Forty years ago this month, students in Thailand were beaten, shot, raped and killed at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
You might have seen that famous black and white photo of a hanging at the university, it was on the university football ground and there are crowds of people around. That scene was also televised nationwide.
Decades on, no one has ever been charged. There’s barely any official records, and the families of the victims have keep silent out of fear.
Kannikar Petchkaew takes a look at this blind spot in Thai history.
This commemoration event for the 40th anniversary of the student massacre ended with a song.
Composed by a political prisoner in jail, the lyrics say that through the dark days and heavy storms, people will endure. By brightening the stars above, their hearts and spirit will lighten.
The commemoration was held at Thammasat University, the very place where the massacre occurred in 1976.
At least 46 students were shot, beaten to death or hung from trees after they staged a mass protest about the return of an exiled military ruler.
The military and the arch royalists accused them of being communists and against the monarchy.
The military, and later paramilitary troops, surrounded the university and opened fire.
Derek Williams was a young photojournalist who at that time had just arrived in Thailand, also known as the ‘land of smiles’.
He covered the university incident with a friend and was changed forever.
“As we sat silent in the car, he said that’s the end of the land of the smile for me,” remembers Neal Ulevich, the photojournalist who took that iconic image.
“I couldn’t find anybody watching me, everybody was transfixed by the image of a man with the folding chair beating the corpse at the head. So I shot a few frames. I was mindful of the possibility of the crowd turning on me, then I went over to the other trees photographed it all and then hailed the taxi,” Ulevich recounted.
That picture shocked people around the globe.
But here in Thailand, it’s almost as though that day never happened.
No state apology has ever been issued, and no officials have been held to account for the deaths. Society, too, has turned a blind eye.
“Keep in mind that October 6th was not the first case of serious crime for which up to now the perpetrators got impunity,” says Thongchai Winichakul, who was a student leader in 1976.
Winichakul left the country that year and is now a professor in the United States.
“The October 6 from what we see is the opposite of Thai-ness. The brutality is extreme dehumanization to a free level and the silence and partial silence after forty years. That tells us about Thai society. How it deals with atrocity. How it deals with injustice,” says Winichakul.
But others argue that it is more complicated than that.
“Why are we still quiet and silent today? Because we cannot talk, because we cannot speak the truth. Let’s come and face it,” says Anjana Suvarnananda, who was student at that time.
“So for many years the people, immediately after, we were living and growing up in the dark. The only safe way to go on and to live is to keep silent and keep your head down,” Suvarnananda commented.
The crackdown ended a brief three-year flirtation with democracy and ushered in another 16 years of military-led rule.
And the massacre was never mentioned in Thai modern history.
“And if you think about the people after my generation. Who were not allowed to know what has happened on that day. Who wouldn’t study in their history books. Who wouldn’t study in their social science books. Nothing. How would they know?” asked Suvarnananda.
The blind spot has led to efforts to trawl through the archives, to identify evidence and witnesses – for the first time in forty years.
Key details about what happened that day are still unknown, says Winichakul.
“There were five people hanged. Not one, not two. Five. Two of them we don’t know yet who they were,” explained Winichakul.
Thailand is once again under military rule, the last coup d’etat in 2014 came four years after soldiers once more opened fire on pro-democracy protesters on Bangkok's streets.
People in the country are careful about what they say.
“We have reached out to about a dozen of relatives of the victims. So far, all but two, begged us, asked us. Not. They don’t want to come up in public. They wouldn’t want the public to know them. Because they know that October 6 is too sensitive,” Winichakul says/
Asia Calling experienced similar responses when asking around about October 6, 1976.
Numerous requests for interviews with the victims’ families were turned down.
For the survivors, asking for justice is unthinkable.
But at the very least they do want to see the victims recognized, for their names to be read out loud in public, after all the years. The names of the victims that Thailand has never heard.