Next week, several groups are planning to commemorate the tragedy of October 6, 1976. Indications suggest a large sum of ”mysterious” money has been made available to finance any group that can organise provocative commemorative projects.
For all Thais, the 40th anniversary of one of the most ghastly episodes in our modern history must serve as a reminder of several invaluable lessons.
First, it reminds us of Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
The October 6 carnage cannot be viewed in isolation from another historic moment for Thailand – the October 14, 1973 student uprising that overthrew the corrupt government in power. An estimated 50,000 unarmed students took to the streets in an unprecedented protest. Their victory brought a euphoric atmosphere as the new-found sense of empowerment among young idealists soared. It was highly unfortunate, then, that the triumph did not lead to the creation of supporting institutions that would help carry the students’ movement forward in a meaningful and sustainable manner. Such foundations could have sent the country down a path that avoided the heartbreak of October 6 two years later.
Instead, the ensuing years after the uprising were marked by chaos. The group of people ousted from power in 1973 scrambled to regain their grip. New groups of ultra right-wingers were created and trained to become their proxy fighters. Groups joined the conservative movement for different reasons but shared the common goal of suppressing the liberal students and their perceived excessive, unending demands. The three main groups – the Village Scouts, the Nawaphon and the militant Red Guars – became blood-thirsty monsters.
The students, meanwhile, had no idea what to do with their new-found political power. They merely continued in the same old pattern, which was to demand more of everything. They threatened more street protests if their garden-variety demands were not met. They became more vociferous, more imposing, more forceful and unyielding.
To both groups, the world was divided into black and white, with nothing in between. Both adopted the zero-sum attitude – my way or the highway. Both were blind to the large grey area of potential common ground for dialogue and compromise. The political pendulum was swinging wild and unhinged, left to right and vice versa. In hindsight, it was as clear as the blue sky that tragedy was awaiting the nation, once known as a land of plenty and peace.
Meanwhile, external factors seemed to exacerbate the distrust and hatred between the two ideologically opposing groups. The spread of communism in Southeast Asia after the fall of Vietnam to a leftist regime in 1975 and the ensuing communist rule in Laos and Cambodia sparked fears that Thailand would be the next “domino” to fall. Many students and idealist freedom-seekers began joining the communist movement, seeing an ideology that could replace the old paradigm of governance.
The second lesson to be learned from October 6, 1976 is that violence cannot solve any political problems. Violence begets violence, hate begets hate. As Dr Martin Luther King said: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy; instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.” After October 6, many students fled to the jungle to avoid prosecution, reinvigorating the ranks of communist insurgents with new blood. The subsequent internal battles ended in 1983 without any winners, and the most damaged party was the country.
The third lesson is that freedom and democracy, in the words of the current Thai Foreign minister, cannot be bought or acquired at the convenience store. Democracy doesn’t happen in an instant, and can’t be switched on like a television programme. Democracy in the United States suffered growing pains and a long period of ups and downs. In order for genuine democracy – not a half-baked, in-name-only form of governance – to take firm and healthy root in Thai society, everybody has to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work with a clear and well thought-out road map and implementation that includes a legal framework. That is what has been missing in Thailand for a very long time, during which a series of fraud-ridden elections have produced kleptocratic rule where conscience was trumped by wealth and materialism.
The fourth lesson, and perhaps the most important, is that our country is the most precious asset for all of us. Therefore, the national interest must come first, not that of any individual or group. The country must not be exploited as a battleground for personal vendettas and revenge, or to satisfy narrow and whimsical wants. It is larger than all of us combined, and as such we must not drag it down into the gutter, and the future of our children with it.
So we come to October 6, 2016. For anyone who is staging a commemoration, if they truly care about the value of lives lost on that day, they will feel the weight and lessons of history. It is too convenient to preach and to shout about democracy and take no responsibility for what happens in the days after the satisfaction of appearing at a podium or on stage and basking in 15 minutes of fame.
A few days ago, three unknown self-proclaimed intellectuals-cum-political analysts gave the current government a “fail” grade, and it became headline news. But society must ask itself what those individuals are doing for the country, except chatting. The task of paving the way towards a sustainable form of democratic government in Thailand is daunting and onerous. It is not for the faint-hearted with a head full of petty hatred and revenge.
This government, despite how it came to the office, is trying to undertake that task with an unprecedented sense of responsibility. The 20-year National Agenda is the vision it has set out for the country. It is trying to cure drug-resistant diseases like corruption and unscrupulous exercise of power that have plagued our society for a long time. It is replacing addictive populism with a civil state where handouts are being replaced by education for living a better and more balanced life. This is a chance for the Thai nation, not any particular individuals, to emerge as victor. As such, the government deserves a chance and our patience. It should receive our support and not constant provocation for dubious reasons far less worthy. If the October 6 heartbreak teaches us anything, it is that it must not be repeated.