BANGKOK: Thai university students and political activists on Thursday (Oct 6) marked the 40th anniversary of the Thammasat University massacre - the killing of students by state security forces and right-wing militia at the university's Tha Prajan campus in Bangkok.
The massacre, which took place in the morning of Oct 6, 1976 came after months of tension between right-wing groups and left-leaning university students, who were protesting the return of former military leaders Praphas Charusathien and Thanom Kittikachorn, as well as the political amnesty reportedly granted to them.
The two field marshals had been toppled by a popular uprising three years earlier and had a hand in the killing of student activists in 1973.
The incident saw heavily armed police and border police forces firing upon thousands of university students who had been inside the campus. Those who escaped were beaten up and some were killed by a right wing mob surrounding the university.
Officially, 46 people died, but survivors have said that there are many victims still unaccounted for.
Here is an exclusive preview of the documentary "Thais in Exile" pic.twitter.com/41F4h5wn04— Panu Wongcha-um (@PanuCNA) October 6, 2016
The massacre marked the end to a three-year period in which Thailand flirted with parliamentary democracy after decades of military rule. It would be more than a decade later that democracy was re-introduced by the military and the political elite.
THE BIG ESCAPE
“Many students were arrested here after the massacre - about 3,000 of them,” said Vipa Daomanee, who was a student activist at the time. “This is a lot of people. Authorities had also asked for leads so they could arrest other student activists who were not here. Many had to flee for their safety."
Thammasat University's Tha Prajan campus, the site of the 1976 massacre. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
One of the thousands of activists who fled Bangkok was Sutachai Yimprasert, who had allied himself with communist rebels in the countryside – a common path for many student activists back then. He sees many parallels between the political climate of the 1970s and that of the past 10 years.
“There are so many similarities between then and now," said Sutachai, who is now a historian at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University. “When we live under a dictatorship, those who disagree with the state cannot stay, so they have to flee the country. Or, in the past, they had to go to the countryside to join the rebels.”
An exhibition on the Thammasat University massacre (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
THAIS IN EXILE
There are hundreds of Thai political activists of various professional backgrounds now living abroad in exile, escaping political prosecution at home. Some of them left Thailand after the military coup in 2014.
Channel NewsAsia spoke to one of them, pro-democracy activist Suda Rangkupan, who continued her political activism online along with several other Thai activists.
“What we want is to change the country together and many share this view," said Suda. "I don’t want to say that I have fled the country, but rather I see being in exile as fighting from abroad."
Another Thai in exile that Channel NewsAsia spoke to is a filmmaker who did not want to be named. He is currently documenting and interviewing those living in exile in various parts of the world, some of whom survived the 1976 massacre.
A student taking photos at the Thammasat University massacre memorial on Thursday (Oct 6). (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
"I've spoken to other international filmmakers about my project," he said. "When people from other countries talk about political exile, it usually involves tragic events like war and genocide. But in recent years, many in Thailand are being prosecuted for their social media posts or some other minor thing."
The university students who had fled to the countryside after the massacre were granted political amnesty years later, but for those now living in exile, the path to political pardon is yet unclear.
In his speech after the recent political referendum, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who has been clearly irritated by online activism said his government would act against “those who persist in damaging the country using online media and information sent from abroad”.
“The government will perform its duties to safeguard our national security from these actions," he said.