By PONGADISORN JAMERBSIN (Research Student, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences), with input from MOTOKI LUXMIWATTANA (Master's 1st Year student, Graduate Schools of Law and Politics)
[Content warning: graphic descriptions of violence]
“The past 40 years, there’s no single day that I didn’t think about October 6. I was a second-year student, here at Thammasat University. During a demonstration I was always in charge of the speakers on the stage. We are part of the movement that brought down the dictatorship in 1973.”
It was October 5, 2016. Professor Thongchai Winichakul was then a well-respected expert on Thai nationalism teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was interviewed by the BBC.
“The stage is [sic] made up of two levels of drums. I hid behind the drums, I keep talking for, I have no idea for how long, maybe an hour or so. People know, remember what I say because I keep saying the same thing over and over…”
At this point he was overcome by a violent episode of PTSD. Recovering quickly, he continued, with moist eyes.
“Begging the police to stop. We are unarmed. Please stop shooting, we are unarmed. Please stop shooting, we are unarmed. Maybe a hundred times. I don’t know what else to say. I saw people lie down on the ground, near that building, I didn’t know, I didn’t realize until later that some of them were killed. I thought that they just, lie [sic] down.”
TIME magazine says the official death toll is 46. In Chris Baker and Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit’s “A History of Thailand”, survivors said it is more than 100. According to the digital archive “Documentation of October 6”, a project coordinated by Professor Puangthong Pawakapan, Ruamkatanyu Foundation staff who collected the bodies claimed it was 530. 3,094 students were arrested, 18 were held in custody for two years while they were court-martialed for communism and 11 other charges, including Thongchai.
Thongchai Winichakul, BBC News interview. 2016
It was October 6, 1976. Bangkok, Thailand.
TIME magazine calls it the darkest day in Thailand’s living memory. To this day, no perpetrators have been brought to justice yet. It took until the year 2000 until a small monument was allowed at the university. It is not taught in Thai schools and is almost impossible to find in textbooks.
Since absolute monarchy ended in a bloodless revolution in 1932, Thailand has been ruled most of the time by military dictators for decades until the students took to the streets and drove them out in 1973. Trying to regain power, they called upon extremist right-wing organizations they established. Having previously controlled the education and conscription system, they had a big pool of indoctrinated individuals to easily call upon and radicalize. They mobilized them to physically assault the left-wing and many activists got beaten up. A few were assassinated. They are the Village Scouts, the Nawaphon, and the Red Gaurs groups. As Professor Puangthong R. Pawakapan wrote in her book, “The Central Role of Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command in the Post-Counter-insurgency Period”: “It is generally understood that the Thai military government - particulary its anti-communist political wing, the ISOC - was the primary facilitator of the organization and indoctrination campaign towards the radical right-wing”.
During such turbulent times, the exiled dictators tried to enter Thailand as monks. The students and labor unions took to the streets again. The right-wing mobs swiftly organized a counter-protest and two protestors were lynched. Students at Thammasat University staged a play to commemorate this event. According to “Documentation of October 6,” the army-run radio station and 260 affiliated civilian stations said that the students were not protesting against the exiled dictators, but committing lèse-majesté (defaming the sovereign) and were stockpiling weapons to prepare for a communist takeover, citing a photo of the mock-lynching in the Bangkok Post. The newspaper Dao Siam published an article describing the students gathering in Thammasat as committing lèse-majesté and communist sedition using that photo. Into the night the military radio and affiliated stations urged citizens to gather near the university to bring the students to justice. Krisadang Nutcharut, a survivor, told the Khaosod English: "The call was to come out and kill students."
As part of their basic education, they were indoctrinated with the idea that the Thai royal family was sacrosanct. They were later radicalized and organized into right-wing groups by the ISOC, and were taught anti-communist ideology, since, for them, communists kill royal families, and anyone who thought differently from them must be a communist. This later top-down radicalization and organization by the state,accompanied by the “red scare” of that time was the main reason they became violent, and what set them apart from other Thais. To them, the mock-lynching of someone (allegedly) looking like the crown prince meant that the students wanted to destroy Thailand. A famous monk said something to the effect of to kill a communist is not a sin. So, it was clear to them what needed to be done.
About 15,000 right-wing extremists gathered near Thammasat University. The military, now reassured by the people rallying behind them, deployed the police: Normal cops. The Thai FBI. The Thai SWAT. The Thai riot police. Border patrol police who can handle assault rifles. And even the infamous border patrol paratrooper police, trained by the CIA in irregular warfare, who had done black ops in Laos, special forces, police officers only in name. They were armed with pistols, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles, assault rifles, frag grenades. Many of them wore bulletproof vests and helmets. The paratrooper border patrol police also brought heavy weapons: grenade launchers and mortars, and even a recoilless rifle, a sort of man-portable cannon for destroying bunkers or tanks.
The police and the right-wing mob blocked all the exits. Police boats guarded the river. Then at 5:30 AM they started shelling the campus with grenade launchers and mortars. They then moved to the university fence and sprayed the campus with automatic fire. Thousands of rounds were fired that day. Then they slowly advanced into the campus. The recoilless rifle team methodically shelled the classrooms one by one. They also threw frag grenades for good measure. The right-wing mob followed their lead and went in and beat up the students. Some of the right-wing mob also had pistols. Some photos show the right-wing mob violently attacking students even after they were taken into custody.
A few students had handguns just in case but they stood no chance. Only two police officers died.
The paratrooper border patrol police were also trained in psychological warfare, US-style. They drove wooden stakes into corpses as if exorcising some “evil communist spirit”. They made funeral pyres. They violated a female corpse with a wooden pole. Two or three students were lynched. A shoe was stuffed inside a mouth.
Of note is the gleeful nature of the whole operation. Footage exists, of them smoking and shooting, of the right-wing mob smiling and cheering as they whack a lynched corpse with a folded metal chair.
Later that day, the military overthrew the democratically-elected government. They used this event to justify their actions, claiming the students had an armory of weapons of war and were preparing for a communist revolution and regicide. Books were burnt. Political parties outlawed. Freedoms suppressed.
As a result, more than 3,000 college students fled to the jungles to join the Communist Party of Thailand, as is inscribed on the memorial plaque at Thammasat University. At its peak, the fighters would number 10,000. This deadly civil war would result in an average of 1,000 dead per year during the bloodiest two years, according to Baker and Phongpaichit's "A History of Thailand." Among these college students, 548 are recorded as killed in the fight, according to "Documentation of October 6."
The 18 students held in custody including Thongchai were released two years later among agreements of impunity for all parties on October 6 for the sake of national reconciliation. And under the condition that he never takes part in any political activities again.
Thongchai went back to school and devoted the rest of his life to understanding what had happened that fateful day.
Unfortunately, Thailand never learnt from that day. In 1992 the Black May Crackdown occurred, and in 2010 was the Savage May crackdown. Thailand held its first elections since the 2014 coup in March 2019, in which the coup leader won, but it was widely seen as an unfair election.
Thongchai retired so he can finish his book about that day which he has been working on for more than a decade. It will be published in March 2020. The title of the book is: “Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok”.
Very concise summary of the key points of the incident in a video.
Thongchai Winichakul, BBC interview. Includes high quality videos of the incident.
The journalist who witnessed it firsthand and took Pulitzer prize winning photos interviewed. High quality videos of the incident.
The journalist’s memoir.
Full interview of the above.
The newest article about this, in-depth.
In-depth. Many survivors’ accounts.
Detailed personal account of a survivor.
Newspaper article from that day.