If there is one good thing about Samak Sundaravej becoming the present Prime Minister of Thailand, it is that he has brought with him the shadow cloaking Thai society.
Into the light for all to ponder
The Prime Minister claimed in a CNN interview that on October 6, 1976 there was no massacre and thrice he insisted that “…just one died, … no deaths; … one unlucky guy being beaten and being burnt in Sanam Luang. Only one guy died that day.” (Bangkok Post, February 11, 2008).
The Interior Minister under Thanin Kraivixian, on the other hand, told a group of Thai students in France on June 4, 1977 that the October 6, 1976 killing led to 48 deaths, 4 of them were burnt to death. The then Interior Minister was the very same Samak Sundaravej.
Nicholas Bennett, a member of the Coordinating Group for Religion in Society, perhaps the first indigenous human rights organization in Thailand, estimated that some 300 people were killed and about 11,000 arrested on charges of being threat to society. (Bangkok Post, Postbag, February 14, 2008). Amorn Amornrattananont, who submitted petitions demanding an investigation into the tragedy on behalf of a group of activists and relatives of the October 6, 1976 victims maintained that no less than 41 people died that day. (Bangkok Post, February 19, 2008) Official death toll, however, puts number of death at 46 , hundreds more wounded and about 3,000 arrested.
There are many ways to think about the October 6 incident. Some might want to distinguish the lies from the facts, while others might want those responsible for the atrocity, the direct perpetrators and those behind them, to be held accountable. Here I am interested in why Khun Samak in 2008, as the elected Prime Minister of Thailand, as such representing a large number of people, and his voice will be heard by a lot more, insisted that only one person was killed, because he said he saw only one killed on that day, which is at odds with both his own account 31 years ago and the official figure.
If one proceeds on the assumption that the Prime Minister did not lie to the world, then he must have truly believed in what he has said and/or that he has forgotten what actually took place. The problem is he might not be the only one in this society who has forgotten.
This article is an attempt to raise the question: what do such belief and amnesia do to Thai society? Put it another way, what would happen to Thai society if the stories of brutality on the dawn of October 6, 1976 has been falsely toned down, attributed to luck, relegated to marginal space in the Thai collective memory, and eventually placed on the road to be completely forgotten? Perhaps one should begin by looking at other experiences of atrocity elsewhere.
The partition of India in 1947-1948 resulted in more than one million deaths and some 16 million people uprooted. The experience was so unspeakable that even those who have made some compromises with this past often times chose not to talk about it. Identifying the carnage and exodus as a period of madness, many victims have chosen to locate the violence outside normality and disown their memories. In an interview conducted in February 1997, 50 years after the incident, Meenakshi Verma reported that a victim asked: “Daughter, why talk about evil days? In our religion it is prohibited to even utter or think about evil acts. If you do so, it is like actually committing the acts…. Why I do not want to speak about partition? The reason is that the murderers could not be caught, nor were they punished. People who killed and looted were strangers. No one could have recognized them.”
In Generations of the Holocaust (1982), a victim who survived Nazi concentration camp wrote: “After liberation the one desire was to sleep, to forget and to be reborn. At first there was a wish to talk incessantly about one’s experiences: this gave way to silence, but learning to be silent was not easy. When the past was no longer talked about, it became unreal, a figment of one’s imagination.”
These are the words of the victims, some of whom have chosen to be silent nurtured by flight into fantasy and some because others have forgotten everything. Some might even cry silently and it has to be silent because no one talks about it. In 1996, the mother of Poranee Jullakrin, a second year accountancy student of Thammasat, shot and killed on October 6, 1976, her body found with her arms and legs all broken, had this to say :“My daughter was cute and polite. Why had someone beaten her up like that? I have cried all through the last twenty years. No one is responsible. Such a loss to nothing , my daughter. I don’t know whom to talk to, whom to complain to. There was no one to go to. No one came to ask me…no one.”
But what have the perpetrators of atrocity chosen? In his research on “October 6 in the Memory of the Rightists: From Victory to Silence (Still Victorious), 1976-2006” presented at Thammasat University in November 2007, University of Wisconsin noted historian, Thongchai Winichakul, himself one of the victims of the October 6 incident, pointed out that due to its extreme political violence, generally the incident is disowned in public as a part of an wounded history of modern Thailand. Based on interviews with a number of perpetrators of violence, he has found that most have chosen to be silent during the past 30 years. But their silence results from different ways of seeing their own roles in relation to the brutality: some are still proud of their “heroic deeds”; some feel that they had been used as pawns; some maintain that they have become scapegoats while those who orchestrated it continue to live beyond reprisal; some insist that the present cannot be used to judge the past and hence their action then; and yet some others claim to have forgotten what they did or said about the incident thirty years ago.
There are three kinds of amnesia at work here. The victims’ amnesia is a psychological device essential for many trapped in the brutal past they had experienced in order to help them cope with the irreversibility of their pains and to get them through lives in the present. But the perpetrators’ amnesia is different. When intentional, it is a social device designed to avoid responsibility for the atrocious acts of the past so that they could continue in their present positions. The third type of amnesia, however, is more important. It is the collective amnesia of a society that deceives itself into believing that nothing has happened, or if it did – very few people were affected and that it lacked any kind of intentionality and hence accountability is not an issue.
Trivialization of the atrocity in terms of the number of people killed or cause(s) of the violence (“It began with a drunk policeman.”) paves the way for collective amnesia. Aided with the demand to solve pressing problems of the present, such as the rising cost of living, the proliferations of drugs and crimes, trivialization works by relegating past brutality to a marginal space reserved for the dustbin of collective amnesia, which in turn, allows a society to proceed without feeling guilty for its past crimes. But what will collective amnesia do to the future of that society?
In the most recent research on the October 6, 1976 massacre mentioned above, the researcher has found that none among the perpetrators have accepted that what they did then was wrong. None have felt guilty about the extreme violence done to many innocents at dawn of that fateful day in front of the majestic palace and the sacred temple in the heart of the capital city.
When the brutal October 6 incident returned to the public spotlight with the recent parliamentary debate, most people according to the latest Abac Poll consider the revision of the massacre history of October 6 to be irrelevant to their present lives. (Bangkok Post, February 22, 2008) Perhaps, the state of amnesia about October 6, 1976 is not only among the perpetrators but others in Thai
society as well.
In “The invisible holocaust and the journey as exodus” (1999), Ashis Nandy (TFF Associate) wrote that: “History lies not by misrepresenting reality but by exiling emotions.” If history is a mirror, then with emotions already exiled through collective amnesia, the reflection in that mirror will be a distorted portrait of the self, in this case - a collective self that is void of guilt feeling about the time when members of this society stood by and allowed such killings of the innocents to take place in this land.
Among many human emotions, guilt is crucial precisely because it is about something one has done in the past and knows deep inside that it is wrong. When present, it helps one feel sorry for his/her past mistake. When absent, it robs one’s capability of reflexive feeling necessary to prevent it from repeating past mistakes.
A society that culturally drugs itself into collective amnesia void of any guilt feeling of its own past mistakes risks living in the shadow of another brutal atrocity that lies waiting.