October 6: A Buddhist massacre?

“Whoever destroys the nation, the religion, or the monarchy, such bestial types (man) are not complete persons. Thus, we must intend not to kill people but to kill the devil (Mara); this is the duty of all Thai.”

The words of Buddhist monk Kittivudho ignited a firestorm. It was June 1976, the political atmosphere in Thailand had never been more tense. The right-wing backlash against the 1973 ‘Leftist Revolution’ was approaching its peak: The Village Scouts indoctrinated commoners in the fundamentals of Thai patriotism, while the Krathing Daeng or Red Gaurs took to the streets as the militant arm of this backlash. 

A more shadowy organization called Navapol (“New Strength”) also emerged, as the grouping of government, academic and military elites behind the right-wing movement. Kittivudho was the monk they chose to proselytize at their rallies – to justify, according to Buddhist ideology – why the communists should be killed. In his reading, the deaths of 50,000 Thai communists would bring merit to the 42 million other Thais. 

On the left, Kittivudho’s words were met with fear and anger. Kittivudho was inaugurating a new religion based on killing, argued Prachachart. No one underestimated the power of the yellow robes giving their blessing to murder. 

How did the nation’s religious institution – the Sangha at the center of ‘Nation, Religion and Monarchy’ – become so deeply embroiled in the making of October 6, 1976?

The Role of Buddhism in Thai Politics

It is no secret that the Sangha has always played an outsized role in Thai politics. 

King Mongkut (Rama IV) was the first to formally establish state control over Buddhism. He took the throne at a time when other kingdoms were disintegrating under the pressures of colonialism. The Qing army had just lost the first Opium War to the British and had been forced to sign a series of humiliating unequal treaties, and the British had already annexed parts of Thailand’s neighboring Buddhist kingdom, Burma. As foreign incursions tested the authority of the King, there was strong pressure for centralizing and controlling the state.

At the time, Bangkok had little control over its periphery, and different religious customs and practices flourished, accommodated by local forms of Buddhism that had been untouched by the central authority. 

In an effort both to Westernize and to centralize, he created the Thammayut sect. The Thammayut sect had much stricter monastic discipline, placed greater emphasis on Pali study and claimed greater authenticity. Under previous kings, Buddhism was a widely accessible resource, and kings patronized a variety of temples and traditions. Conferring official royal patron on to a single sect created unprecedented clear-cut boundaries around ‘official’ forms of Buddhism and who could access its legitimizing power. 

A hierarchy of temples soon formed, merit radiating outwards from the ‘galactic polity’ with the royal family at its center.

Thanom’s Homecoming

That’s why it was so shocking when Thanom Kittikachorn returned, only to be welcomed by both the Sangha and the royal family. 

The dictator had been ousted in the 1973 protests with the King’s blessing. Praphas Charusathien, who had also been ousted as part of the ‘Three Tyrants’ triumvirate, had tried returning but was re-expelled by the Seni Pramoj-led cabinet. 

The critical difference with Thanom’s return, however, was that he ordained as a monk upon arrival. His ordination was announced by Phra Yanasangwon, the chief abbot of Wat Borowrniwet, himself. The flagship monastery was closest to the royal family, which implied that Thanom’s return had received the palace’s blessing. This was all but confirmed when the king and queen themselves visited the monastery shortly afterward.  

The visit was stunningly politically charged. Although the Sangha had thus far denied involvement in secular politics and had even punished monks for involvement in the left-wing protests, it was a clear evidence of the Buddhist hierarchy’s conservatism and right-wing leanings.

Leftist Monks: The Downfall of Phra Jud Kongsook

Thanom’s welcome into the Sangha made the Buddhist institution seem especially hypocritical, in light of the punitive measures its leadership had meted out for monks’ involvement in ‘secular politics’ prior to 1976. 

In the aftermath of October 1973, the political atmosphere seemed to loosen up, with space made for discussion that had previously been taboo. In that milieu, Phra Jud Kongsook – a monk born in the southern province of Surat Thani to a peasant family – first articulated a Buddhist critique of imperialism. From Phra Jud’s perspective, Thailand’s role as a US-ally aided the death of Buddhists in Vietnam. Thailand should cut ties from the Americans and their bloody war to be a truly Buddhist country.  

Phra Jud sparked the formation of a small left-wing enclave within the Thai clergy. By November 1974, however, he and the left-wing monks became a lightning rod for criticism of the Sangha’s role in politics. They joined a 12-day sit-in at Thammasat University, with students and activists, as part of a massive farmers demonstration to demand agrarian land reform. 

The blowback was immediate. The Director General of the Religious Affairs Department expressed “concern that the monks might become politicized as have their counterparts in South Vietnam.” For Thai army general Krit Siwara, the monks’ activities were “the end of everything.” “There is nothing more serious than this,” he declared. Even then-Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj offered comment, in the form of a weak defense of the monks’ political involvement. However, the consensus conservative perspective was that Thai monks were now under threat from the communist influence in Vietnam. 

Phra Jud was not disrobed but expelled from Wat Dusitaram where he was a visitor. But to make their position clear, the Council of Elders reaffirmed the Sangha’s prohibition on clerical involvement in political affairs in a highly public announcement on December 3, 1974. 

Kittivudho: The Navapol Monk

Less than two years later, the Council of Elders seemed to have reversed their position – albeit without announcement. This was not only clear in their welcome of Thanom Kittikachorn, but their silence on Kittivudho. 

From the beginning of Kittivudho’s career, he was groomed as “a countervailing force” to acclaimed leftist monk Phra Phimolatham, who headed Wat Mahathat before his arrest. Kittivudho had multiple powerful conservative benefactors, such as Supreme Patriarch Somdej Phra Wannarat. He was soon provided with his own royally-sanctioned institution – Jittaphawan, a center for training young monks in Chonburi. 

Throughout 1975, Kittivudho proselytized at Navapol rallies throughout the country. Jittaphawan became a training ground for Navapol, as young monks were successfully indoctrinated according to Navapol ideology. 

At the time, U.S. officials only had an inkling of the danger this posed. “New Strength [Navapol] aims to be the paramount conservative organization in Thailand,” officials wrote, “there is a distinct possibility that New Strength…could drag the monarchy and the Buddhist hierarchy into the political fray.”

That was already taking place, in secret. Navapol began operating from their center in Chonburi. According to Eugene Ford’s ‘Cold War Monks,’ the organization began a “systematic culling” of the leaders of the Peasants Federation of Thailand. 23 leaders were assassinated, some gunned down “as they made their way home from the funerals of their murdered comrades.” 

With Navapol’s ideological emphasis on religion, it was likely that some of these murders had the blessing of Kittivudho. 

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1976, bodies are seen on the ground of the Thammasat University campus in Bangkok, when students protesting the return of a military dictator were shot, beaten to death and lynched by state forces and royalist mobs. – The October 6, 1976 Thammasat massacre stands out for its brutality against the pro-democracy students, who had been demonstrating for weeks over the return of an ousted ex-dictator from exile.

Lead up to October 6th: A Buddhist Massacre? 

In Thongchai Winichakul’s memoir / study of the October 6th massacre, he asks: “Was it by chance that Thanom was ordained at this temple and facilitated by these monks? To what extent (if any) was this revered monk [Phra Yanasangwon], and the sangha establishment part of the plan for Thanom’s return in a monk’s robe?”

Directly following Thanom’s return and the King’s visit, a series of pro and anti-Thanom rallies were organized, as a student and labor front faced off against the right-wing organizations.

On October 2, then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn visited Wat Borownivet, the site of Thanom’s ordination and monkhood – another clear symbol of support for Thanom. Simultaneously, 300 Navapol members gathered in front of the Grand Palace to show their support. The rally then moved to Wat Bowornivet, where Kittivudho appeared. He delivered a sermon to stoke right-wing fervor, declaring the sanctity of the holy trinity of nation, religion and monarchy.

Tension was high. It reached breaking point when the Bangkok Post and the Dao Siam published the picture of the mock-hanging, which was accused of hanging the crown prince in an effigy. On the evening of October 5, the elite Border Patrol Police gathered in front of Thammasat University, flanked by the Village Scouts, Red Gaurs and Navapol.

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1976, bodies are seen on the ground of the Thammasat University campus in Bangkok, when students protesting the return of a military dictator were shot, beaten to death and lynched by state forces and royalist mobs. – The October 6, 1976 Thammasat massacre stands out for its brutality against the pro-democracy students, who had been demonstrating for weeks over the return of an ousted ex-dictator from exile.

On October 6, bloodshed. 

It seems like Thongchai’s questions about the Sangha’s involvement in Thanom’s return can be straightforwardly answered. 

The other, much harder question, is the Sangha’s involvement in the massacre. Thongchai asks at the close of his book chapter: “Why such brutality?” A similar shock registers in another witness report: “The police levelled such atrocities to the people…it is a wonder from where they learnt such barbaric things.” 

One answer is offered by Eugene Ford: that the brutality stemmed directly from the activities of the right wing’s patron monk, Kittivudho. 

It is unlikely that there was any single cause. But the significance of a Sangha that tolerated a right-wing monk with a deadly ideology, that punished monks who attended left-wing rallies, that ordained a former dictator in such a public show of approval: all this cannot be understated. 

But October 6th is a reminder to student protestors today that they contend with forces far beyond those in parliament. Despite the Sangha’s plea to the contrary, Buddhism will always be critical to Thai politics: as a resource for ideological appeals, as a legitimating source for those in power. The religious undercurrents of Thai politics are often hardest to see and understand. 

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