October

 [This is something I wrote from back in 2005.]

 I became a bit annoy with another ‘those darn kids these days’ op-ed pieces…

A survey… revealed that the young people had an utter lack of understanding of the events of October 14, let alone their significance.That’s understandable. Kids today don’t really read that much of anything. Not only do they not read about history, but very few seem to even partake in general reading of books or newspapers.

Until I realized they were kinda right… did I really know enough about the specifics of this troubling period in recent Thai history? So I set out instinctively to a bookstore in Bangkok, hoping to see some books corner dedicated to it – I mean it’s the aniversary after all.

I came back home disappointed, there wasn’t a single book on the subject in the whole store (but then I guess I should expect much from Se-ed). I guess kids these days don’t have a chance!

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Some consolation prizes:

  • Open Books came out with another issue of their October series, collections of essays on current Thai politics/economics/society.
  • Sarakadee magazine with a special on the 14 October incident in which they choose not to focus the student leaders or the military adversaries, but tracked down the largely anonymous people who were part of the huge wave of protesters involved.

Haven’t read the mag yet, but I’ve mostly gone through October. I was struck with one article, a criticism of the whole Royal Power hoopla by Professor Thongchai Winichakul. A no-nonsense rebuttal and new perspective – as a historian he reminds us how the excuse of royal powers were use to do pretty mean things…

Before going crazy with Pramuan’s book, we should study how horribly Pridi Phanomyong had suffered at the hands of the royalists especially during 1946-49. The great irony is that some of the advocates for enhancing the royal power tell the story of Pridi working hand in hand with the royals for the enhanced royal power. Ridiculous” would be my softest comment on these royalist pretenders.

All this got me interested in Prof. Thongchai, so of course I Googled him. I was surprised to learn that he was one of the student leaders during the October events. After the student uprising, he was jailed by the military before being released into self-exile, first in Australia then eventually winding up in the US. Chang Noi here compares his fate with another prominent student leader, Thirayuth Boonmee:

Thongchai Winichakul was prominent in October 1976 when the army violently suppressed student radicalism. Since then, he has become the most feted modern Thai historian in the international arena. But he has been removed from Thai society – first by jail, and then by self-exile. He functions now as a distant spirit who resides most of the time in the remote chilly regions of north America. He can be summoned up from time to time only by the proper spirit mediums (conference organisers). He is a disorderly spirit who concentrates the chaotic energies from bad events in the past. His role is to stir things up, to spread doubt, to challenge any slide to complacency, to remind the optimistic reformers just how difficult their task truly is.

Also came across this touching account of his trying to come to terms with the past when meeting with a photojournalist who covered the October events.

Twenty-six and a half years later, Thongchai Winichakul runs his fingers across the gloss of a black-and-white photograph that lies on his desk, on the fifth floor of the Humanities Building. A UW-Madison professor of history, he has the furrowed visage of a man who constantly battles the past — one who unearths it, who turns it in his hands, who works to discover its textures and blemishes. He speaks with a seriousness that conveys that history — his history — is not always pretty to behold.

The image on the page beneath Thongchai’s finger tips is just visible.

It depicts a young man being dragged across the ground by a piece of cloth around his neck…

That picture is of his friend, Jaruphong, who lost his life in the massacre. Someone whose death Thongchai, as a student leader, could not but feel responsible for.

Like many others who survived the massacre, he wrapped himself in a cocoon of guilt and shame, feeling somehow responsible for it all.

“The massacre was so bitter … lots of my friends blame themselves,” he says. “Me, too. Not in the sense that we made people die. We are rational enough to know that. But still, we are part of it.” Fear and indecision kept them from resolving past issues, including telling Jaruphong’s parents that their son was dead. “We were cowards,” he explains. And even if they had had the courage, they couldn’t find the words.

His story reflects maybe the ‘tact’ with which we as a nation talk about the events. Maybe we’re so keen to uphold the image of Thailand being a peaceful, Buddhist society that the narrative that’s passed on to the next generation fails to capture the young’s interest.

One response to “October

  1. Pingback: Bookish » Blog Archive » Thongchai on the Political Impasse·

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