Historians jog buried memories of Thai massacre

4 min

Nakhon Pathom (Thailand) (AFP)

Tears flow freely as Chumpol Thummai stands in front of the rusty gate where his brother was lynched by royalists 41 years ago, an act that set off a chain of events that ended in a student massacre.

The bloodshed was one of the darkest chapters in Thailand's violence-flecked modern history, a century that has seen the kingdom lurch between military dictatorships and democratic rule.

On October 6, 1976, at least 41 students protesting the return of a military dictator were shot, beaten to death or hung from trees at Bangkok's Thammasat University by state forces and royalist mobs.

Four decades later academics are finally documenting the lives of those who died -- and who did the killing -- despite the extreme sensitivity of the subject in a kingdom once again under ultra-royalist military rule.

"I wept so much (when they contacted me). It's a miracle that after 40 years, they could find me and I’m still alive to tell it," Chumpol told AFP, crying in disbelief that the loss of his brother Chumporn had not been forgotten.

Chumpol is the subject of a new documentary, "The Two Brothers," that tells the story of two activists -- including his brother -- whose lynching set off the unrest that culminated in the massacre.

The film was released as part of a landmark digital archive pieced together by academics who have unearthed new testimony, reports and photos about a massacre that is barely touched on in Thai history classes.

No-one has ever been charged over the killings, with the role of royalist militias an especially taboo topic.

Sensitivity about all things royal has intensified since the late King Bhumibol Adulaydej passed away in October 2016, plunging the kingdom into a year of official mourning.

The country is preparing for his cremation later this month.

But the academics behind the project, called the "Documentation of October 6", believe that shedding light on the Thammasat massacre is a crucial step towards freeing Thailand from a carousel of brief democratic government, street violence and coups.

"We don't want to remember the victims by their name tags or numbers only," said Pattaraphon Phoothong, one of the project researchers. "To tell their story is to return humanity and dignity to the victims."

- Democracy cut by coups -

At the time of the massacre Thailand was at a crossroads in its tumultuous experiment with democracy.

A student-led uprising three years earlier had toppled a 15-year military regime as a leftist pro-democracy movement emerged.

But by 1976, the optimism for democracy had dimmed.

Eager to claw back power, arch monarchists spread fears that students were plotting a socialist revolution and the kingdom would go the way of Vietnam.

Two activists -- one of whom was Chumpol's brother -- were lynched in late September 1976 after taking part in a protest against the return of ex-dictator Thanom Kittikachorn from exile.

Thammasat students, enraged by the activists' death, staged a play imitating the lynching.

But it was seized on by monarchist mobs who said one of the actors bore a passing resemblance to the then-crown prince, who is now Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Anger spilled over into violence.

At dawn on October 6 royalist militias fired on students, turning Thammasat's sports pitch into a killing field.

Survivors say more than 100 students and demonstrators died -- though the official toll is half of that.

Later that night, the military staged a coup and held onto power for 16 more years.

-'Nobody cared to ask'-

Photographers documented the violence of October 6 in graphic detail -- some students were shot point blank, while others were raped, burned or lynched from trees.

But most of the perpetrators, victims and bystanders, have never been identified.

"This should be the basic information that we should have known four decades ago but nobody cared to ask," Puangthong Pawakapan, an academic at Chulalongkorn University who leads the archival project.

Her team of researchers has scoured through autopsy reports, phone books and survivor contacts, tracing the families of 27 of the dead.

Many refused to speak about issues deeply buried in Thailand's past.

But for Chumpol, revisiting the site of his brother's death -- unknown until the academics tracked it down -- was cathartic.

He hopes that confronting the past will give vital lessons to a younger generation once again grappling with an authoritarian regime.

"If we begin to talk again, one day it will be clear what the event was and how it came to be," he said.