Opinion: The Endless Struggle to Remember Quests for Democracy

Community members and Redshirt supporters massed near an army cordion on May 14, 2010. Minutes later, a young soldier opened fire on the crowd, killing a civilian.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on Redshirt protesters that left at least 90 people dead. If there are any lessons learned it is that this historical episode is yet to be accepted as a collective memory for Thai society. 

Many Thais now feel indifferent about it. Those who will publicly mark the episode, which culminated in the final assault on the protesters’ encampment on May 19, 2010, will likely be small in number.

Ten years on, no one has been held accountable or punished for the crackdown on the Redshirts, who staged months-long protests in a failed bid to oust then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Most of the victims are demonstrators, though soldiers, rescue workers, onlookers, and two foreign journalists also perished. 

Memory about history is neither coincidental nor automatic. History is retold, and if it’s not a collective history accepted by society in general, those retelling and commemorating it will have to try harder to keep it alive. Such is the fate of the April-May 2010 uprising and more. 

Foreign media film Thai soldiers take civilians into custody May 19, 2010, during a military crackdown on Redshirt demonstrations at Sarasin intersection near Lumpini Park in Bangkok.

Ten years on, the April-May 2010 protest is still seen by some as not a democratic struggle but that of largely hired protesters manipulated by ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. 

Take another historical May event – the May 1992 uprising. Fewer people remember, not to mention commemorate it. What’s more, their goals of ensuring civilian supremacy over the military and having elected prime minister are now a failure.

History is remembered and retold for a reason. If you want to see a democratic society, then remembering and retelling the history of democratic struggle is vital.

Take yet another example, the history of the deeds of the People’s Party who led the revolt which ended absolute monarchy and introduced democracy to Thailand in 1932. Its memory is increasingly at risk.

A string of unexplained disappearances of relics related to the People’s Party casts serious doubt as to how secure is our collective memory about the People’s Party.

Take the disappearance of a plaque marking the 1932 revolution, and a statue celebrating the revolutionaries’ victory over the royalist counter-attack. 

Soldiers approach the main encampment of the Redshirts protesters, 19 May 2010.

More recently, the statue of Field Marshal Pibulsongkram, a leader of the People’s Party, was removed from the National Defence College without explanation in January.

Even what was once the National Day was erased. June 24  was celebrated as such for two decades until it was changed by a military government in 1960 to fall on King Bhumibol’s birthday instead. 

Now June 24 is simply forgotten by the majority of the Thai people and treated as just another day on the calendar.

The generation which went through the struggles may be either old or long dead. Each generation will thus have to decide whether a certain historical incident is worth remembering and retelling or not.

We keep history alive to serve the present and the future. Forces that oppose democracy have all the incentives to make sure Thais remember as little about past democratic struggles and achievements as possible, if not forget it altogether.

The month of May is here once again. The strugglers for democracy are hard enough, but remembering those past struggles is equally if not more difficult.

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