Remembering 1976 and the present

7 10 2012

Yesterday PPT linked to events at Thammasat University commemorating the deaths of students and others on 6 October 1976. The Nation now has a story based on those events and they deserve some comment.

PPT was pleased to note that Thammasat historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul “called for the release of people being detained for violations of Article 112 of the Penal Code – the lese majese law – as they are all political detainees.” He is undoubtedly correct and it should not be forgotten that the royalist and ultra-rightists government led by (now privy councilor) Thanin Kraivixien used lese majeste against political opponents following the 1976 massacre and coup.

Thammasat University student Panitan Prueksakasemsuk also spoke. His father, Somyos, is detained on lese majeste charges, and has been held in jail without bail since 30 April 2011. Panitan observed that the Administrative Court and the Constitution Court “could not really protect the people’s rights.” He also called for strong penalties for those who use state power like those who acted against the people in 1976. In other words, state officials who act illegally should no longer feel guaranteed impunity.

We also appreciated the comments by deputy dean of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, Pitch Pongsawat, who stated:

From October 6, 1976, although there were calls for finding the truth, they were not for reconciliation. There was no ‘single truth’…. In my opinion, reconciliation must be based on the principle that everyone must undergo the justice procedure, all evidence must be revealed and everyone must face legal cases fairly, rather than saying all parties are responsible for the mistakes….

We were less impressed by the comments of Thammasat University rector Somkit Lertpaithoon. Somkit is described at another blog in this way:

Dr. Somkit is perceived as a royalist and supporter of the 2006 coup. He was one of the drafters of the 2007 Constitution. He has challenged the merit of a proposal by a group of young progressive Thammasat law lecturers known as Nitirat to nullify all legal effects of the 2006 coup and to amend the lèse majesté provision in the Criminal Code.

At the same time, as that blog makes clear, he copped some ultra-royalist flak when he admitted a student accused of lese majeste to Thammasat.

His comments on 6 October began with an “expressed concern that the tendency of people to not respect others’ rights and freedom of expression could lead to political violence.” That seems a fair point except that he immediately adds that “he disagreed with the red shirts’ protest against lecturers of the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) for their opposition to the government’s rice-pledging scheme as it disrespected the lecturers’ right to have different opinions.”

He added: “People have to learn more to respect the rights of others as well as protest within limits…”. That seems a rather biased and intolerant position when expressing a view that there should be more tolerance. Why should only lecturers and their supporters be permitted an opinion and be allowed to propagate it? Peaceful disagreement by farmers seems “within limits” and does not stop the academics and their political supporters from propagating their views. It is striking that senior academics see almost any challenge to their views as inappropriate simply because it challenges them. Perhaps it is because the poor and less educated also challenge their pomposity.

While noting that “the anti-dictatorship mindset has been cultivated deeply among Thais,” Somkit adds that “there were times when people may have supported a military coup,” as he himself had done. Yet he is confident that “Thai society will find a solution” to the political divide.

We suspect that he is right but that the solution will not be a return to the comfortable conservative order of the past. That order ruled through military repression that demanded royalist ideological conformity.  It was an order that established a system that was not, borrowing  some words from Pitch, justice was thwarted, the legal system corrupted, and where impunity ruled over responsibility.