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Silences, Histories, and the Future: On Thongchai Winichakul’s Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok

Note: This is a translation of a paper that was presented as part of the Council on Thai Studies (COTS) conference organized by Northern Illinois University on 13-15 November 2020. The paper was part of a book launch for Thongchai Winichakul’s recent book, Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok; each of the panelists considered the meaning of the book in comparative contexts across time and space, and within the context of the present-day youth movement in Thailand.

The meaning of the 6 October 1976 massacre has changed within the context of the transformed politics of the present. But “unforgetting,” which is a word that Thongchai purposefully uses in the title of this book (as well as in the title of his related Thai-language book, 6 October:, Unforgettable, Unrememberable [6 ตุลา ลืมไม่ได้ จำไม่ลง]), demands consideration of matters that are difficult to forget even though one wishes to do so. As I read this book, I was unable to forget. We can find incidences of wrongdoing committed with impunity from the traces of the facts that remain. Perpetrators then and now remain the same. They take pleasure in letting people honor them without any shame for their involvement in violence, whether then or in the present.  Those who hold different opinions or think differently are those who are guilty, guilty to the degree that their lives must be sacrificed. This is an inhumane form of cruelty that includes the killing of exiles in neighboring countries, the disappearance of Wanchalearm [Satsaksit], the arrest of students and activists, and other threats and violations of human rights. One way to comprehend it is that the perpetrators have never learned any lessons from the past or adapted themselves to exist in the society that has changed over the past 44 years. The demands and struggle for democracy continue, and the right-wing that we think has gone silent has not actually gone anywhere. There are still voices within the silence. But if it is a voice that we hear from those surrounding us that they are ready to hire people to attack those who think differently from them, the people’s screams will not be heard. On 23 October 2020, the King said “very brave, very smart, thank you,” to a person who held up an image of Rama 9. Then, on 27 October 2020, he said, “Thank you very much. We must go forward with close-knit love for the nation.” Some have interpreted this as a signal [in response to the current protests] that hints that those who hold power will do not accept any changes.

However, what is different about the movement in the present in comparison to that of 44 years ago is that secondary school students, in addition to university students, have a direct role and have become key leaders of the struggle for democracy. It can be said that this is the first time that the youth, the future of the nation, have a true democratic consciousness and are the foundation of the struggle for democratic ideals. They want a future that is not the chronically gloomy one of the past. The students are not only questioning the textbooks of the Ministry of Education, but they are questioning the teaching ability of the teachers and challenging the educational culture that dominates and constrains them.

Nonetheless, the demands for social justice on 6 October 1976 were not the first time, and the movement of secondary school and university studies in the present will not be the last time that people come out before we achieve the goal of constitutional democracy. Let me offer my respect to Rung [Panusaya Sithijirawatthanakul], Penguin [Parit Chiwarak], Lawyer Anon [Nampa], Oua [Juthatip Sirikhan], James [Panumas Singprom], Prasit [Karutarote], Pai Dao Din [Jatupat Boonpattararaksa], Mind [Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon], Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree , and others who are involved. The 6 October 1976 massacre does not belong only to the Octobrists anymore, but is everyone’s history.

Violent incidents that are “unforgettable, unrememberable,” such as the assassinations in the period of authoritarian military dictatorships of Phao Sriyanond-Sarit Thanarat, the Tak Bai massacre, the crackdown on the red shirts in 2010, or other incidents, as well as the logic of violence and its subsequent impacts.

Every violent incident that I have mentioned is “unforgettable, unrememberable.” The majority involve people dying at the hands of state officials. But if we examine the reasons or sources of the use of violence, will find that it arises when the people are making demands on power. This is a normal occurrence in a democratic society, or in a modern society, that permits the people to think differently from the state. One important characteristic of modern society is that we are unable to think identically to one another. The problem is that Thai society, especially the state, does not want to let the people think differently from the state. When people think differently, they are viewed as dangers to state security. This broad framework of thinking was constructed during the bureaucratic reform during the reign of Rama V, which brought in a framework of thinking similar to monotheistic religion, or that there is only one true god. Significantly, this framework was linked with the idea of the nation-state. Therefore, another reason behind the use of violence is to protect that one true god.

The question of what forms of writing history, and what kinds of historiography, will aid Thai society in redressing past violence is a fascinating and important one for historians. This is because incidences of past violence that are “unforgettable, unrememberable” often end with wounds visited upon victims from injustice. Mainstream official Thai historiography written by the state neglects these issues, and further, sometimes views those on the margins as being enemies of the institution of the monarchy. However, there are many kinds of historiography. Microhistory, or the history of ordinary, common people or those on the margins of society, is one way of writing history from below that gives importance to the marginalized by making them the subjects of study. The historical evidence used to write microhistory tends not to be government documents, but includes fables, legends, myths, or oral history. Thongchai’s book can be considered a historical study that attempts a microhistory of the violent past. In addition, there is also the method of Subaltern Studies, which is a set of theories about how to write histories of those who appear voiceless. In truth, the aforementioned historical methods are not enough to fight the official historiography that dominates and presses upon students through the mechanisms of the Ministry of Education.

The phenomenon of reading critical history books is one of the fascinating aspects of the youth political movement. They hold up critical history books that are not part of the curriculum as symbols. At first, I thought it was a type of symbolic expression of revolt against what they learned in school.  But it turned out to be the opposite.  The students are reading to question what they have studied. The most recent Book Week offers an index of the desire to read critical history books. The press that printed these books [Fa Diew Kan] was even later searched by the police. A senior professor once told me a long time ago “When society begins to search for its history, it means that the society is falling into further decay.” I agree and see the phenomenon myself with cloudless eyes. The students ask questions about the books they read, with the most frequent question being “Why wasn’t this incident included in the curriculum I studied?” Many of the critical history books that are circulating are those usually read at the level of undergraduate or graduate study. Sometimes when secondary students exchange ideas with teachers in school, the teachers themselves cannot answer, because they did not know beforehand.

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