By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Both sides of the political divide have been invoking history as a tool against their opponents, as the political conflict rages on beneath the surface nearly a year and a half after the May 2014 coup.
From the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra and anti-junta side came a higher profile commemoration of the death of anti-junta taxi driver Nuamthong Praiwan by no less than Thaksin’s younger sister, former premier Yingluck Shinawatra. On Oct. 31, 2006, Nuamthong rammed his taxi into an army tank in the aftermath of the 2006 coup and later ended his protest in suicide by hanging himself. Yingluck praised Nuamthong for his “sacrifice” and called him a man with “a great heart.” Leaders of the anti-junta, Redshirt umbrella group United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship were seen laying a wreath at the spot Nuamthong committed suicide while a left-leaning foundation dedicated a conference room to him.
As the years pass, Nuamthong seems to attract greater interest and exaltation, particularly now that Thailand is under military rule again.
It’s now convenient for those opposing the junta to praise Nuamthong, even someone like Yingluck who never mentioned him when she was prime minister.
From the other side, there’s the publication of a new history book by the military regime as well as an army-built “history park” and museum called Rajabhakti Park containing seven 13.9-meter statues of seven past kings in Hua Hin. The park is now under investigation for alleged financial irregularities, but that’s a topic for another column.
History is often selectively invoked. People use or manipulate the past – it’s been said – for the sake of legitimizing themselves in the present and shaping the future.
While you can’t change the past you can manipulate, edit, internalize, forget, rewrite or even reinvent it. History is defenseless – go back not so far and its players are dead and unable to keep the record straight.
Invoking the past implicitly reminds us who we are – but it’s always a selective process and colored by who we think we are or ought to be. Our versions of history today are always about what’s happening right now and in the future than they are a reliable record of the past itself.
The past can be manipulated partly due to the fact that most people have no certain way to know or verify whether a claim about what happened is accurate. (Think about the continued debate about the role of the so-called “men in black” who clashed with the army back in 2010, allegedly one army faction waging an invisible war on another. Others say they were there to spare Redshirts from loss of life. Yet, today, there’s no consensus on who they were or their motives.)
Also a fiercely contested subject is the act of remembering and disremembering the role of the so-called The Promoters (Khana Ratsadon), who led the revolt which ended absolute monarchy in 1932.
June 24, the day of the revolt, was officially celebrated as National Day from 1939 only to be demoted into oblivion in 1960 as the tide of military dictatorship surged along with the revival of ultra-royalism.
Today, most young Thais are not even aware that June 24 was once our National Day and only a handful of democracy supporters critical of the royal institution commemorate the date. Attempts continue by conservative, ultra-royalist forces for Thailand to collectively forget this event and unwrite its significance from history.
The first declaration made by The Promoters after the revolt succeeded is today controversial and hardly cited by the general public due to its scathing criticism of the monarchy.
Pinyaphan Pojanalawan, author of “Birth of ‘Thailand’ Under Dictatorship” noted that today, one of the prevailing arguments “repeatedly espoused” by those on the “conservative and autocratic” side is that the 1932 revolt was “prematurely staged” and attempts are made to erase the memory of the 1932 revolt.
Even the less-distant past is often selectively remembered. How many Redshirts will care to remember, years from now, their comrades who fired M79 grenades toward a crowd of their opponents in 2014 or torched Khon Kaen’s provincial hall in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown against them in 2010?
Both sides seem only to want to remember what’s convenient to supporting their narratives.
I was given the same black-and-white selective treatment during my second detention without charge by the junta when one major general told me during the interrogation a story about how through the ages, the army has defended this country from foreign invaders, a less than implicit reminder that I should be grateful to them. Nothing about military repression of Thai citizens through the decades through numerous coups or corruptions by past junta leaders such as Field Marshal Sarit Thanarath was ever mentioned in his convenient tale, however.
The challenge lies in not treating the malleable past as a tool to control and manipulate the present and future, but in discovering the complexity, irony and diversity in the past and engaging in a healthy debate in hope that we can become more tolerant and open-minded.
Pravit Rojanaphruk is a senior staff writer and can be followed on Twitter @PravitR