Tuesday, February 19, 2008

6 October 1976 and the real cover-up

Thai Prime minister Samak Sundaravej, in interviews with CNN and Al Jazeera last week, denied the occurrence of a bloody massacre on the campus of a Bangkok university in 1976.

There is more to this story than Samak's big mouth, the flash point of recent outrage.

The massacre was never investigated. Nobody of any importance was ever held to account for it. There are clues that it did not occur spontaneously, that it may have been premeditated. Some evidence suggest the massacre may have been state-sponsored.

Denial inveriably tends to have the opposite effect of a cover-up. And consider that this is what has happened in the wake of the prime minister's remark. Ten days after his denial, the newspapers are still talking about it. Democracy protest survivors of 1976 have climbed into the national spotlight. The newspaper Thai Rath recently called for an academic-led inquiry into the massacre. Thongchai Winichakul, a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is not only spotlighting the actual death toll, he is now raising other more questions. Like, who was really behind the massacre?
  • "Did anyone notice that the Border Patrol Police at 2am on October 6 started from Hua Hin and arrived at Thammasat at 6am?
  • "A military officer with an important role in suppressing communists and who allowed for military officer close to him to coordinate with many groups. This person later became very big in government and outside of government." Some men now sitting on the Privy Council have careers that sound like that.
The effect -- the inevitable effect -- of the remarks of the Prime Minister has been to open a closed box labeled "1976."

This should come as no surprise, it always works this way. The press and civil society groups become animated in predicable ways when a leader denies a known fact; they view it as their task to spotlight any fact that a leader denies. Hence, the public denial of facts draws at least "equal and opposite" attention to the facts. So much so that we could speak of a "Law of Denial." The more a leader denies a known fact, the more attention gets drawn to the fact.

Which leads us to ask: Are we to believe that Samak -- a successful, media savvy politician -- is so ignorant of the Law of Denial? Perhaps he is making the most of his big-mouth reputation to further calculated political objective. "Was Samak being more cunning than I thought?" asked blogger Bangkok Pundit recently. He adds, "I am still not completely persuaded, but how things are playing out, it is becoming more plausible."

Who are Samak's enemies? Consider the basic political landscape in 2008. Samak's government promises to "undo" the 2006 coup which some say a member of the privy council, had instigated. In another post, Bangkok Pundit wrote: "His feud with Prem is long-standing and goes back since at least 1983, and one only needed to witness Samak's antics before the election to realize there is no love lost."

Some enemies of Samak -- men who may have helped to orchestrate the massacre of 6 October 1976 -- may stand more to lose by in any re-examination of the events of October 6 than Samak himself (who may or may not have been behind inflammatory radio broadcasts). And Samak may know his enemies to be may be more culpable than he. Samak may be willing to take a small hit, if it means his political opponents face a bigger hit.

The loud-mouthed denial of historical fact by a man with a reputation for shooting off his mouth could have several explanations, but effecting a cover-up of the massacre was almost certainly not one of them.

However, this is not to say no one else has been trying to cover-up of the massacre.

I saw no freshly cut flowers beside the monument to the 1976 massacre victims at Thammasat University last week. If young Thais know little of the massacre of 1976, don't blame them. The exclusion of the massacre from Thai history textbooks and from the school curriculum more generally points to a real cover-up; the censoring of TV documentaries about 1976 speaks to a cover-up; the absence of a monument to the dead students of Thammasat campus until 1996 also speaks to a cover-up.

Who was the real cover-up intended to protect?
* Other questions were raised about 6 October 1976 in Paul Handley's lucid history of the Chakri Dynasty (which is banned in Thailand).
Photo: by Jotman. Shows 1976 memorial at Bangkok's Thammasat University, site of the massacre.
Note: this post was edited on 2/21 because it seemed too long.


  1. What does Mr. Jotman say to the following: http://www.bangkokpost.com/breaking_news/breakingnews.php?id=126028

  2. Anonymous, Thanks for pointing out the article. Chalerm defends PM over 1976 student uprising

    (BangkokPost.com) - Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung defended Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej . . . .

    Mr Chalerm, who claimed he was at the shooting scene, said Mr Samak does not have any links in the massacre . . .

    "I was there, on the early morning of Oct 6," he told reporters.
    "There was a police officer who was drunk. And he was the one who made his gun go off. I was there beside him. . . .

    Mr Samak's alleged involvement in the uprising erupted after he said in an interview with CNN that only "one unlucky person" was killed in the uprising.

    Three possibilities here:

    1. He's a suck-up. Chalerm wants to win favor of his boss Samak, and will say anything if he thinks it helps his political fortunes.

    2. Charlerm is helping Samak to keep the controversy simmering, keep 1976 in the headlines until the focus shifts to the role others may have played in the massacre. (An extension of the "clever-plot theory" of Samak's denial).

    3. It's part of a cover-up.

    I really don't think it is #3. This is not how you go about covering something up. Could be 1 or 2.


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