It’s been almost half a decade since Thailand’s October 14 uprising. To get to the heart of what happened, Thai Enquirer spoke to academic Kamol Kamoltrakul.
Over 40 years ago, Kamol Kamoltrakul, was a budding young intellectual. He found his role in the movement by publishing leftist literature. He says that the books were so important in spreading awareness and creating critical minds that the state went after whoever was disseminating them, including him.
“All of these books created an awareness among the students,” he said. “The books led many students to see things differently. That’s why they targeted me. Most of these books spread awareness about the issues that mattered to the people, often they were distributed by me or my magazine.”
Kamol said he would have surely been one of the 13 key activists arrested on October 6, 1973, had he not fled to the United States in April of the same year. From a distance, he recalled feeling a sense of pride as tens of thousands of university students started rising up to challenge the system.
“The government was under a dictatorship and there was simply no real public expression,” Kamol told Thai Enquirer. “We were not happy with the way things were, so we decided to do something about it. Many of the intellectuals thought that we should start a political movement, and so that’s what happened” he said.
Kamol recalls watching in astonishment when the October protests reached their peak. From safety in the United States, he witnessed some 400,000 protesters gather at Democracy Monument to demand the release of his friends and peers who were remanded behind bars.
He recalled how Thanom Kittikachorn, the military dictator who was ruling over Thailand at that time, ordered a decree that banned gatherings of more than five people to arrest the young activists.
The military leader didn’t expect that their arrests would spark a significant turning point. Instead of muzzling the movement into silence, their detention galvanized the country’s will to oust Thanoms dictatorial government.
Months before Oct 14 events, the activists had been working hard to enlighten their fellow Thai citizens through literature, seminars, and dialectic.
The young men and women met every Friday evening on the steps of Thammasat University’s dome. There they discussed the repressive political landscape. Kamol said that it became clear to the nation’s university students that something had to change.
Student leaders from Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, Ramkamhaeng and Chiang Mai University, and others started working together in concert.
The controversial texts were mainly distributed between 1971-1973 where he was an editor and publisher for controversial magazines The Villager and for Life Sake. It was clear that many Thais were drawn to the articles, Kamol says. Thousands resonated with their leftist views. But other more conservative thinkers despised the texts, claiming that they were betraying their nation’s ideologies.
Much of his editorial views took an anti-interventionist stance, criticizing US involvement in neighboring Vietnam. When police discovered that Kamol was a distributor of books like Art for Life and Art for the People by Jit Bhumisak, they started to target him.
Within months of being tailed by police, he felt had to flee to the US for his own safety in April 1973.
Today, he says the anti-government movement still faces the same obstacles but that the system has become more sophisticated in silencing dissent through legal mechanisms.
“I don’t think they are paranoid, they believe in their power, they know they have the upper hand,” he says. “It’s the same now, maybe worse. They use different kinds of tactics, they have more sophisticated ways to suppress the people.”
Kamol says today’s democracy movement is facing many of the same obstacles.
“The movements are very similar,” he said. “The political situation is not fair today, and we’re looking at the same issue of an undemocratic society. We’re not a real democracy, hiding under the guise of a true democracy. The thing is people have no freedom of expression, this is the main cause of the unrest right now.”
The Oct 14 events solidified the role and influence of Thai university students in politics. Since that era, university students have been on the frontline of many organized pro-democracy movements today.
“It’s not easy, things will not change overnight,” Kamol said about the current protest movement. “People say it has to be in this generation, but I don’t think so, maybe it will take another one or two generations to achieve our goal. But I’m still an optimist. We’ve been at this for 48 years, but I think it’s still going to take more time.”