Near-Forgotten Struggles Against Dictatorship and Repression

A dozen people quietly marked the suicide of anti-coup cabby Nuamthong Praiwan on Tuesday night in Bangkok, a day that for many was either Halloween or just the last day of October.

This is not unusual but symptomatic of a society with a short political memory. Nuamthong died 11 years ago in a dramatic suicide-protest against the 2006 coup makers by hanging himself from a pedestrian overpass on Vibhavadee Rangsit Road on the night of Oct. 31, 2006.

It’s unclear if Nuamthong is destined to be only a tiny footnote in modern Thai political history, plagued with coups and unrest. What’s clear however is that today he is remembered only by a small group of pro-democracy activists, political historians and politics junkies. To the rest of Thailand, the sacrifice made by Nuamthong may not have even taken place, since there is little memory of it. Most of the mainstream media in Thailand didn’t even bother to report about those who showed up underneath the pedestrian overpass to remember and pray for his soul earlier this week.

This is in contrast to the current military regime, which remembered enough to dispatch security forces and special branch police to note those who thought to show up.

To remember is to be, to exist. Remembering is indeed vital. The struggle for freedom, equality and democracy in Thailand is bound to continued to be weakened because many cannot remember past achievements, failures, sacrifices, courage and brutality.

How many Thais below 60 can still remember the day influential teacher and political prisoner Krong Chadawang was extrajudicially executed under the order military dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat by a firing squad for being a threat to his regime?

It was May 31, 1961. Krong waved his right hand and shouted: “Down with dictatorship! Long live democracy!” before he was tied up and shot in his home province of Sakhon Nakhon. Many Thais not only forget the date, but don’t even know who Krong was.

The same could be said of Haji Sulong Tomina, a Thai-Malay leader charged with treason in 1948 and mysteriously killed in 1954.

For workers fighting for labor rights, the Thaikriang textile strike of July 1, 1993, in Samut Prakarn province, where a large factory was shut down for weeks, was the stuff of legend. It’s a legend only among those interested in the history of labor rights or union leaders today, however. Three-thousand workers, virtually all, led by female union leader Arunee Srito were involved. Eventually those “old and unwanted” workers, mostly women, were spared from being fired and general wages increased through the dramatic collective bargaining process that followed.

Today, the Thai labor movement is so feeble and beyond the small circle of active union leaders and labor historians, few remember the incident.

Talking about incidents, many Bangkokians probably couldn’t pin down the date and details of the Tak Bai incident in Narathiwat province.

It took place on Oct. 25, 2004, when Thaksin Shinawatra was prime minister. For Thai-Malay Muslims, the date will remain a poignant reminder of the neglect and cruelty of the Thai soldiers who tied the hands of protesters and hurled hundreds of them atop of one another in military lorries to be transported to a local military base.

By the time the trucks arrived after a long drive, many had suffocated to death. The death toll was 85. No one has ever been brought to justice.

Remembering the date and the year itself is not of paramount importance. The pertinent point is that every year, people should to be able to take an opportunity to reflect, recall and learn from past achievements, failures, courage and cruelties. Not remembering political past, people are bound to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of coup and repression.

The tragedy is, beyond the same circle of political historians, activists and democracy junkies, these events are basically forgotten.

A society that fails to remember its inconvenient past is bound to face more inconveniences in the future. In a society that frequently comes under military dictatorship, memories about past struggles is undesirable. There is no incentive from the state to have people remember past struggles against dictatorship.

Back to Nuamthong. The 60-year-old taxi driver who rammed his taxi into a coup-maker’s army tank left a suicide note. The note was written two days before, after he was ridiculed by a junta spokesman.

In the note Nuamthong stated in his own hand writings that when he was reincarnated, he wished to not witness another coup.

How utterly disappointed uncle Nuamthong would be if he was reborn, only to learn that less than eight years after he killed himself, yet another coup took place.