Declassified U.S. Documents Help Fill Void Left by Thailand’s Silence on 38th Anniversary of Thammasat University Massacre
This week marks the 38th anniversary of the student massacre at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand on October 6, 1976, which saw between 50 and 100 leftist student protesters tortured and killed, hundreds more injured, and thousands arrested.1 Now, thanks to the declassification efforts of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), over 75 previously classified documents are available, helping fill the void left by the Thai government’s silence on the event.
On October 6, 1976, right-wing and left-wing protesters clashed at the Thammasat University, resulting in a massacre of leftist students by Thai police and paramilitary forces. On that same day, the minister of defense, Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu, seized power in a coup. Much of the correspondence between the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. regarding that day’s incidents focuses on the political turmoil and threat of communism. Limited coverage focuses on the brutality of the massacre as U.S. embassy officials attempted to understand the complex and shifting political situation.
One of the first October 6, 1976, U.S. Embassy cables from Bangkok reports:
“Initial announcement describes danger facing country as coming from group of students who have committed acts of lèse-majesté [speaking against the royal family] (reference to mock hanging at Thammasat University Oct. 4 at which students acted as hanging victim bore superficial resemblance to crown prince). Students aim state to destroy monarchy as part of communist scheme. Students resisted arrest and fought back with weapons ‘in league with Vietnamese communist terrorists.’”
The next day, on October 7th, a U.S. embassy official writes of the “auspicious timing of the coup” which allowed the brutal killings to take place, “effectively neutralizing the activists.” [Read full document here.]
Days later, on October 18th, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Charles Whitehouse, reports of a conversation with the King’s personal secretary, Mom Luang Thawisan Ladawan, providing rare insight into Thai royalty’s political views (one of the stipulations of the lèse-majesté law is the prohibition of speaking about the King’s political views):2
“He [the King’s secretary] said that the Thai need for US support had increased owing to the more positive anti-communist stance being taken by the new government. This position would doubtless aggravate Thailand’s relations with its communist neighbors and increase the risks to the kingdom…the King hoped that there was some way by which the US could explain that the change of government had been brought about as a result of the weakness of the Seni government and the provocative actions of communist-inspired students. I said frankly I could see no way of overcoming the worldwide impact of the photo and television coverage of the events of October 6th at Thammasat University.”
An October 14, 1976, cable from Ambassador Whitehouse reports on the National Administrative Reform Council’s (NARC) “establishment of re-education centers for ‘individuals dangerous to society.’” He comments that “while such announcements have the sound of Germany in the 30’s, it is difficult at this point to determine the true intentions of the NARC.” In another October 14 cable, he expresses “concern over book burning, brainwashing camps, and the quite evident shortcomings of military rule.” Ambassador Whitehouse also reports a conversation with two university professors who “thought that the government would begin cracking down on university teachers with liberal or leftist views, and that it would be difficult or impossible for them to continue teaching.”
Usually, Thailand marks the anniversary of this massacre with commemorations and memorial events at Thammasat Univeristy. This year, however, commemoration ceremonies were cancelled, as a newspaper reports, to “comply with the military junta’s ban on all political activities.” Some students and professors protested the cancellation of the ceremony and limitations to free speech and assembly, to little avail. Space to have larger public conversations about Thai politics do not exist, and many political books are banned. Quiet conversations take place on social media, but in the face of great risk, and many controversial pieces end up getting taken down or blocked inside Thailand.
In the void left by the Thai government, the U.S. government’s continuing disclosure of information about the massacre is essential for the historical record. For a complete picture, however, the Thai government must open its own archives on the massacre.
In many cases, the U.S. government has declassified records on foreign atrocities, encouraging other governments to provide public access to important human rights information in the search for justice. Such instances include:
Find this information and more at the National Security Archive’s website.
1. [The official number of dead is 46, though other estimates put the number well over 100. [Leifer, Michael. Dictionary of Modern Politics of South-East Asia. New York: Routledge, 1995. Pg. 233-234]]↩
2. [This document was posted on a social media webpage accompanied by a full translation into Thai, however was removed a short time later, proving the great interest in access to this information in Thailand, but also the intense restrictions of freedom of speech and expression still plaguing the country.]↩