Sutham Saengprathum was a leader of the students during the October 6 massacre. During that time he was the Secretary-General of the National Student Center of Thailand
Thai Enquirer: What happened after the uprising on October 14 (1973)?
Sutham: After October 14, the Three Tyrants (Thanom Kittikachorn, Narong Kittikachorn, Praphas Charusathien) went into exile.
During the three years between then October 14 (1973) and October 6 (1976), there was an attempt to lower the power of the students.
The military started a campaign of propaganda against the students and built up paramilitary groups comprised of far-right civilians and polytechnic students who were fighting on the students’ side in 1973. They set up the Red Guar militia which had been harrassing students and physically assaulting them with impunity for months leading up to 1976.
Once the military saw that it was an opportune time, they decided to bring back Thanom, who was living in Boston and Singapore, and Praphas, who was living in Taipei.
First, it was Praphas who tried to come back in August but his return was met with protests arranged by the students and the Democrat-led government. Then Thanom returned and went straight into monkhood in September and by then I was already elected as secretary-general of the National Student Center.
I was a law student in my fourth year from Chulalongkorn University and was helping the students to organize. Chaturon Chaisang was the student leader of the National Student Center in Chang Mai, Anek Laothamatas was the student leader from Chulalongkorn, and Thongchai Winichakul was the student leader from Thammasat University.
We had been organizing the protests against the return of Thanom and Praphas since August and at the beginning, it was not an overnight stay kind of protest until the major gathering at Sanam Luang.
What happened the day before the massacre?
We organized a protest at Chulalongkorn and then went to protest at Sanam Luang before entering Thammasat, thinking that we will be safe in there. While inside, a group of students was conducting a play that was later used as propaganda against the student movement.
They said that the students were creating a secret play to insult the monarchy which was untrue. The plays were being done on stage in front of thousands of people while the photos that got out were manipulated to create misperception against the students.
They were using radio and TV channels, which were all state-own back then, to relay their messages. In the morning on October 6, I was put in charge of bringing the students who were in the play to go and meet with PM Seni to explain that the students were being wrongly accused.
We have contacted Dr Charoen Kanthawongs, the secretary of PM Seni at the time and he sent for a police convoy to come to pick us up from the university at 6 or 7 am. Before I left, I went up on the stage while gunshots were being fired at us to let the students know what we were planning to do.
What happened at Thammasat?
We entered Thammasat on the evening of October 4 and we stayed inside Thammasat the whole day on October 5 before the shooting started around midnight.
There was no prior warning from the government nor the military while the military’s propaganda unit was continuously playing state-messages on state-run radio stations, mainly from the military’s station called Yarn Kro (สถานีวิทยุยานเกราะ).
Radio stations were the main source of information for the public as TV was not as widespread back then. Most of the radio hosts were from ISOC (the Internal Security Operations Command).
Right-wing newspapers such as Dao Siam (ดาวสยาม) were also being used to spread the military’s propaganda against the students by calling them communists and anti-monarchists. Most of the time, the propaganda would be created by these newspapers first before the radio stations picked up the news.
The only press that the students had was the National Student Center’s paper which came out every three days while the circulation is very small with students being the majority of readers.
Who was really in control back then?
The government of Seni Pramoj had little power as there were so many parties within the coalition, effectively the military were already in control.
With the military controlling the government and the media, we were unable to counter their propaganda which gave them carte blanche to crackdown violently.
The polytechnic students were constantly attacking and harassing university students with the use of homemade grenades and pistols. But, the story that got out was that it was the students who started the violence when in reality, it was completely the opposite.
The people who were using violence were these polytechnic students and paramilitary groups that the military helped create but the public was blaming the students for creating chaos within the society.
The October 14 uprising led to various reforms including the amendment of the Land Lease for Agriculture Act, the enacting of the Labour Relations Act, and the setting up of various labor unions, farmers cooperatives, and basic minimum wage.
These successes were not welcome by the people who were making profits from the farmers so they went to the military to ask them to crack down on the students.
When did the violence start at Thammasat?
While we were at Sanam Luang, a group of paramilitary forces came to harass us and make us feel unsafe so we entered the Thammasat’s campus.
There were more than 100,000 students, mainly from Ramkhamhaeng University, who went inside the campus and Dr Puey Ungphakorn was already worried that if all the university students gathered in one place, they will be surrounded.
He was a peaceful person and he was trying to say that Thammasat will not be able to protect everyone and we heard his points but by then, we had nowhere else to go.
Dr Puey then later spoke to the government and the public and he told them how the military was using propaganda and paramilitary to attack the students.
Between October 4th and 5th, the active members of the students were going around from house to house within the area to explain to the people that the students were not communists and that we were not trying to topple the monarchy.
Another rally was also taking place at Mahidol University as we want to spread out in case of a crackdown at Thammasat University. If they took us out, we wanted Mahidol to keep on fighting.
The military was throwing out pamphlets from helicopters and their stations were blasting non-stop propaganda and the tone was increasingly becoming more and more violent.
No one had to tell us that the crackdown was coming, we knew it by then.
I heard both handguns and automatic rifles being fired into the university with occasional sounds of explosions all around us.
I was mostly operating and hiding at the university’s political science building where the headquarter of the National Student Center was set up with representatives from various universities working minutes by minutes to mitigate the situation.
How did the students counter the shooting?
They were shooting at anyone who walked up on the stage while many were hidings inside buildings, behind trees or any structure we could find inside the campus to take shelter from the gunshots.
Anyone who wanted to make an announcement on the stage had to crawl up to speak. Both speakers on the stage and listeners below were simply risking our lives to be there.
More and more students were getting injured by gunshots and some were killed, we decided that the best move is to meet with PM Seni to explained to him about the facts.
A police convoy, led by Police General Teerachai Leancharoen from nearby Chana Songkhram Police Station, was then sent to pick us up to bring us to the PM’s house in Ekkamai.
The group included myself and Surachart Bamrungsuk, who was then a representative from Chulalongkorn, Anupong Pongsuwan, president of Thammasat’s drama club, and two of the students who were being hanged in the play including Wiroj Tangwanich and Apinan Buahapakdee.
However, the PM did not show up which led us to believe that the military already took control of the power. They eventually arrested all of us at around 9 a.m. before locking us up at the Crime Suppression Division.
The coup led by Admiral Sangad Chaloryu started at 7 p.m. and that was around the first time I heard about the crackdown and the massacre inside Thammasat as reporters were showing up to ask questions.
After spending seven days at the Crime Suppression Division, we were then sent to Bang Kwang Central Prison.
Eleven charged were pressed against me and they have also accused me of being a communist but they could not find any evidence to support the charges after 180 days of investigation.
After Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien was toppled again by Admiral Sangad, PM Kriangsak Chomanan, who was more compromising, came into power which led to the amnesty bill which cleared all of us.
We spent two years in jail before we were released in September 1978.