Over 40 years have passed since student protesters at Thailand’s Thammasat University were brutally suppressed, resulting in at least 46 deaths. On 6th October this year, commemorations took place to honour them. However, certain issues concerning this tragic event have remained unsolved, and it is clear that the present Thai military government seeks to maintain the status quo.
In September 1976, shocking news electrified Thai society. Thanom Kittikachorn, the former Prime Minister, was returning from exile. Three years earlier, he had left Thailand after mass demonstrations were held to protest the violations of civil liberties by Kittikachorn’s government. Even though the former dictator claimed he was visiting Thailand only for family reasons, this information stirred protests among many group of activists, especially students.
Thammasat University, the second oldest university in Thailand, became the center of this activists’ movement. By the beginning of October thousands of students began to occupy the university campus. On 4th October the protesters staged a play, aiming to depict the lynching of two activists by the police. A physical resemblance was observed between one of the actors and the Crown Prince, the only son of king Bhumipol Adulyadej. This led to the accusation of lèse majesté – insult or threat towards any member of the Thai royal family, which provided a pretext for the security forces’ attack.
On the early morning of 6 October 1976, the police blocked exits from the university and opened fire on the protesters, using grenades and automatic rifles. They were joined by the ultra royalist and anti-communist paramilitary groups: the Village Scouts and Red Gaurs. Students trying to escape were shot, while those who surrendered were at risk of being beaten to death. Some were set afire and hanged from trees, while female protesters were raped. The massacre stopped only when a rainstorm forced the forces to withdraw from the campus. The death toll is still disputed, with its numbers ranging from 46 (official data) to several hundreds (according to survivors’ testimonies).
To this day, no official member of the police or any paramilitary groups was ever held criminally responsible for the atrocities committed during the massacre. Moreover, the Thai government never apologised for the use of violence. This serves as an example of the culture of impunity, which remains a controversial characteristic of Thai political life. Throughout past 50 years the country experienced several coups, swaying from democracy to military dictatorship. Moreover, the Thammasat University Massacre is not discussed during History lessons in Thai schools.
According to the official version, the protesters were anti-monarchist communists, who first fired at the security forces. Shortly after the massacre it was announced that the army had seized power, overthrowing the Prime Minister Seni Pramoj. The coup was approved by the king and justified as a way of preventing “a Vietnamese-backed communist plot” and preserving the Thai monarchy as the official system of government. The authorities’ attitude was caused by different factors, such as the seizure of power by totalitarian regimes in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the rising popularity of the Communist Party of Thailand.
This year’s commemoration of the Thammasat University Massacre took various forms. Buddhist monks and ordinary people held vigils. An art exhibition was organised by Sinsawat Yodbangtoey, one of the survivors. However, the lack of cooperation from the authorities was palpable. Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 pro-democratic umbrella movement in Hong Kong, was detained at the Bangkok airport and deported. He had been invited to address participants at the 40th anniversary event held at Chulalongkorn University. Eventually, Wong took part in the event via Skype.
While it is reasonable to infer that this incident was caused by the Chinese government’s intervention, it could also be that it was the Thai authorities who did not want Wong to spread his message to other student movements. According to Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a political science student and activist who invited Wong, his deportation was a confluence of interests between the two states.
‘There should be seeds for a better future to grow’, said Netiwit. His words express the main theme of the Chulalongkorn University event, which was ‘looking to the future’. It shows the viewpoint shared by the new generation of Thai activists, who hope that keeping the victims of the Thammasat Massacre in memory and educating the society might contribute to a significant change in the way this event is perceived in today’s Thailand.