Moments of Silence: The unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok

This book is valuable as both a scholarly contribution to Thai Cold War history as well as a deeply personal memoir of painful memories. Unlike every book reviewed so far in this course, the author Thongchai Winichakul was a leader of the movement central to the Thammasat University massacre. 

The 1976 massacre is perhaps loudest in its sheer silence throughout much of Thai history. The difficulty in discussing the event stems from what the author considers “a symptom of the tension between truth (what actually was) and self-knowledge (what we think we should be). The resulting gap in history is filled with wildly differing theories from both right wing and liberal camps. More importantly, the author also analyses the role of the monarchy in the massacre, the one topic that has remained taboo even during periods of liberalisation.

Moments of Silence is split into two broad sections. The first provides a first-hand account of the events surrounding the massacre on October 6, 1976. Thongchai also narrates the trial of the Bangkok 18, who comprised the student leadership, including himself. Interestingly, he also demonstrates how an unexpected amnesty programme ended up kickstarting the “silence” on the massacre, in the name of reconciliation. As a lawyer of the trial remarked in an interview, “They claimed to forgive the students, but in actuality, they forgave themselves because a lot of students were killed. Everything ended due to the amnesty.”

Chapter 2 lists thirteen key questions that the author says have yet to receive satisfactory answers thus far in existing scholarship. He attempts to answer the question on the level of complicity the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) had in the student movement, but appears to deviate into two separate schools of thought. First, he endorses the notion of close cooperation and ideological agreement between the groups, stating “a few years before the massacre the CPT had gained influence over the student movement from top to bottom”. But in later parts, he seems ambivalent, asking in Chapter 6, “How would we want the public to remember them? Were they communists, radicals, democracy lovers, or just young idealists?

Another question the author highlights is the role of the monarchy. While there are no new details revealed by the author other than a compilation of existing works, the book’s cover is perhaps a not-so-subtle jab at the royals. The hanging corpse is depicted above a silhouette of the royal palace, signifying the massacre overshadowing the monarchy in a diminished position.

One of the most interesting chapters is Nine, where the author interviews rightwing figures who opposed the student movement and remain unapologetic about their complicity in the violence. Thongchai himself admits that bias would cloud his interviews. But the vivid accounts are still valuable records of one side’s version of the massacre. In particular, “Many of them raised interesting issues regarding how the perpetrators had struggled with their memories of the massacre when their past actions were no longer seen as heroic or triumphant, but simply despicable”

Overall, there’s a deep strain of bitterness throughout the book at how such a shockingly violent event has been so effectively silenced, coupled with a slight optimism that memories are once again being aired, even if accountability remains elusive. There is an interesting parallel here with the 1965 Indonesian killings where the government is more forceful in denying the violence even as more debates are held about the events. 

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