Tue, Oct 04, 2016 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: University massacre still casts shadow in Thailand

AFP, BANGKOK

Student Chutavuth Savetasavanond on Sept. 21 sits next to a memorial commemorating the Oct. 6, 1976, student massacre at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Photo: AFP

Under leaden monsoon skies, Seri Sirinupong watches teams of youngsters warm up on Thammasat University’s soccer pitch, the scene of a brutal student massacre 40 years ago by Thai security forces and ultra-monarchist militias.

Like many survivors, Seri will never forget the horrors of Oct. 6, 1976 — one of the darkest episodes in Thailand’s turbulent modern history.

“There was blood all over the football field,” the 77-year-old recalls of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

“I don’t know how I survived, maybe it was divine intervention,” said Seri, a former civil servant who was jailed for two years for joining the protests.

In Thailand’s long history of political violence and coups, the Thammasat University massacre stands out for its brutality.

Pro-democracy students had massed in revulsion at the return to Thailand of an ousted former dictator after a three-year exile, but Thai security forces, aided by royalist mobs, ended the protest with an attack that saw possibly scores of students shot, battered or stabbed to death — with others hung from trees inside the campus.

The violence ended a brief three-year flirtation with democracy and ushered in another 16 years of military-led rule.

No state official has ever been held accountable for the deaths.

Thai generals are again in control of the nation.

The latest coup in 2014 — the army’s 12th successful power grab — came four years after troops once again turned their guns on pro-democracy protesters on Bangkok’s streets.

“It’s a loop,” said Chutavuth Savetasavanond, 21, an international studies student, standing near the gates to Thammasat’s riverside campus where the massacre began. “One moment of democracy, then dictatorship, then democracy and then dictatorship.”

Thailand has come a long way since 1976 when the then staunch US-ally seemed poised to fall to communism like many Southeast Asian nations. Four decades on, Thailand’s neighbors are either authoritarian one-party states or emerging democracies.

Thailand is stuck somewhere in between — unable to break its cycle of military interventions or embed democratic government.

For the students who gathered in huge numbers at Thammasat in 1976, momentum was on their side.

Their protests began in late September against the return of former dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, who had been forced into exile three years earlier by another student-led uprising at the university.

By the first days of October thousands had massed at Thammasat, buoyed by their numbers and determination to block any potential comeback by Thanom, but tensions were high.

Radio broadcasts had for weeks decried the left-wing Thammasat as a den of communist insurgency bent on toppling the monarchy — an institution shielded from criticism by law.

Then on Oct. 4 students staged a play on campus re-enacting the lynching of two activists by police.

Deliberately or not, one of the student actors bore a passing resemblance to Thailand’s Crown Prince.

The spark was lit.

Security forces, many armed with automatic rifles, surrounded the university backed by two royalist and vehemently anti-communist militias — the Village Scouts and the Red Gaurs.

At about dawn on Oct. 6 the first shots rang out.

The military government that later seized power claimed the students fired first, something protesters have always denied. Officially 46 people perished — all protesters — although survivors believe the true toll was more than 100.

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