A dirty history

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(ประวัติศาสตร์สกปรกของไทย)

The new prime minister of Thailand has outraged many by refusing to admit that an infamous massacre ever occurred. In two separate interviews Samak Sundaravej claimed that only one person died on Oct. 6, 1976, when police and paramilitaries stormed Thammasat University, killing at least 46 and forcing thousands into hiding. He denied that he provoked the violence along with other rightists, saying that it is “a dirty history.”

He’s right about that. But there’s a lot more to this dirty history than a single day of bloodshed or the marginal role that the prime minister may have played in it. Violence on the scale of Oct. 6 does not erupt unexpectedly. It is the finale to a thousand other lesser events. It is the day-to-day writ large.

In a doctoral thesis submitted to Cornell University last year, Tyrell Haberkorn follows one of the trails of repeated, silent incidents that culminated in the mayhem of 1976: the unsolved murders of dozens of farmers’ leaders in the north of Thailand.

The farmers became targets in part because they were trying to organize their fellows when their country was a hot spot in the Cold War. With communist neighbors and ideologues calling for the downfall of Bangkok, modest demands for rent relief and land reform were enlarged and distorted.

But that they made demands at all, Haberkorn argues, was already cause to aggravate landholders who felt that “the farmers’ claims challenged their public, and self, image as generous individuals who took care of the people who worked their rice fields.” By expressing their needs as rights, rather than privileges, the farmers crossed the line from acceptable request into unacceptable protest.

The response was calculated and unforgiving. In mid-1975, 21 leaders of the Farmers’ Federation of Thailand were killed, eight in Chiang Mai alone. Using the same methods as those of the 2003 war on drugs, the killers came in broad daylight, unconcerned to hide themselves. And like in 2003 the official response was to treat the dead not as victims but as persons who somehow deserved whatever they got, a category of people to which ordinary rules didn’t apply.

The story of Intha Sribunruang, which Haberkorn retells in detail, is illustrative. Intha (above) was a 45-year-old gardener who had sold his paddy fields to pay the school fees for his five children. He had served as a local government official and was keenly concerned for the welfare of other villagers in Chiang Mai.

After a new land rent control act was passed in 1974 Intha travelled around the province to inform others of its terms and how farmers could exercise them. His work angered sub-district officers and landholders who were doing their best to prevent people from knowing about the new law and how to use it.

On the morning of July 30, 1975, Intha was at home alone when two men on a motorbike stopped outside. One dismounted and asked to buy some cigarettes from the family’s small general store. As Intha was giving the man his change, he pulled a pistol and killed Intha instantly.

Again as in 2003, the police in 1975 cited a lack of evidence and uncooperative witnesses as among the reasons for closing their inquiries. The provincial commander demanded to see proof not with which to catch Intha’s killers but rather with which to show that the target was really a farmers’ leader.

Of the 1975 killings, only in Intha’s case was anyone ever arrested. But despite admitting to having been paid to do the job, the accused later reversed his statement in court and walked free shortly thereafter.

The killings had the desired effect. Support for the farmers’ federation waned. The public was obliged to bear witness to crimes on which the state declined to act and refused anyone else the opportunity to do otherwise. The stage was set for the following October.

Haberkorn’s question is not so much about why it was that the killers could not be found in 1975 but why up to today, over three decades later, they and the persons behind the murders still cannot be named, let alone tried.

The answer lies in the nature of dirty history itself. Acknowledged histories are not dirty. Secret histories are. Thailand’s history is dirty not because stuff happened, but because even now nobody is able to tell the truth about what really went on, or name names.

This inability is largely the result of police, prosecutors and judges altogether failing to do their jobs. Without criminal procedure, no official records exist from which to draw a coherent picture of what occurred or why. Without this much, even a prime minister can cast doubt on established facts before a global television audience. No one was caught, so was there anything wrong? And did it really happen anyway?

Thailand’s dirty history is an example of what arises when the rule of law is willfully and consistently undermined. It is an example of what happens when constitutional order is shamelessly displaced and parliamentary authority trivialized, both from without and within. For as long as these practices continue so too will there be dirty history, not only in the past, but also into the present.

Source: Thailand’s dirty history

Further reading:

States of transgression: Politics, violence & agrarian transformation in Northern Thailand (Tyrell Haberkorn, Cornell University, 2007)

Without criminal justice history too is lost (AHRC)

Thailand’s struggle for constitutional survival (article 2)

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