Unforgetting

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On Oct. 6, 1976 an event took place in Bangkok that Thailand has tried not to remember, but which the people that were there cannot forget. In that episode, unarmed student protesters were mowed down in an overwhelming and brutal exercise of power by soldiers under the orders of the state, the head of which was the late King Bhumibol.

In spite of the attempt to silence any reference or discussion of the massacre, young people in the City of Angels this October 2020 are turning out again and taking on the most powerful institutions in the kingdom: the monarchy and military. There is a direct link between the individual and collective memories from the 70s, the failure of the elite establishment to accept and understand that event and the mass civil disobedience taking place now.

As I write, the headlines refer to the lifting of the state of emergency imposed a week ago but which student-led demonstrators totally ignored. It was supposed to ban any gatherings of more than five people and impose a curfew. Instead, thousands of ordinary people gathered in enormous flash mobs, raising their arms in the defiant three-fingered salute that’s become the signature of their protests, borrowed from “The Hunger Games” movies.

Their demands not only reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the current situation: they want Prime Minister Prayuth, a former general who seized power in a coup in 2014 and became prime minister after a controversial election last year, a new election, amendments to the constitution and an end to the harassment of state critics. They’re also demanding curbs on the king’s powers – a call that has led to unprecedented public discussion of an institution shielded from criticism by law.

When I first came back to the UK after living in Thailand, and particularly when King Bhumibol died, people here referred to the extraordinary love and devotion for the monarch in his kingdom. I would agree but also point out that they are simply not allowed to express any other opinion because of the uniquely strict interpretation and enforcement of laws that prevent any negative reference to the person or the institution of the monarchy.

It’s in this context that earlier this month the protesters heckled a royal motorcade bearing the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s queen and his youngest son. The demonstrations are unprecedented and profoundly disruptive.

The link to the massacre of young protestors in October 1976 at Thammasat University was explicitly made at an event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. They wanted to answer questions like: “What is the public memory and understanding of that massacre 44 years on, now that political activism among Thai university students is once again on the rise? What is the meaning of the 1976 massacre in the current context of democratic struggle, public protest and repression in Thailand?”

The speakers were uniquely placed to answer: Thongchai Winichakul, author and historian at the University of Wisconsin and a former student activist from 1976; Charnvit Kasetsiri, historian and a former rector of Thammasat University; Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon, student activist and a core leader of the Free People Movement; and Puangthong Pawakapan, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and the driving force behind the online archive on the Oct. 6 massacre. It was a moving event, in part because public discussion like this, broadcast live on Facebook from Bangkok, has been unthinkable for so long. It’s still there on the FCCT’s Facebook page if you want to watch it yourself.

The killings of university students by state forces and right-wing vigilantes were a watershed moment in recent Thai history. They put an end to a brief period of democracy, and pushed student activists out of mainstream political spaces and into either jail, the jungle or out of the country. The bloody crackdown also swung the Thai political pendulum towards the right for more than a decade as it ushered in a long period of direct and indirect military rule, supported by the royalist-nationalist establishment forces. Official Thai history has also suppressed the narrative of the massacre ever since.

Thongchai, one of Southeast Asia’s finest scholars, was one of the organizers in 1976. He’s recently published a deeply moving account, part-memoir part-academic analysis, of how he’s come to cope with the memory of what happened that day. As the years passed he was increasingly troubled by the official silence about the incident. “Thailand did not seem to care about its past. People tried to bury it. Justice was irrelevant. I strongly believe, however, that the silence about the massacre speaks loudly about Thai society in ways that go beyond the incident itself: about truth and justice, how Thai society copes with conflict and its ugly past, about the ideas of reconciliation, the culture of impunity, and rights, and about the rule of law in the country. All this made me want even more to write about October 6,” he writes in the prologue to “Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976 Massacre in Bangkok.”

It reminded me of the moment when I interviewed the former first lady Imelda Marcos for a documentary film for Al Jazeera English. I put it to her that she was partly responsible for the imprisonment, exile, torture and deaths of people during the so-called conjugal dictatorship in the Philippines. She denied it with her hand on her heart and her eyes cast to heaven. Her denial has been echoed for years in the failure to find justice for victims and in the continuing impunity for those who would rather marginalize, silence, jail or kill anyone who disrupts the narrative of the powerful.

Thongchai suggests there is another way to understand the unspoken. “Silence, this book argues, is not forgetting. Instead, it is a symptom of the inability to remember or forget, the inability to articulate memories in a comprehensible and meaningful fashion or to depart from the past completely. I call this condition between remembering and forgetting the “unforgetting’.”