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Thai protesters spark interest in 1976 university massacre

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Anti-government protests challenging the institutions of Thailand’s traditional ruling class are not just prompting intense debate about the country’s future

BANGKOK — Anti-government protests challenging the institutions of Thailand’s traditional ruling class are not just prompting intense debate about the country’s future. They are driving young people to delve into the darkest events of the not-so-distant past.

Academics and researchers say they’re seeing a surge in the number of people wanting to learn about a massacre of students 44 years ago that mainstream Thai history books ignore.

At Bangkok’s Thammasat University last week, students who were exploring connections to the troubled past took photographs for “then and now” comparisons to the bloodletting that took place on the campus on Oct. 6, 1976.

At another university in the capital, students hungry for information about the massacre scoured books to write an article for their online newspaper. Like many young Thais, they had known virtually nothing about it.

“We connect ourselves to the Oct. 6 event because it was when the state used force against those with different beliefs,” said third-year student Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul. “And we can see from the present that there are people and the student movement questioning the power of the established political institutions and the responses are also threats, use of force, and legal intimidation against those with different beliefs.”

Thailand in October 1976 was in ferment after a dictator ousted by a popular uprising three years earlier was allowed to return

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Spectre of university massacre looms over Thai student protests

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Relentless gunfire, lynched bodies, frenzied mobs — the horrific violence Krisadang Nutcharut witnessed at Thammasat University more than 40 years ago propelled him into a legal career now spent defending Thailand’s young pro-democracy activists.

Like many survivors, he regards October 6, 1976, as one of the darkest days in his country’s history, when security forces and royalist militias murdered dozens of youngsters in the middle of Bangkok.

“It wasn’t an equal battle — it was a massacre. The students didn’t fight back, we didn’t have guns,” Krisadang tells AFP.

“It is a lesson I will never forget.”

Today, the 62-year-old represents two prominent faces of a new youth-led movement against the kingdom’s military-aligned government — human rights lawyer Anon Numpa and activist Panupong Jadnok.

The duo are facing sedition charges after calling for reforms to the kingdom’s powerful monarchy in massive demonstrations.

The latest rally drew 30,000 protesters in the biggest public gathering Thailand has seen in years.

The growing momentum of the protests — peaceful so far — has nevertheless raised the haunting memories of 1976 in Krisadang’s mind. 

“I have to teach the younger generation not to underestimate the military because they are merciless,” he says.

The kingdom has long seen an interminable cycle of political violence and short-lived civilian governments bracketed by military coups.

But the Thammasat massacre stands out for its brutality against students, who had been protesting for weeks against an ousted dictator’s return to the country from exile.

Security forces and royalist mobs shot, beat and stabbed students around the campus, while others were strung up from trees.

Officially, 46 protesters were killed, though survivors believe the true toll was more than 100.

No official has ever been held accountable for the bloody event.

– Shots, grenades –

Seared in Krisadang’s memory are snapshots