[N.B The article was first published on the writer’s Facebook account on May, 11,02.20am. He has granted Prachatai the permission to reproduce it here.]
[This note is rewritten from a draft I hurriedly wrote on May 10, and read out on that same day at a commemorative event held in front of the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, one month after the crackdown on April 10, 2010. The students organising the event had invited me to attend as the editor of Fah Diew Kan journal, and someone who was there on April 10. However, I asked to speak instead as alumni of the university, and to tell a story of Khun Kaneung Chatthae, a Chula staff who lost his life at the demonstration ground on April 10. I would like to respectfully refer to him here as Brother Kaneung.]
Brother Kaneung was fifty years old, born on March 27, in Pachee district, Ayutthaya province. He began earning his wages from the public-funded Chulalongkorn University in 1984, starting out as a security guard. When he died he was a plain-clothed security officer there. He lived with his family in a flat rented out to staff on Chula campus. His wife works as a temporary staff for the university. They have one son, aged 13, now in grade 8 at school.
Brother Kaneung was an energetic guy, fun loving and talkative. He didn’t like to pick arguments with people. He was nice. He did the housework and cooking for his wife. When friends came by for a drinking session he would monopolise the kitchen making snacks for them. He was the one who made sure everybody’s glass was always topped up, so his friends gave him the nickname “khun rarin [Lord of the Refill].”
Brother Kaneung died on April 10, from the crackdown against red shirt protestors at Khok Wua intersection. At first the doctor at Wachira Hospital said most likely he died from heart failure. But in the end the autopsy showed that he died from gunshot wound. The bullet went in through his right ribs, exploded in his lung and travelled to his spine. His chest had blood clot; his lung was torn.
At first, when Kaneung’s relatives heard his name announced in the media among those of others who had died, they weren’t quite sure whether it was really him. He was a good guy. They were devastated when his death was confirmed. His son said he cried for hours but his aunt told him to be brave. He had to try to come to terms with his father’s death. His father had been interested in politics, but had never taken part in any protests before. He had to try to be brave because he still has his mother to look after. When he grows up he still, after all this, wants to be a soldier, to serve the country.
After the death of her husband, Brother Kaneung’s wife now faces many hardships. She is now the sole breadwinner, responsible for repaying the family’s debts. One of her brothers, who had previously been on good terms with Kaneung, refused to attend the funeral. His reason was that Kaneung had become a “communist.”
Brother Kaneung’s friends were devastated too. They thought his death was unnecessary. Why did the government have to shoot unarmed people? They said, according to the eyewitness account of two of the Chula security guards who were also at Khok Wua intersection that night, soldiers really shot at the protestors.
After April 10, Brother Kaneung’s friends continued to regularly attend the demonstrations at Ratchaprasong after their work shifts. They were not frightened, despite the fact that the government and the media accused the red shirts of inciting violence, and claimed that there were terrorists in their midst, in order to intimidate people from joining the demonstrations. Kaneung’s friends reasoned that the government’s message contradicted what they saw with their own eyes. If anything happened to the other demonstrators, they felt it was their duty to go provide reinforcement in large numbers. They knew they couldn’t trust what the government was saying.
Brother Kaneung had never joined any political movement. Most likely he wasn’t an active citizen, or the engaged citizen in the definition of the social movement activists.
As a red shirt, most of the time he was probably a “refrigerator red” [slang for red supporters who spend hours languishing in front of the computer].
Because of the demands of his work and family responsibilities, Brother Kaneung never took part in the demonstrations against the coup of September 19, 2006. He never joined the protests against the 2007 constitution, and he didn’t take part in the initial phase of the red shirts’ demonstrations. As far as I can make out, Brother Kaneung first started going to the demonstrations at Supachalasai Stadium last year, for the simple reason that it was near Chula. He regularly went to the demonstrations in Ratchaprasong, partly also to find out things for the senior staff of his university. But he had never gone as far as the Phan Fa demonstration ground. The first and only time he went there was on April 10, 2010.
That evening Brother Kaneung had initially planned to go to Ratchaprasong. But he heard the red guards on one of the pickup trucks calling for volunteers to go help our brothers and sisters at Phan Fa, so he jumped on that truck and left his car at Pathumwan intersection.
According to his colleagues, Brother Kaneung would always say he had never approved of the performance of the Democrat Party. Instead, like most of his friends, he admired the policies and administration of the Thai Rak Thai Party. Although somebody in Brother Kaneung’s position didn’t receive much additional benefit from Thai Rak Thai policies, such as the 30-baht health care system – because he was already provided for by the university’s benefits scheme – he still supported these measures. This was because such measures were in the interest of his relatives in the provinces.
When asked teasingly by his friends why he attended the red shirts’ demonstrations, and was he really red through and through, Brother Kaneung would say that yes he was. I go because I detest the double standard, he would say. It reflects society’s inequalities. Brother Kaneung would often complain about the stark difference in the prosecution of cases against the red shirts and the yellow shirts, including the dissolution of the parties Thai Rak Thai and Phalang Prachachon. He would also complain about the way ex-Prime Minister Samak was deposed by a ruling on his cookery show, and he didn’t like the 2007 constitution.
The majority of low-level staff at Chula are red shirts, so Brother Kaneung’s friends tell me. Of the 300 security guards who work there, around 280 are reds. They usually watch the reds’ People Channel TV together in their flats. But when they turn up to the demonstrations they usually do so separately, going on their own or with their families. After their shifts, these security guards would take off their uniform and put on their red shirts. If they happened to see each other at the demonstration ground they would pretend not to know each other, keeping themselves to themselves. It would only be the next morning when they would chat about where they had got to the night before.
However, Brother Kaneung’s friends stress that they would always say to each other we mustn’t let politics get in the way of friendship – friends are friends.
In the cultural environment of Chulalongkorn University, somebody like Brother Kaneung never got much respect. One of his friends wanted me to know that security guards are treated like emotional punch-bags for the ajarn [academics]. The ajarn would think nothing of shouting at or verbally abusing the security guards whenever something inconvenienced them, or made them cross.
Politically speaking, inside Chula campus somebody like Brother Kaneung – the red shirts low-level staff of Chula – would have to humbly keep their political opinions to themselves. There was one incident when somebody had put a “dissolve parliament” sticker on one of the University’s vehicles. An ajarn or senior administrative member of staff made a big fuss, saying the gesture was “encroaching on working hours” and that the vehicle was “public property,” so the sticker had to be removed. Then the security guards were told that they had to remove any “dissolve parliament” stickers they came across around the guard posts or on university gates. Some of the security guards’ own cars got scratched because they displayed the red shirts’ sticker. There was also rumour that they were threatened with dismissal unless they removed those stickers. When journalists contacted Brother Kaneung’s colleagues or those relatives who were also employed by Chula, asking for an interview, they would decline. They didn’t want to run into problems with the university.
How valuable is the life of someone like Brother Kaneung? Do these people think of themselves as a mere pawn in the political game – the power wrangling among elites? Brother Kaneung will never get to answer these questions now, but his friends say they don’t think that way. They go to the protests out of their own free will. Even if they didn’t go, somebody else would, to try to achieve that goal, to make things better.
At these demonstrations, the UDD flagged up the slogan that this was a fight between phrai [pleb, serf, salt of the earth] and amart [the establishment]. Academics rushed to explain to the public that Thai society no longer had a system of bonded labour, and Thai society wasn’t plagued by the class struggle. But Brother Kaneung and his friends routinely joked among themselves that they indeed were phrai. Somebody like Brother Kaneung was happy to call himself phrai. These people understand the continuing relevance of this word, as they do the word amart. Brother Kaneung’s friend told me: we see this amart creature all the time, it has a habit of meddling behind the scene. But out of respect I didn’t ask which creature he saw.
The morning I travelled to see those friends of Brother Kaneung’s, I listened during the journey to a radio interview with a female Bangkok senator who was usually heralded as a shining representative of “the people’s activism.” She admirably expressed her concerns and understanding about the problems facing the poor. She conceded that the red shirts’ demonstrations were a consequence of social inequalities. Unfortunately, politicians and those in power exploited these inequalities for their own end, inciting the masses to come out to fight for their selfish interests. In sum, dissolving parliament is no real solution for the poor. Ultimately the country had to be reformed, and then we will achieve real democracy.
I recounted the opinion of this senator to Brother Kaneung’s friends. They emphatically repeated that they weren’t interested in the kind of reform she was talking about, because they didn’t trust that the current government was capable of it. The solution, therefore, is to dissolve parliament: to hold an election so the people could make their voices heard, so that they could decide the future of the country. Even if they had to hire a car to get to the polling station they would do it, they said, that was the strength of their determination.
I’m not sure if I’m guilty of romanticising Brother Kaneung’s life, like one of those courageous heroes in the standard-edition ofthe literature for life tradition.
Who knows if I’m making the death of Brother Kaneung serve my own political belief and struggle.
The one thing I can faithfully say is that the story above is based on a conversation with two friends of Brother Kaneung, and an academic from Chula’s Faculty of Arts. We talked for nearly two hours on the marble outdoor seats in front of the university’s Sala Phra Khiaew, around noon on a Saturday.
You could say there’s nothing special about this story. The Chula red shirts in this story don’t have the same kind of astute understanding of politics that the Chula students or academics do. Somebody like Brother Kaneung couldn’t begin to imagine what the kind of real democracy that the intellectuals talk about – the kind that go beyond mere elections – look like, and who would lead the way.
A phrai-red shirt-Chula security guard thinks in simple terms, and says to me simply, “real democracy means letting the people choose, letting the people decide.”
If we believe that different “explanations” of the same phenomenon would lead to different “political choices,” then it is necessary to guard against the domination of one set of explanation. We can contribute to this by telling the story of someone like Brother Kaneung, in order to help build up a fuller picture of the red shirts phenomenon and the crackdown on April 10. This is one activity that pitches itself against passively letting any single body – any government, academic, esteemed citizen, social movement representative, NGO, social development professional, campaign group for the poor, the media, or peace campaigner – dominate the construction of the political options that we have from now on.
We must fight against the prejudice that reduces those who are different from us to social “others,” branding them as deviant enough to licenseelimination by force. We need to help make people whose political opinions differ from Brother Kaneung empathise with somebody like him – to see the likes of Brother Kaneung as a normal human being and part of their everyday lives.
Translated by May Adadol Ingawanij