Reflecting on October 14, 1973 in light of the current student protests

Of all the protests in Thai history, two are remembered with unmatched significance: 14 October 1973 and 6 October 1976. One ended in regime change, the other in a massacre.

As students once again take to the streets, leading the general public with them, it is to the memory of 14 October they turn. The demands for the end of military dictatorship, the installment of democracy and a new constitution have strong historical echoes in the revolutionary utopianism of 1973.

Yet, although ’14 October’ is often spoken of in the Thai context as a singular moment, it is easy to forget the context in which these protests took place. It was preceded by a strong organizational base, an intellectual movement, and a global context that both galvanized and undermined the protest.

Organizational base

Dr. Prasarn Traiwatvorakul – former Governor of the Bank of Thailand – was President of the Student Union of Chulalongkorn University in 1973. Chulalongkorn was part of a network of universities called the National Students Center for Thailand (NSCT).

The NSCT was set up three years prior to 1973. It was an institutionalized version of the intellectual exchange already happening across major universities in Thailand, with student discussion groups and political seminars flourishing across the nation.

“In the beginning, the NSCT agenda was non-political in nature – promoting “Made in Thailand” products to improve the trade balance of the country, trying to request our biggest trade partner at the time – Japan – to help solve the big trade deficit with the country,” Dr. Prasarn recounts.  

“In fact, the agendas were chosen based on common agendas with the national interest, not so much in politics but for the hardship of common people, economic problems.”

Yet, the NSCT’s nationalist activity soon became intertwined with political critique. In November 1972, NSCT began a campaign to boycott Japanese goods, proclaiming “Anti-Japanese Goods Week.” They also presented a ten-point economic plan to then-military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, with a protest march that obviously but indirectly highlighted the failures of the Thanom government. 

The spark was lit by the 1972 passage National Executive Council Decree No. 299, which enabled the military to place the judiciary under direct bureaucratic control. It is a ghostly reflection of present-day anxieties over the independence of the judiciary.

“There are similarities when you compare now and in 1973, the double standard in the justice system.”

Yet, numerous other events fanned the flames of student anger from 1972 to 1973. “Beyond the incident of the executive trying to co-opt judiciary power, there were other incidents that betrayed cronyism,” Dr. Prasarn recalls the turning point. “The helicopter crash at Thung Yai Naresuan (national park), helicopters were used for private purposes and nothing was being done to punish those officers.”

In June 1973, editors of Ramkhamhaeng student magazines critical of the government were threatened with expulsion, and widespread demonstrations called for the re-installment of those students in their universities. Demands for a new constitution became a focal point for demonstrations throughout the month of June.

The protests gained steam some five to six months later, when numerous arrests of student protestors led to a sit-in at Thammasat. This eventually culminated in the events of ’14 October’.

Intellectual movement

The NSCT’s organizational cohesion was underpinned by a strong intellectual movement. It was the publication of the Social Sciences Review that actually sparked renewed political discussion and debate. Helmed by Sulak Sivaraksa in the 1960s, it became an intellectual home to iconoclastic thinking and novel research.

Students and intellectuals of the period read an eclectic mix of Thai literature, philosophy and translated works carrying ideas from places as diverse as China, Lebanon, Cuba and the United States.

Way magazine covers the most important books of the era, from Suchart Sawatsri’s ‘Silence’, Chit Phumisak’s ‘The Face of Thai Feudalism’ to Sri Ubon’s ‘Che Guevara: The Great Revolutionary Doctor.’ The books range from Marxist analysis to satirical romance, bound together only by a readership with a deep hunger for intellectual stimulation. 

“I’m young, ignorant and amazed,” reads a line from Wittayakorn Chiangkul, “so I came to find meaning.” 

Global context

The resonance of certain revolutionary literature among the Thai student movement speaks to the global context in which ’14 October’ unfolded.

After World War II, empires had unfolded in a series of stunning, sometimes violent decolonization movements that brought new heroes, villains and ideas to the fore. By the 1970s, these newly independent states found themselves in the depths of the Cold War. Communism became a source of hope and anxiety. 

Thailand prided itself in never having been colonized, yet the language of revolutionary struggle resonated with a people that felt otherwise oppressed.

“1973 is during the time after the decade of serious protest in the US, about the Vietnam war during the 1960s,” Dr. Prasarn explains, “There were many Thai scholars that studied in the US and in the 1970s they came back as lecturers in the universities with progressive ideas.”

Yet, the Vietnam war also dovetailed with a change in the students’ fortunes after October 1973.

“Was [’14 October’] successful? Temporarily. They got their demands for a constitution, the leader of the military regime left the country, the political arena opened up,” Dr. Prasarn said, “but the developments afterwards were somewhat chaotic, there were also thoughts and movements that went beyond what the students of 1973 had anticipated.”

The protests were a valve that released much pent-up pressure in Thai society, and there was rampant labor unrest, and a growing divide between certain student groups and a public that began feeling like they were going too far.

“The fall of Vietnam in 1975 strengthened the distrust between groups, people were afraid that there was a communist movement in Thailand,” Dr. Prasarn said.  

“I don’t think the students at large has followed those causes.” Yet, Dr. Prasarn observed that after 1973, students were less unified in their vision for change.

Prospects for the future

“The key part is the common purpose: whether the movement has clear common purpose, and whether such purpose is supported by the public,” Dr. Prasarn emphasized. “I think the purpose before 1973 which led to 14 October was clear, after that the common purpose was not as focused.”

The current student movement is still nascent. Most activity is independently organized, and no common vision has been articulated among Thai universities. But, in the wake of the numerous scandals brought up by the government censure debate, there is ample common ground on which to stand. Learning the lessons of 14 October will be a critical part of moving beyond protest toward a new political future.

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