Professor Thongchai Winichakul, this year, released a book drawing upon his recollections, interpretations, and ruminations upon the events of October 6, 1976.
Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok is hard read but an important one if only to understand the conditions that forces a nation to willfully forget such an important event.
We caught up with Dr Thongchai to talk about the events of ’76 and Thailand’s inability to address the trauma head on and October 6’s relation to the student protests of 2020.
On that picture:
According to Thongchai, Thailand is still haunted by the events of October 6 and in doing so has not only failed to move past the event but is haunted by its memories.
Much of that, according to the professor, has to do with how little we know about what happened that day. No where is this more apparent than that Pulitzer Prize winning photograph.
“We still do not know the identities in the picture, the guy with the chair, the dead man or even the laughing boy. All three main protagonists in the photo, we do not know who they are, it symbolises – it is a microcosm of October 6.”
On October 6’s place in the Cold War
Thongchai argues that while Thailand is proud of its independent past and having never been colonized, the lingering hierarchy that controls Thailand has never been challenged and as a result the country is not as intellectually and politically dynamic as it can be.
Thongchai drew parallels between Thailand during the the 60s and 70s with the dictatorships of South America, specifically Chile, Argentina, and Peru. All three and Thailand suffered from US intervention and the American government propping up the dictatorships.
But while the South American governments managed to overthrow the shackles of oppression, Thailand has not.
“Those countries managed to get rid of their dictators but we are still stuck in a cycle. You must ask, what stays the same for us, what is the mainstay in our system?
Thongchai also points out that the Latin American countries do not shy away from their past, that they have chosen to confront the legacies of the dictatorships and choose to remember those that were disappeared. It is something Thailand does not do with October 6.
On the student-protesters of today choosing to remember October 6:
According to Thongchai, it can only be a positive thing that students are choosing to highlight October 6. By doing so the students are forcing a conversation to happen that is long overdue. However, he does add a word of caution.
“It is beneficial to talk about it for sure,” Thongchai said. “The students are touching on it, remembering it, breaking through this ceiling of this traumatic memory in a way that has never been done before.”
In doing so, Thongchai said, the students may be forcing Thais to confront a dark period of their history and perhaps find closure and move on.
However, it would be naïve to think that the gains that the students have made cannot be undone. The right wing can still crackdown, he said. Books can still be burned, memories can still be erased, the bold can still be arrested.
“I am a cynic,” he said.
On being a ghost:
“People have accused me of being a ghost, whether positively or negatively, lurking in the back ground and digging away at this trauma,” he said.
“But I would argue that it is not me that is the specter, it is October 6 itself, the unresolved, non-closure traumatic past that still haunts Thailand.”
For this reason, Thongchai said, he understands why many people would just sooner forget October 6 happened at all. It is the Buddhist way of letting go.
But not for him. Thongchai said he cannot move on from this past until there is justice and he will keep fighting until he finds that justice.
On Thailand’s culture of forgiveness
‘It is both good and bad for our culture – for a crime its bad, for social interactions its good. But for a country that needs to establish the rule of law its very dangerous,” he said.
According to Thongchai, our cultural and religious notions of forgiveness facilitates the glossing over of crimes and the reprioritization of forgiveness based on merit lines.
In Buddhism, those within powerful positions must have done something to deserve it in their last lives, they are in positions with merit. And if a criminal justice system is based on this religious system, then it logically extends that only the people high in society can forgive or are deserving of forgiveness.
The system thus disempowers the commoner.
On today’s student protests and hope
“There is hope,” Thongchai told us. “How deep and how lasting remains to be seen. There is no such thing as ongoing progress, it can retreat and fall back. That kind of radicalness took place in 1973 to 1976, it was too strong for the conservative society.”
“I do not know if the people today will face the same thing. In many ways Thailand is still strongly conservative but its much more cosmopolitan and much more secular,” he said.
He warns though that things can always go back. The conservatives can always crackdown, can always use violence as a means to their end.
But overall, “The kids give me hope, it is how I survive.”