on 20 Sep 2020

“If you do not accept the truth that the monarchy, the role of the monarchy and some powers of the monarchy should be reformed in line with democratic values, if you do not accept the truth, this problem cannot be solved.”, said Thanatorn

The interest of people in the 6 October incident relates to the increasing public debate about it which criticizes the impunity and deep-rooted political problems in Thailand, be they authoritarianism or the nexus between the monarchy and the military. On the other hand, those who provide sources of information for those who are interested contribute a lot to the public discussion.

Assoc Prof Puangthong Pawakapan, an academic from CU Faculty of Political Science, one of the founders of doct6.com, the most informative online archive on 6 October as of now, said it is very surprising that people are paying attention to the incident.

She said the political situation, especially under the Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha junta government, has given the younger generation an interest in the 6 October incident. It can be counted as a success of the project, but there is more to go.

“6 October became the incident that was used to refer to violence which the state inflicted on the people, the incident that is quoted to show us that those in power, when they have done wrong to the people, have never been held to account. It is referred to as a society that is clearly divided into sides. The media became a tool to create hatred, became a tool for incitement, support and legitimacy for the state to use violence against the people.

“The interest that the new generation has in 6 October is also the result of the actions of the government itself. Our work in creating the website is perhaps timely, making it an information base and source of knowledge for society to study about the past and at the same time to criticize what is happening now,” said Puangthong.