Deported activist talks to student massacre memorial

Bangkok’s two main universities last week marked the 40th anniversary of the Thammasat University massacre, when students at the university who had been protesting for weeks in 1976 were beaten, burnt alive, hung from nearby trees or shot by militias, a traumatic event in Thai history.

The official death toll was put at 46 although other estimates put it at more than 100 students killed; some 3,000 were arrested and others forced to flee into hiding. It was followed by a military coup that reversed a student-led democracy revolution three years before, in 1973. No perpetrators were ever punished, a sensitive issue in the country.

While the annual 6 October commemorations are usually low-key affairs, this year it attracted wider attention because of the invitation and subsequent deportation of Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong, who was due to speak at the event. He was allowed to address students at Chulalongkorn University via a Skype link on Thursday.

Although the killing of students is not mentioned in school textbooks, academics at both Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities say students in Bangkok have become more interested in what happened 40 years ago.

“Even though the events of 6 October may not be documented in Thai history, the new generation still strives to learn about it,” Thammasat University’s Rector, Somkit Lertpaithoon, said in a speech on 6 October.

His university, which has a permanent memorial at the entrance to the campus and still has survivors of the 1976 massacre on its staff, teaches its students about the massacre, Somkit said.

Survivors, family members of the victims, as well as current students and professors laid wreaths at the Thammasat memorial last week.

A number of professors currently working at both Thammasat and Chulalongkorn universities drew parallels with the current situation of rule by military junta – the current regime has been in power since a military coup in May 2014.

Sutachai Yimprasert, a Chulalongkorn history professor who was a student at Thammasat University at the time and who fled into the countryside in 1976, aligning with communist rebels, said “there are so many similarities between then and now. When we live under a dictatorship, those who disagree with the state cannot stay, so they have to flee the country or, in the past they had to go to the countryside to join the rebels,” he said in interviews with local media.

Hong Kong activist deported

Chulalongkorn University, a more elitist right-leaning university, this year marked the anniversary for the first time, sparking headlines worldwide when it invited Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong , 19, to a special event scheduled at Chulalongkorn.

Wong was due to speak about ‘the politics of the new generation’, but was prevented by Thai authorities from entering the country on 4 October, causing an international outcry when it was revealed that the Hong Kong teenager who had been active in Hong Kong pro-democracy protests during 2014-15 had been barred on instructions from the Beijing government.

Thai Prime Minister and junta leader, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, later confirmed Wong’s deportation was at the Chinese government’s request.

After being held at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport on arrival for 12 hours on Wednesday, Wong was returned to Hong Kong. “I never thought as [a Hong Kong] resident who has no intention of entering [the] Chinese mainland, I'd be detained in another country,” Wong said via Twitter on his return.

He later spoke via Skype link on Thursday to the Chulalongkorn University forum entitled “October 6: Chula looks to the future”. More than 900 had pre-registered for the event.

“The Chinese government doesn’t want Hong Kong’s pro-democracy voices to be heard outside,” said Agnes Chow, another former Umbrella Movement student activist and member of the Demosisto political party founded by Wong. “But the harder it tries to suppress us, the louder we’ll be heard,” she said, speaking in Hong Kong.

One of the Chulalongkorn event organisers, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 20, a political science student, and leading pro-democracy activist who had originally invited Wong to come to the event, described the Hong Kong activist as “inspiring”.

Though Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations did not succeed in achieving the universal suffrage they were demanding, the students have since entered the political arena, forming political parties and standing for election.

A new generation

Netiwit, who has authored a book entitled Declaration of Freedom in the Educational System, has said the 40th anniversary of 6 October symbolises not only remembrance, but the birth of a new generation of student activists.

In an interview with the Thai news organisation Prachatai he said he hoped “6 October can help young people to know each other, to learn about the speakers, and maybe in the future they can form some group at Chulalongkorn”.

Though Chulalongkorn University itself had not commemorated the massacre in the past, Netiwit said the history of his university and the Thammasat University massacre were entwined as many of the murdered students were Chulalongkorn students, just as many current teachers at Chulalongkong were Thammasat students during the 1970s.

The barring of Wong added another dimension to the potent issue of academic freedom, a common theme running through the commemoration activities. Thai police banned umbrellas – the symbol of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, also known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’ – from the Chulalongkorn auditorium during Thursday’s events, according to several Chulalongkorn students.

“It is to prevent any symbolic protests,” said one student who declined to be named.

Video link

Wong had been allowed to address the university gathering via Skype link under special conditions including that he should not talk about his Wednesday detention in Bangkok or criticise China. He had been warned that the connection would be cut if he did so, he said in Hong Kong.

Deputy National Police Chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul told local media on the morning of the commemoration that Wong would be free to Skype in, and the students could organise the massacre’s commemoration as long as they did not “incite conflict or unrest”.

Officers from a local police station were present at Chulalongkorn University to monitor the event.

During the commemoration Wong told the Thai audience via the link: "Sometimes you may feel discouraged with political situations, but please remember that young people around the world, despite their diverse cultures, share the same values of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. They share the same sense with you.”