“The Bangkok Tragedy” refers to the government-backed massacre of members of the red shirt movement, when a military crackdown on protesters from May 10 to May 19, 2010, resulted in at least 94 deaths.
The massacre of protesters at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, sent shockwaves throughout the entire country. On the 40th anniversary of the incident, four contemporary witnesses from the Northeast recall their memories of that day and the ensuing consequences.
Inthon Saeng-ngamsueng was born in Bo Thong village, in Chaiyaphum’s Nong Bua Daeng district in 1951. In the early 1970s, the government planned to build a dam on the Upper Chi river which would have resulted in the displacement of Inthon’s village as well as 40 other communities. Many university students came to support the villagers in their fight against the dam’s construction. After the October 6 massacre Inthon joined the armed struggle of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and took on the codename “Comrade Sura.”
Where were you on that day? How did you learn of what happened?
I was at home. I heard about it on the radio. In my village we already had students staying with us. Some of them followed closely what was happening on the radio.
How did you feel about the violence of that day?
At that time, I felt angry for what was done to the students, asking why they [the perpetrators] did this, and I wondered whether those students who I knew would come back alive? I had once been to Thammasat University as a representative of my subdistrict to organize the movement against the dam, so I could picture where the massacre took place. After the event in Bangkok, state officials began coming to our area to search the houses, looking for [subversive] books. The students who had been living in the village had to escape to the Phu Khiau mountains. Later, a number of students fled from the cities and wanted to join their ranks. So we organized trips to take them up the mountains. Soon after October 6 there was a whole communist base in the Phu Khiau area. It became known as the Work Zone 196, which was the only zone established by students.
If you had been at Thammasat University on that day, what do you think you would have done?
I am not sure. I was close to the students, but what happened was very cruel. I would have wanted to go in there to join the students but those who were staying in my community told me to not budge. Should anything happen, they said, they would certainly flee into the forests.
What does “October 6” mean for you?
“October 6” exposed the extent to which the government would go to protect its own power. It was a very cruel crackdown. And it was done by Thais against their own fellow citizens.
Pol. Capt. Samran Hoitakhu (64) is a former member of the Border Patrol Police in Nong Khai province. Now in retirement, he is proud of his role in the suppression of communism, especially after the Communist Party of Thailand had grown in strength following the influx of students who had fled after October 6, 1976.
Where were you on the day of the massacre?
During the event on October 6, 1976, our superiors [in Bangkok] informed us in an official letter to prepare a mission to take control over the villages in the Dong Mun area in Kalasin Province. My operation team consisted of an infantry of 40-odd officers. The commissioner ordered us to be prepared in every aspect, with munition and everything. There was a meeting to inform us of the situation in Bangkok.
However, when it was time to go, my team was not tasked with arresting and suppressing the people. Rather, we were tasked with using psychological tactics to reach mutual understandings with the people, in order to dissuade them from taking action.
We counseled the villagers to use judgment in listening to the news in order to deter them from joining the Communist terrorists, for example. I remember that police and military officers as well as the security unit would huddle together every evening in order to discuss the situations, assessing how things stand in the area as far as the Communist terrorist movements went.
How did the event on October 6 affect your work in the villages?
We explained the situation to the people in the communities. We summoned the village leaders to a meeting where they learned about the current political situation. Citizens could cooperate with the state authorities; they could comment on the situation through their village representatives, and the information would be transmitted through the chain of command to ensure sustainable and effective solution to the problem.
We did all this because in some areas, the whole village turned Communist and refused to cooperate with the state authorities. These villagers would take shifts to guard the entrances and exits, to make sure that no state authorities infiltrated their village. Whether in uniform or not, state authorities would taken violent actions against villagers, because such violence was what the anti-government Communist terrorists would cite in order to convince more people to join their movement.
Many people were not thinking of committing violence or fighting the state. They were walking the middle path, not leaning towards one side or the other. They would not attack others without a reason, which would lead to violence.
Most clashes back then, I believe, happened along the border, especially during the period when the villagers would go into the forest and turn into Communists under misguidance. In the border village where I was, my conviction was that people still believed in nation, religion, and monarchy. It was a third party, not the villagers themselves, who made decisions. This third party misguided the villagers, claiming that their action who benefit the nation, but it really benefited only themselves.
As far as my role in this went, I was able to understand the common people to some extent. I was able to bring people who had joined the Communist terrorist movement back to supporting the state. It was a contest over the [loyalty] of the masses.
How did you know who was a Communist? Did you every have to resort to violence?
To find out the extent to which people cooperated and understood what the state authorities were doing, it was part of our job to gather information from the people, both openly and undercover. I think I was working for the people. When they ran into trouble, they would come to us to ask for our help—even those who were Communist terrorists would give us the intelligence, telling us in this and that village, who had already turned Communist and who was about to become a Communist, as well as the reason behind their conversion.
The Communist terrorists would give false information to the villagers who they hoped to convert. To attack the government authorities, they would make claims such as: poverty was due to the exploitation by the governing class; there was no justice in society; poor people were being bullied by the state authorities; etc.
I admit that the police actually suppressed people who supported the Communist terrorist movement, but violence was what usually steered people toward the Communist movement.
Bunsong Madkhao, a 66-year-old community organizer with the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), joined the CPT in the summer of 1977 when he was about to be conscripted. By that time, he had become well-versed in socialist theory due to the influence of his brother-in-law and uncle-in-law, both local teachers and also leftist community leaders in Yasothon. He heard about the October 6 massacre on state radio, as well as the on the communist movement’s radio channel.
How did you hear about the massacre?
We heard about it on the Government Public Relations radio. But we also listened to the Voice of the People of Thailand channel, the radio program of the Communists who organized the rebellion. We listened to both sides, but we thought that the people’s side provided more accurate information. In a way, we were already left-leaning, so we listened to that side more. When we heard the news that the students were surrounded and beaten up. It caused us much pain, it was a very emotional time.
What was your memory of the violence of that day?
At that time, the reason the state was going to arrest students was that, from what I remember the catalyst for the chaos was [General ] Thanom [Kittikajorn, the ex-Prime Minister and dictator overthrown in 1973] coming back to the country as a monk. Then they said that those who opposed monks were Communists.
That they were ingrates betraying the nation, religion, king, and democracy. So they used that as a pretense for unleashing force on the protesters. We felt that it was unjust to the common people. After that day, we prepared for whatever would happen, in case that danger might arrive at our doorstep. Because I was living in a “pink” zone where my brother-in-law and uncle-in-law were teachers and active leaders in a teachers’ organization at the time.
How was the situation in Yasothon on that day?
There were no arrests. There were villagers who had been bought to become spies, though. There were civil servants on the prowl. So we had to be more careful. We had to destroy meeting minutes, as well as banned leaflets and documents for distribution. Anything that wasn’t important we burned up. What was important we hid away, sometimes buried underground. And we were more discreet about meeting other comrades.
What does “October 6” mean to you?
The event destroyed the morale of many fighters for democracy and the revolution. It caused us sadness and grief to see many friends get beaten up, many who fell and died. It resulted in the loss of fighters committed to our ideology.We were weighed down and aggrieved by what happened. We were vengeful, hatred was fuming in our hearts. It was a hot feeling, not just dejection. It pushed us toward armed rebellion.
Before that, we were okay with staying home and organizing our community. But this event pushed me to the decision to really commit, go to the forest, fight, and take revenge.
At the same time, on the other hand, community organizing in villages was still essential. Who would work in those areas if everyone left for the forests? They [movement leaders] wanted people to be there until it became impossible.
Like the university student brutalized and hanged under tamarind tree on that frenzied day in Neal Ulevich’s iconic photograph, Prayuth Chumnasiau (64) was a student hailing from Ubon Ratchathani. Unlike him, though, Prayuth survived the massacre and was detained for seven days. With friends falling like leaves, he shedded his student uniform and headed for the forest in Amnat Charoen.
Where were you on that day?
I was there when it happened at Thammasat University. And I was arrested and detained at Bang Khen Police School for seven days. On October 12, the police allowed for bailing. Ramkhamhaeng University, which I was studying at, bailed all of its students out. The conditions were that after the bail, each student had to report themselves at the Special Branch every month. All students arrested and bailed by Ramkhamhaeng University reported themselves and had their profiles recorded. A few days after the bail, I decided to join the armed struggle with the communist movement in the forest.
I traveled there with a couple of friends. We took a bus from Bangkok to the area which today is Amnat Charoen province. Then we took another bus from Amnat Charoen to a village where the comrades in the forest came to pick us up. We carried only a small travel bag filled with some clothes and fabric shoes. Drugs were essential too: fever-lowering and anti-malaria pills. Because during that time I used to go out in rural communities to build schools for them, so what I had with me was what I would carry when going to out there.
What do you remember from the time after October 6, 1976?
According to those I had talked to who were students at the Ubon Ratchathani Teacher College, the majority of those who went into the forests to join the Communist Party had grewn up in the old socialist groups in Ubon Ratchathani city. For example, local politicians who were socialists before October 14, 1973. There were strong leaders at the Teacher College who opposed the dictator Thanom and Praphat.
The armed struggle caused damages to peoples’ lives and property in the city. For safety reasons, the armed forces shifted from the city into the forests. The coordination also had to change to mobilize people to join the movement in the forests.
At Phu Sra Dokbua or Zone 444, where I was stationed, there were six more students. These students were from Ramkhamhaeng University, Ubon Teacher College, Ban Somdet Teacher College, and Phetchaburi Teacher College. We were all the same age and all joined after the cruel event of October 6, 1976.
Our working area was Yasothon province, which then was part of Ubon Ratchathani province. All six of us met in the forest, which gave us the chance to exchange our knowledge and beliefs. We all agreed that waging an armed struggle in the cities was not safe for our lives. As students we had been hurt and treated like we were no human. So, we decided to change the battle field from the cities to the forests.
The [state] rulers then were ruthless, and they slaughtered and suppressed the people without any mercy.
We decided to be under the leadership of the Communist Party because they had experience and strategies for the struggle. They provided weapon training for every student.
Like university students in other provinces, I already had a close relationship with the organizing division of the Communist Party. So, we were able to contacted and welcomed by them.
Back then, I remember that after the event on October 6, the universities in Bangkok established an association called Associations of Parents of Missing Students (samakhom luk hai) because their children went into the forests. The parents listed the names of their missing children at the association.
The Communist movement had its own radio station. [After October 6,] the Voices of the People of Thailand released an announcement from the National Student’s Center of Thailand (NSCT), which had moved from the city into the forest, declaring that almost 3000 university students were joining the fight of the Communist Party of Thailand.
Students from Isaan were spread out in Khon Kaen province, in the area of Dong Mun in Kalasin province. In Sakon Nakhon province, the Phu Phan area was the center of the Communist movement, which had been operating from there against the government.
Why did you want to join the Communist armed struggle?
After I was arrested at Thammasat University, my friends were shot dead. The police officers commanded us to take off our shirts and crawl on the ground. They hurt us so badly.
The students, including myself, had studied political movements under the social conditions of that time. In class, we read books and studied the principles of organizing movements against the upper class which was exploiting the lower classes.
The students set up a unit to read political books and analyze the political and social situation at that time. A book that was influential for the movement was Chit Phumisak’s “The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today.” They also read other books like “The Mother” by Maxim Gorky, “Looking Forward” (lae pai khang na) by Sriburapha, translated books by Che Guevara and a large volume from the Soviet bolsheviks.
After reading, discussing and exchanging they produced posters of Che Guevara and Chit Phumisak. These posters were supposed to encourage other students. The senior students would then take them to rural communities.
They wrote music in the “Songs For Life” genre spreading the ideology of opposing social injustice which was growing in our heart. This encouraged us to go out to the villages and support the farmers or help the laborers in the factories.
We were taking a jab at state power quite a lot. Our utmost hope was that all the suppressed people would be freed.
What does October 6, 1976, mean to you?
I would like to give all the meaning of this day to all of those who fought for the people. The event was a result of the fight to liberate the country and create the new society where equality and justice could exist. The fight on that day was resolute and brave. It was a fight that brought about a big change in the country. It came about through actions aimed at complete change.
This article was first published in Thai on October 6, 2016.