Thammasat University massacre

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Thammasat University massacre
Sculpture of 6 October 1976 Memorial.jpg
Location Thammasat University and Sanam Luang in Bangkok, Thailand
Date 6 October 1976
Target Student protesters
Deaths 46 (official); more than 100 (unofficial)
Non-fatal injuries
167 (official)
Perpetrators Royal Thai Armed Forces
Royal Thai Police
Village Scouts
Red Gaur

The Thammasat University massacre (in Thailand known simply as "the 6 October event", Thai: เหตุการณ์ 6 ตุลา rtgsHetkan Hok Tula) was an attack by Thai state forces and far-right paramilitaries on student protesters that occurred on the campus of Thammasat University and the adjacent Sanam Luang square in downtown Bangkok, Thailand on 6 October 1976. Prior to the massacre, four to five thousand students from various universities had been demonstrating for more than a week against the return to Thailand from Singapore of former military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn.

A day before the massacre, the Thai press reported on a play staged by student protesters the previous day, which allegedly featured a scene of the mock hanging of the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. In response to this alleged outrage, military and police as well as paramilitary forces surrounded the university. Just before dawn on 6 October, the attack on the student protesters began and continued until noon. To this day, the actual numbers of casualties remain disputed between the Thai government and survivors of the massacre. According to the government, 46 died in the conflagration, with 167 wounded and 3,000 arrested even though many survivors claim that the death toll was well over 100.[1]

Exterior pressure from the Cold War was not insignificant in regards to the event, according to Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, political science scholar at Chulalongkorn University. [2]


Immediate causes[edit]

The 14 October 1973 uprising overthrew the unpopular Thanom regime and saw him flee Thailand together with General Praphas Charusathien and General Narong Kittikachorn, collectively known as the "Three Tyrants".[3] The growing unrest and instability from 1973 to 1976 as well as the fear of communism from neighboring countries spreading in Thailand and threatening the interests of the monarchy and the military convinced the latter to decide to bring the former leaders Thanom and Praphas back to Thailand to control the situation. In response to the return of Praphas’s return on 17 August, thousands of students demonstrated at Thammasat University for four days until a clash with Red Gaur and Nawaphon toughs left four dead.[4] On 19 September, Thanom returned to Thailand and headed straight from the airport to Wat Bovornives, where he was ordained as a monk in a private ceremony. Massive anti-Thanom protests broke out as the government faced an internal crisis after Prime Minister Seni’s attempt to tender his resignation was rejected by the Thai Parliament. On 25 September, in Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, two activists putting up anti-Thanom posters were beaten to death and hung from a wall, an outrage that was soon established to be the work of Thai police.[5] A dramatization of this hanging was staged by student protesters in Thammasat University on 4 October. Deliberately or unfortunately, the student at the end of the garrote bore a resemblance to the prince.[6] The following day, as Seni struggled to put together his cabinet, the newspaper Dao Siam published a photograph of the mock hanging on its front page.[7] With the tacit approval of King Bhumibol, announcers on army-controlled radio stations accused the student protesters of lèse-majesté and mobilized the King’s paramilitary forces Village Scouts, Nawaphon and Red Gaurs to "kill the communists".[8] During dusk on 5 October, some 4000 people from these paramilitary forces as well as the military and police personnel gathered outside the Thammasat University where student protesters had been protesting for weeks. This set the scene for the Thammasat University massacre the following day.[9]


At dawn on 6 October, the military and the police as well as the three paramilitary forces began blocking all exits out of the university and shooting into the campus, using M-16s, carbines, pistols, grenade launchers, and even large-gauge recoil-less rifles.[10] Prevented from leaving the campus or even sending the wounded to the hospital, the students begged for a cease-fire even though the attacks continued.[11] The actors in the mock hanging had already turned themselves in to Seni at the prime minister’s offices.[12] When one student came out to surrender, he was shot and killed.[13] After a free-fire order was issued by the Bangkok police chief, the campus was stormed, with Border Patrol Police personnel in front leading the attack.[14] Students diving into the Chaophraya River were shot at by navy vessels while others who surrendered, lying down on the ground, were picked up and beaten, many to death.[15] Some were hung from trees and beaten, others were set afire while female students were raped, alive and dead, by police and Red Gaurs.[16] The massacre continued for several hours, and was only halted at noon by a rainstorm.[17]

Immediate aftermath[edit]

On the afternoon of 6 October after the massacre, the major factions of the military which formed the general staff agreed in principle to overthrow Seni, a plot that King Bhumibol was well aware of and approved, which in turn ensured the success of the coup-makers.[18] Later that night, Admiral Sangad Chaloryu, the newly appointed Supreme Commander, announced that the military, under the name of the "National Administrative Reform Council" (NARC) had seized power to "prevent a Vietnamese-backed communist plot" and to preserve the "Thai monarchy forever".[19] The King appointed the anti-communist and royalist judge Thanin to lead a government that was composed of those who were loyal to the King, including Samak Sundaravej who was appointed the Minister of Interior). From the time he was appointed premier, Thanin and his cabinet restored the repressive climate which had existed before 1973.[20]


Return of bureaucratic polity[edit]

Over a period of forty years from 1932 when the absolute monarchy was abolished until 1973 when military rule was overthrown in favor of democracy, military officers and civil servants held much sway in Thai politics and dominated the government, with King Bhumibol serving as the ceremonial head of state in accordance with his role as a constitutional monarch established by the 1932 constitution. The Thai political system was known as a bureaucratic polity which was dominated by military personnel and civilian bureaucrats.[21] The massacre disproved the argument that the bureaucratic polity was on the retreat as the military came to play a central role once more in Thai politics, a situation that would continue throughout the 1970s and 1980s until the 1988 general election when all seats were democratically elected, including that of the Prime Minister, which from 1976 to 1988 was appointed by the King.

Withdrawal symptoms[edit]

Following in the footsteps of previous military strongmen like Plaek Phibunsongkhram and Sarit Thanarat, Thanom became the Prime Minister in 1963 following Sarit’s death and oversaw a period of massive influx of financial aid from the United States and Japan, fueling the Thai economy, as well as increasing American cultural influence. Yet, by the early 1970s, the Americans were beginning to withdraw their troops from Indochina. In such a context, the Thai middle class and petty bourgeoisie who had come out in force in support of the students’ protests in 1973 to topple the Thanom regime should be understood more as a product of their immediate history than as a portent of their future political role.[22] They almost completely lacked political experience and so had no real idea of what the consequences of ending the dictatorship would be while the regime was simultaneously blamed both for failing to exact fuller commitments to Thailand and for excessive subservience to Washington.[23] This indicates that the support given by the Thai middle class and petty bourgeoisie to the 1973 student protests was not an unconditional stamp of approval for democratic processes and the attendant chaos that followed. The "chaotic democracy" from 1973 to 1976 was seen as having threatened the economic interests of the middle class and petty bourgeoisie who favored stability and peace above democracy. In light of this, while they supported the mass demonstrations against the Thanom regime leading up to the uprising on 14 October 1973, they turned their backs on democracy, hence the term "withdrawal symptoms", and welcomed the return to dictatorship on 6 October 1976, heralding the end of the period of "chaotic democracy".

King Bhumibol's role[edit]


While King Bhumibol had supported the student protesters in their demonstrations in 1973 that led to the downfall of the Thanom regime and resulted in a period of "chaotic democracy" from 1973 to 1976, he turned against them by 1976 and according to many scholars, played a crucial, if not the most important, role in bringing about the massacre and a return to military rule after a three-year flirtation with democracy. There were two reasons for this seeming about-face. Firstly, Thailand’s neighbors either were facing communist insurgencies or had fallen to communist rule and become communist countries. The United States was also withdrawing its military presence from the region. 1975 was a pivotal year in the trajectory of the King’s involvement in politics. South Vietnam fell to the communists and the Communist Party of Vietnam was able to unify the country under its rule and drive out the Americans. In Cambodia, the communist Khmer Rouge took over the capital Phnom Penh and began a reign of terror that would only end in 1979. The incident that arguably shook the Thai monarchy to the core was the overthrow of the Lao Royal Family, to which it traditionally had cultural and historical links, by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party in 1975. Secondly, the period of "chaotic democracy" saw relative instability and chaos as demonstrations, strikes and protests took place much more frequently. This threatened the economic interests of the monarchy, as represented by the Crown Property Bureau, which favored a stable and peaceful economic environment that would allow its businesses to thrive.

King Bhumibol wields his influence through "network monarchy" that is centered on the Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda and one of the main features of the network monarchy is that the monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councilors and trusted military figures.[24] This network monarchy suggests that contrary to popular belief that the King is a constitutional monarch and is above politics, he has been intimately involved in Thai politics and has often intervened in order to secure his political and economic interests. The instability brought about by the student protesters until 1976 as well as the growing specter of communist threat in the region, especially after the "domino effect" where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell in succession to the communists, convinced King Bhumibol to see the protesters as a threat to his rule. The Thai state and its politicians subsequently branded these students as well as workers and farmers as "communists" and a "fifth column for the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and North Vietnam."[25] Yet, there was little evidence for the claim that protesters, including students protesting at Thammasat University, were communists. While the CPT had grown in strength, they were far from a unified force and they appealed to peasants by focusing on social injustices while avoiding attacking the monarchy and Buddhism; their expansion was arguably fueled more by the government’s alienation of the peasantry.[26] This suggests that the term "communists" was applied very liberally and indiscriminately and more often than not, deliberately on those who were deemed to be the sources of instability that threaten the monarchy and the King. In the Thai state’s discourse, communism is simply the enemy of the Nation, Religion(Buddhism), and Monarchy and is simply Enemy Number One of Thainess and thus external to Thainess.[27] One of the most persistent strategies of counterinsurgency was to link the socialists, communists and the Left with the external threat.[28] In order to deal effectively with the "communist" threat that could undermine his rule and status, on top of deploying the legal forces such as the Thai military and police, King Bhumibol, through his network monarchy, also incited three major paramilitary forces, namely the Village Scouts, Nawaphon and Red Gaurs, in perpetrate violence against the student protesters from 1973 to 1976 which eventually culminate in the massacre.

Village Scouts[edit]

The Village Scouts is a countrywide organization that the King and Queen of Thailand have sponsored for the general public since 1972 in order to promote national unity and its purpose is to provide a large non-military bulwark against threats to Thai independence and freedom, particularly against "communism".[29] Thus, the Village Scouts movement was set up explicitly for a political purpose, which was to protect the monarchy from the "communist" threat. The program that all Village Scout cadets went through focused upon central features of Thai identity: the love for play, deep respect for the King and for religion (Buddhism), and the sense of an ethnic Thai "special-ness".[30] The King thus has been discursively constructed as central to the Thai nation and as a symbol to be protected at all costs, alongside the nation and religion, forming the Thai nationalist shibboleth "Nation, Religion, King". The movement of the Village Scouts not only helped to provide continuous evidence of militant political support, outside the Bangkok upper class, among the "establishments" of provincial capitals, small towns and even some villages" for the King, but also helped to legitimize private, localized repression of protesting peasants and student activists as essential for the preservation of Nation-Religion-King".[31] Towards the end of the period from 1973 to 1976, Village Scouts membership had risen to tens of thousands, almost all in rural, CPT-confronted Thailand and after the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) takeover, the Village Scouts metamorphosed into a fascist-style mass political movement that would play a major role in the massacre.[32]


Nawaphon was an ISOC operation organized in 1974 by several military personnel and was made up of mainly low-level government functionaries and clerks, petty-bourgeoisie and rural village and commune headmen as well as a number of monks.[33] The name "Nawaphon" meant "nine strengths", a reference to either the Chakri Ninth Reign[34] or the nine points of its program designed to preserve Thai nationalism.[35] The establishment of the Nawaphon movement was thus based closely on the purpose of protecting and safeguarding the King from threats like communism. A key figure of the movement was notorious monk Kittivuddho who became its leader in 1975. In an interview where he was asked if killing leftists or communists would produce demerit or negative karma, he said that such killing would not be demeritorious because "whoever destroys the nation, the religion or the monarchy, such bestial types are not complete persons. Thus, we must intend not to kill people but to kill the Devil; this is the duty of all Thai”.[36] In 1967, he established the Jittiphawan College which was inaugurated by King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit who returned regularly even after Kittivudho began to make incendiary speeches about the need to deal with the students and the "communists".[37] This suggests the close relationship between the Nawaphon movement, whose head was Kittivuddho, and the royal family. Employing the slogan that "Killing Communists is not Demeritorious", Kittivuddho encouraged the killings of alleged communists among Thais from 1973 to 1976 and introduced militant Buddhism into the Thai political landscape, eventually inciting his followers to commit the violence at Thammasat University on 6 October. The Nawaphon movement was also responsible for the killing of more than 20 prominent farmer activists in 1975.[38] The assassinations were an attempt to negate the farmers’ new-found political agency and voices and in so doing, return them to their pre-October 1973 state of relative repression.[39] These assassinations of farmer activists were part of the state campaign to suppress any potential threat to his rule, sanctioned and encouraged by the King as an integral part of his "anti-communist" purge.

Red Gaurs[edit]

The Red Gaurs were ex-mercenaries and men discharged from the army for disciplinary infractions, while their followings were mainly composed of unemployed vocational school graduates, high-school dropouts, unemployed street corner boys, slum toughs and so forth.[40] They were essentially a motley group of hooligans and thugs who were not recruited primarily on the basis of ideological commitment but rather by promises of high pay, abundant liquor and brothel privilege and the lure of public notoriety.[41] Hence, unlike the Village Scouts and the Nawaphon movement, the Red Gaurs’ establishment was less ideological than sociological. In the early 1970s, they found themselves in dire economic straits, unable to obtain employment and thus were easy targets for the anti-(successful) student and anti-worker propaganda.[42] Their grievances were thus exploited by the state, notably the King’s network, and directed toward the student protesters.

Royal family involvement[edit]

King Bhumibol and the royal family took part frequently in Village Scout activities and attended ceremonies at Kittivudho’s college and Red Gaur training camps, thus illustrating their close ties with these three paramilitary forces.[43] While all three forces differed in their nature (the Village Scout movement and the Nawaphon movement, headed by militant monk Kittivuddho, had ideological underpinnings and were closely aligned with the monarchy while the Red Gaurs were largely motivated by their grievances and potential "petty" benefits), they were united by their allegiance to the King and consequently, their hatred of the "communists". The term "communists" was a deliberately loose term that encompassed those whom the King saw as threats to his rule, such as student protesters, farmers and their sympathizers. These paramilitary forces would subsequently be mobilized by him to attack the student protesters in Thammasat University and end their weeks-long protests.


The Thammasat University massacre continues to be a controversial and sensitive incident in Thai history. The Thai government has chosen to remain silent over its role, and by implication that of the King, in the killing of student protesters. This silence is deeply embedded in a culture of impunity. In an analysis of the two amnesty laws passed in relation to the massacre, Thailand scholar Tyrell Haberkorn argues that they first created and then consolidated impunity for the coup and the massacre that preceded it.[44] The first amnesty law, passed on 24 December 1976, legalized the coup and prevented those who seized power in the evening of 6 October from being held accountable;[45] the second amnesty law, passed on 16 September 1978, freed eighteen student activists still undergoing criminal prosecution and dismissed the charges against them.[46] The "hidden transcripts" of the two amnesties for Massacre and coup that followed reveal the careful, calculated legal moves taken to protect those who were behind it.[47] Despite the rhetoric in the streets and on the radio about the need to protect the nation, the coup and the massacre that preceded it unsettled some inside the state, perhaps because they were aware of the extra-legal status of the massacre, perhaps because they worried about their own culpability and perhaps because they were aware that the violations in need of amnesty were not only those of the criminal code but of the more basic code of being human.[48] Thus, both amnesty laws sought to produce impunity for state violence, particularly the King's involvement. There has not been any state investigation in the violence and this impunity is both cause and effect of the silence, ambivalence and ambiguity surrounding the event for both those who survived it and Thai society.[49]

Thai scholar Thongchai Winichakul, one of the student protesters who was jailed for his participation in the protests at Thammasat University, argues that the clearest evidence of the evasive public memories about the uprisings and massacre are the names the events have come to be known by, and the most conspicuous site of contested memories is the controversy over the memorial for the events".[50] The massacre continues to be known in Thailand as the deliberately ambiguous term "6 October event". Thongchai argues that this non-committal name is loaded with many unsettled meanings, which imply the absence of any commitment and obscures the past because it is too heavily loaded with contesting voices, situating the massacre on the edge between recognizability and anonymity, between history and the silenced past and between memory and forgetfulness.[51] Thus, in "remembering" it, its nomenclature carries overt political significance that continues to reverberate in present-day Thai politics, particularly in relation to the role played by the state and King Bhumibol in the attack on student protesters.

The commemoration in 1996 represented a significant break in the silence. Yet, during the commemoration, what happened twenty years earlier was retold innumerable times, though without any reference to the undiscussable parts of that history.[52] There was also no reaction, not even any comments, from the military or any conservative organizations.[53] More importantly, the denunciation of state crime avoided imputing blame to any specific individual and the victims’ self-sacrifice for society’s sake was honored.[54] The role played by King Bhumibol in inciting the military and police as well as the paramilitary forces in attacking the student protesters was not mentioned so as not to target the King as an "individual". Yet, this could also be interpreted as an attempt by the state to whitewash history by wishing away parts that it did not want the public to know or remember. In addition, by emphasizing the theme of healing and reconciliation in the remembrance, the Thai state and by implication the King have sought to make clear that the commemoration had no interest and would not be involved in any talk of revenge.[55]


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