Lessons of history Participants in the Oct 14, 1973, uprising see echoes of the past in today's student protests and hope for better results

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Lessons of history  Participants in the Oct 14, 1973, uprising see echoes of the past in today's student protests and hope for better results

At least 200,000 people, mostly students, take to the streets of Bangkok on Oct 13, 1973, to protest the earlier arrest of 13 dissidents calling for a new constitution.

After decades of military authoritarianism, student demonstrators in Bangkok began to call for the restoration of constitutional rule and a return to democracy. In the face of the challenge, the entrenched generals refused to negotiate and arrested the protest leaders, claiming they were influenced by communism. It paved the way for the popular uprising of Oct 14, 1973.

The dispersal of the massive crowd soon descended into violence. Soldiers killed 77 people and wounded 857. In the aftermath, the so-called three tyrants — Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, Field Marshal Praphas Charusathien and Colonel Narong Kittikachorn — went into exile. It culminated in the collapse of the military dictatorship and the royal appointment of a new prime minister.

In light of this, Life spoke with participants in the historic event. Growing up under military boots, they were not allowed to express political views. In classrooms, they were taught to uphold the three pillars that unite the nation — nation, religion, monarchy.

“Ministers had been installed. We were forced to remember their names and faces,” one of them recalled.

After 48 years, they still remember the hard-earned victory, but it has been overshadowed by subsequent events, including the brutal student massacre on Oct 6, 1976, which remains a dark chapter in Thai history. Now in their 60s, they hope that the new generation will carry the unfinished work forward.

Erased from history

“My father burnt all letters and political books. We had got them from an underground bookshop, including those by Jit Phumisak. They are very eye-opening,” said Lineewalee Netarpa, 62. Her parents destroyed them after authorities began to conduct house-to-house searches for political dissent in Nakhon Ratchasima, in Isan, in 1973.

Her parents encouraged an interest in politics, but they did not speak out because her father was a civil servant. She also corresponded with a senior who went to high school in Bangkok. He was one of the student leaders.

Lineewalee said military rule led to public frustration because authorities maintained surveillance in Nakhon Ratchasima. The military government also revoked the constitution and dissolved parliament. On Oct 13, 1973, students wanted to join the protests in Bangkok, but were locked up in schools.

“Soldiers were everywhere. They were standing guard outside. Teachers asked us to protest inside for safety,” she said.

For her, the 1973 popular uprising represented a victory for the people over military dictatorship. She compared it to “the golden sky”, which is the catchphrase of the poem titled October 14 by Visa Khanthap. However, the post-uprising period was nothing like a victory.

“The event seemed as if it never occurred. It was not mentioned in class. When the massacre took place [at Thammasat University] on Oct 6, 1976, nothing happened here in Isan. I only knew that they pit pratu ti maeo [closed the door and hit the cats — a local idiom which means a turkey shoot],” she said.

Lineewalee’s friend the senior disappeared after the 73 uprising. She received a last letter in which he said he would join the protest at Thammasat University. After the situation returned to normal, she started to search for him.

“I contacted his family, but he was nowhere to be found. I contacted his school in Bangkok, but his name was removed. I thought, ‘He has already gone’,” she said.

Lineewalee said the current student movement reminds her of the popular uprising of Oct 14, 1973, but there is little chance of another “victory”. In those days, people were united to remove Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn from power. However, they are now divided and ruled.

“Take the matter further. Don’t use violence and waste life. It is a long journey,” she added.

Fooled in a game

“The fall of the army helicopter in Nakhon Pathom was very scandalous. Animal carcasses were found around the crash site. Passengers on board, including army officers and a movie star, returning from a hunting spree in Thungyai game sanctuary,” said Yao Veerakitti, 66, who lives in Bangkok.

She called herself luk jin, Thai citizens who are children of Chinese-born parents, who could not voice any objection, but it did not prevent her from learning about current affairs from newspapers. She remembered the hunting scandal because it paved the way for the 1973 uprising.

“After the crash, nine students at Ramkhamhaeng University were expelled [for satirising the military junta in a book]. Since then, I have taken an interest in politics,” she said.

On Oct 13, 1973, she left school and took a bus to the mass demonstration at Democracy Monument. It was an unforeseen event in which around half-a-million people eventually gathered to protest. However, she returned home before the crowd marched to the palace.

“I felt we won a victory over the three tyrants. They had taken over posts in enterprises and organisations. We were very happy. But following the Oct 6, 1976, massacre, we found that we had been fooled. The winner is the chess player who manages to remove conflict and runs the country,” Yao said.

For her, the legacy of the 1973 uprising lies in its creation of student activism. The event forced her to question the meaning of life, because she learned about the underprivileged such as peasants and labourers.

“Students started to explore their society. By working together, we discovered our power and potential for making change,” Yao said.

However, she believes people will not achieve democracy unless power is completely usurped, because protesters always use the principle of non-violence only to be attacked in return.

“Let that be a lesson to us. We can’t follow Gandhi unless there is negotiation behind the scenes, which leads to half-blind democracy. History has taught that no ruler will descend the throne. However, I pin my hopes on the new generation,” she said.

Moving forward

“Field Marshal Thanom staged a self-coup [in 1971]. Many pro-junta politicians also demanded bananas [benefits] in return for backing the regime,” said Wichian Visutanakon, 65, who learned from a senior studying at Thammasat University. At the time, politics were not discussed in high school.

Other public scandals included corruption in military circles and conflicts between army and police officers over nonsensical issues. Col Narong Kittikachorn reportedly damaged a police station to show off his power.

On Oct 13, 1973, Wichian joined the protest at Thammasat University in the morning. Protesters marched to Democracy Monument. There, leaders delivered speeches on a wide range of issues from the constitution to the crackdown. After the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej met with student leaders, they started to disperse.

“However, officers clashed with demonstrators in the early hours of Oct 14, 1973. Some of them stormed into a nearby canal. At the time, I had already returned home and gone to bed because I had not slept all night. It was not until the afternoon that I learned about the clash,” he said.

Wichian believes the uprising showed the power of people to create change. In the aftermath, students joined rural camps to understand the plight of peasants. Nonetheless, the event was eclipsed by the bloodshed on Oct 6, 1976.

“Their activism might have conflicted with the state. Authorities attempted to consolidate power, for example, by organising the village scout movement [to combat communism]. They waged campaigns via multiple channels ranging from army-owned radio stations to newspapers. Students were totally defeated,” he said.

However, Wichian remains hopeful because our society has progressed.

“In 1973, those who took an interest in politics were only a small group of students and intellectuals, but now that has expanded. They may not turn the sky upside down, but they have greater leverage,” he said.

“We have passed down the dream of an equal society. It still holds true today. Young people are taking the matter further by calling for a welfare state and monarchy reform. It is taking clearer shape.”

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