Remembering October 6 in words and pictures

“I still do not understand why they do not let the injured out. Even in war movies, the injured are allowed medical care. But somehow, when it comes to conflicting political views, opponents are no longer human and can be slaughtered.”  – Thongchai Winichakul: On Remembering and Forgetting the Massacre

October 6, 1976. 

Five thousand students are gathered overnight at Thammasat to protest the return of Thanom Kittikachorn, the dictator ousted in the 1973 protests. At 5:30AM, a bomb is fired into the Thammasat grounds. The shooting begins. Students inside are unarmed – plaintive calls from the stage, where Thongchai Winichakul is speaking, are made for mercy. By 7:30AM, the gates are smashed open, and paramilitary groups and radicalized right-wing protestors storm the campus. Many students die from gunshots fired by the police. Some are lynched by the crowd. Some are beaten. Stakes are thrust through their dead bodies, women stripped naked with stakes thrust through their breast or sexual organs. The protestors who survive are rounded up, stripped and forced to the ground. 

“The final question, why such brutality?” 

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1976, armed police run into Thammasat University in Bangkok, during a confrontation with students on campus 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.

How did it happen? And, “Why such brutality?”

Somehow, we’ve all read this story before. Yet somehow, it feels like the first time we’ve ever read it. The details are horrifying. How that Pulitzer Prize winning picture of the lynched student being beaten by a chair comes to life. How unbelievable it all feels, still, today. 

The October 6th massacre has been a dark wound on Thai collective memory – silenced, but not forgotten. Thongchai Winichakul’s searing memoir, ‘Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok,’ tears that wound open. The book reads as a reckoning, not just with nationalist history but also with Thongchai’s own guilt and hurt, as a protest leader who survived that fateful day. “Part of my soul is in this book,” he writes. 

For the Thai reader, it is a reckoning for us too: the demons of our country and our past that have never fully been confronted. How could we have let that happen? And how could we forget? Why such brutality? 

The October 6th massacre was a culmination of a number of events. Thongchai’s methodical, emotional interrogation reveals how much the massacre depended on the perfect storm. The Cold War context seemed to set the left-leaning, communist-inspired protestors up for confrontation with all the political powers-that-be in Thailand: an ultraconservative Sangha, a set of US-funded military dictators, a royalist system that consisted not just of the royals themselves but of hyper-royalist supporters and a Seni-led government that never knew what to do with the protestors nor their opposition. 

But there were immediate triggers that no one claims. The state’s sudden turn towards violence, with the lynching of the two activists two weeks before the October 6 protests. Then, the student skit put on by the Thammasat University Drama Club re-enacting the hanging, which was accused of mocking an effigy of the crown prince. The Bangkok Post, which printed the photo that set off the lese majeste accusations, denies responsibility. Who could have imagined such an unintended resemblance would set off the most inhumane brutality in Thai memory? Who could have planned such a coincidence? But how, how could so much death be the result of happenstance? 

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.

The importance of remembering the details

In our current revolutionary moment, memory becomes repackaged for the present. Pierre Nora wrote of historical remembering: “Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present.” 

The urge now is to view October 6 through a purely political lens, as a lesson in the forces of evil in Thai politics that we must resist. That the military always had a brutal streak. That, at heart, Thais are a conservative people, willing to put a stake in the ground when their institutions are threatened – even if that stake is through the body of an 18-year old student. 

But Thongchai’s book asks us to resist this. “History is so cruel, in every sense of the word, and utterly irrational too.” 

The story of October 6 is the story of human failure: the happenstance of the actor’s resemblance to the crown prince, the barbarism of the frenzied crowd. 

It is a story of the details: how some people died, while others escaped. How students left to the forests thereafter, not just as an abstract ideological reaction to a corrupt state, but fueled by fear, by trauma, by the immense weight of watching their friends get shot as they ran across the university courtyard. Thongchai shares an anecdote of being asked to inform the parents of his friend, Jaruphong Thongsin, of his death. “What could I say about why Jaruphong did not return home and I did?”

It is a story of humanity, that demands we respect the details.

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1976, shirtless students lie facedown on the ground, with their hands behind their heads, as police stand guard on 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 collective memory

One of the most compelling curiosities of October 6th is how it is remembered collectively – or rather, how it isn’t. Collective memory, in Thongchai’s estimation, is more than the sum of its parts: it is the shared experiences of a group of people, shaped deeply by national language and national narratives that recognize some moments in history as meaningful while dropping others. 

In the Thai context, October 6th becomes illegible: too much of an anomaly in the national narrative of monarchical benevolence, and Buddhist notions of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. 

As such, the memories occupy a “closed box” space, in Steve Sterns’ framework for memories of authoritarian pasts – intentionally silenced, as a memory that is divisive, troubling, even dangerous. 

Women give alms to monks in a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the October 6, 1976 Thammasat University student massacre in Bangkok on October 6, 2016. – Buddhist monks lead an emotionally charged commemoration on the 40th anniversary of a massacre of student protesters in Bangkok, as survivors reflect on a battle for democracy that appears lost in junta-run Thailand. At least 46 student protesters were shot, beaten to death or hung from trees as they massed at the university against the return from forced exile of hated military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn.

The uniqueness of October 6

Recalling “closed box memories” – those troubling, violent, divisive moments in history – seems like an invitation to also think about the Red Shirt massacre. Reflecting on forgetting April / May 2010, as we have done at the Thai Enquirer, it seems like similar ghosts haunt the silence of its legacy: a public trying to move on, too quickly, from a moment of violence in which they, too, were complicit. 

Indeed, the Red Shirts themselves have made this comparison. At a rally in 2010, a red shirt body was hung under a tree in a move that Thongchai calls “disgusting.” Yellow shirts, too, have claimed the memory of October 6th, repurposing it for the ‘Flashback 76’ event in response to Thaksin affiliate Samak Sundaravej’s comments in 2008.   

But October 6th massacre was a political event unlike any other. The magnitude of the violence, the unsparing savagery, the senseless violence – these are things that Thongchai’s book forces us to confront. The inhumanity of the moment was unique. Any comparison feels like desecration. 

“That past incident was cruel. The account of it is cruel. The absence of any explanation for the …dead is cruel. The politics of the past is cruel.” 

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1976, students cry and pray near the body of their fellow student, who was killed by police shots, during demonstrations at Thammasat University 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.

Do we try to move past October 6th

For Thongchai, this is impossible. Like a spirit without a spirit house, the memory of October 6th continues to haunt Thailand, because the significance of the tragedy remains ambiguous. The ‘villains’ have not been held accountable. The victims remain nameless. 

Perhaps the best way to move forward is to fully honor the past. To remember the details of the massacre and just what made the moment so human. That is the gift Thongchai gives us with this book: the human stories from October 6th. Of protest leaders begging the police for mercy from behind the protest stage. Of Thongchai emerging from jail, wearing somebody else’s glasses. Of Jaruphong Thongsin’s parents waiting to hear news about their dead son. 

Maybe this motivates us to better hold the powers that be accountable. The villains are still out there – now, we know who they are. Maybe we can be bolder this time. 

At the very least, remembering the details helps us understand the weight of that October 6th moment, so we can begin to make sense of its significance. 

This photo taken on September 30, 2016 shows graffiti depicting a violent ultra-royalist with a chair from the iconic photograph of the October 6, 1976 student massacre by Associated Press photographer Neil Ulevich, on the outside wall of Thammasat University in Bangkok.
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