Opinion: The lessons of 1973 and overcoming opposition

“We Shall Overcome” was a song made popular during the civil rights Civil Rights Movement in the United States between the 1950s and 1960s.

Dr Martin Luther King Junior first heard the song in September 1957 when he delivered a speech at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and Peter Seeger performed it.

It then became a part of Thailand’s history in October 1973 when the song was used as a message of hope by Thai pro-democracy protesters. The message was directed to 13 members of the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT) who were detained for distributing leaflets to demand a rewriting of the constitution.

The group of detainees was known as the 13 Constitutional Rebels (13 ขบถรัฐธรรมนูญ) and one of them was Thirayuth Boonmee, the NSCT’s leader.

The 13 members of the NSCT were charged with illegal political assembly of more than five people, sedition, and treason and the junta called them communists who looked to overthrow the constitutional monarchy system.

Sounds familiar?

It is the same rhetoric that was used a few years later on October 6, 1976 which resulted in a widespread massacre and the destruction of a generation. The same rhetoric that has given rise to countless lynch mobs and vigilante actions in our history.

In many ways, the same propaganda is still being used against the latest student-led pro-democracy movement that began in 2020.

The military government of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha had already used it to discredit the movement’s calls to rewrite the junta-drafted constitution and the ten points demand for the reformation of the royal institution.  

Prayut and his friends are also using it to put political oppositions, protest leaders, activists and other dissidents in jail.

More than 1,500 have been charged for political expression under this government and more people will go to jail for thought crime.

What the students know and what the military does not is that time is on their side and if history has taught us anything, it is that the fight for freedom may be long but it has perseverance and will continue.

In 1973, the detention of the 13 led to further protests with hundreds of thousands of participants. The so-called popular uprising eventually toppled the Three Tyrants (Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, his son Colonel Narong and General Praphas Charusathien who was Narong’s father in law).

To those dissidents sitting in jail right now, please remember some day we will over come.

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