BANGKOK — Ghosts of the 1976 massacre were back in the news after army chief Apirat Kongsompong, a hardline royalist, escalated his attacks on the political opposition yet backed off plans to play a Cold War anthem on all army radio stations.
In a spat that erupted this morning, Gen. Apirat suggested a Pheu Thai Party candidate for prime minister should listen to a notorious anti-Communist song when asked for his opinion on her pledge to slash defense spending.
“Do you know what’s the hit song right now? ‘Nuk Paen Din,’” Apirat told reporters, drawing audible gasps from some of those present.
Apparently unsure of Apirat’s reply, a reporter asked, “What song did you just say?”
“Nuk Paen Din,” the general repeated then left the interviews without speaking any further.
Translated roughly as “Scum of the Earth” or “Burdens on a Country,” the song was written by an army colonel in 1975 at the height of leftist activism. It was quickly adopted by many right-wing militias and aired on military radio channels.
“What kind of people plot to threaten and destroy our Thai traditions, ferment prejudice and thuggish ideologies and spread them in our country?” part of the song goes. “Scum of the Earth! These people are the Scum of the Earth!”
But later in the afternoon, army command sent out an order belaying the command, saying that “society might misinterpret the songs in bad way.”
Instead, they will only play the controversial song over the intercom at the Royal Thai Army headquarters three times a day. A reporter at the base said “Scum of the Earth” was heard there at 4:30pm today.
Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan also repeated Apirat’s suggestion when reporters questioned him about Sudarat’s plan to slash military spending.
“Listen to the song suggested by the army chief,” Prawit said.
The song was most associated with the massacre of student activists at Thammasat University on Oct. 6, 1976. Many witnesses recalled hearing “Scum of the Earth” played multiple times by the army’s Tank Corps Radio hours before and after police and paramilitary elements stormed the university. The attack killed at least 46 people, mostly students.
Former Thammasat rector and historian Charnvit Kasetsiri expressed his dismay at the invocation.
“Other than calling for a return to absolute monarchy, they’re now rehearsing ‘Scum of the Earth,’ too?” Charnvit wrote online. “History will repeat itself if we don’t learn from it. And where will that path take us? Better or worse?”
The controversy comes as Thailand is taking uncertain steps toward its first election in five years and an uncertain return to democratic rule.
Thammasat historian Pipad Krajaejun also wrote online that return of the song might presage a return to the dangerous politics that darkened the 1970s, when right-wing militias assassinated or clashed with leftist students.
“This song is for killing enemies,” professor Pipad wrote. “Anyone told to listen to this song is considered the enemy. This method is very old. It’s a political way to make enemies, and it’s dangerous in a society that needs reconciliation.”
The Redshirts lashed out at Gen. Apirat almost immediately after the news broke.
“I think he should keep the song for himself,” prominent Redshirt Nattawut Saikua wrote online.
Sudarat herself expressed disappointment. In a statement posted Monday afternoon, the Pheu Thai candidate maintained she simply wanted to allocate the money to other pressing issues, like health care.
“By his status, the army chief must be neutral in politics,” Sudarat said. “[Perhaps] if I said the budget for the defense ministry should increase from 100 billion to 200 billion baht, like what this government did, I wouldn’t be seen as the ‘Scum of the Earth’ by the army chief.”
Although “Scum of the Earth” was occasionally performed by protesters opposed to the Pheu Thai-led government in 2014, the armed forces have not actively promoted the song since the Communist insurgency ended in 1980.
The public reactions on social media was mixed and seemed to depend on whether one supports the military’s current role.
“They criticized the military out of their idiocy. They fell for lies and slander. Let me ask you: Are soldiers hurting or killing or bullying us nowadays? No,” user Sita Piro wrote in a news thread by Nation Weekend.
“The real Scum of the Earth are these soldiers who exploit their uniforms to seek power,” user Pitak Chairungreang wrote in the same thread.
An outspoken royalist who has worked closely with the monarchy, Gen. Apirat is no stranger to controversies. He once called a group of royal petitioners “insane” and suggested another coup could take place in the future if there are “riots” in the country.
Apirat also serves on the board for the Crown Property Bureau, which manages His Majesty the King’s assets.