Friday, June 11, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Haunted History,’




The event in which the Association of People Who Love Udorn with weapons raised beat up the PAD Citizens for Democracy appeared on television news broadcasts (24 July 2008). The news made many people - myself included – think of the pictures of the killing of students and citizens on 6 October, 1976. It was altogether too similar. And, as in 1976, the image of Samak Sundornvej immediately appeared.

In any case, the Pridi Panomyong Institute has organized a show, Haunted Past, of contemporary art, concerning the 6 October 1976 incident. It seems not a little appropriate for the situation in our country at this time of crisis. The work was organized by four artists: Ing Kanchanawanich, Sutee Kunawichayanont, Wasan Sittiket and myself. We are showing until 23 August, 2008. For the sake of brevity, I will present here the points of view of each artist.

I will begin with Ing Kanchanawanich and her work, a watercolor entitled Thai Moong. She is the only woman in the group and presents an interesting angle.

There is a famous image from an AP news photo by Neal Ulevich which I saw for the first time in October 1976. It stands in for a memory of something I didn’t witness with my own eyes. But it is a memory in history, a memory of which I have a part as a Thai. For me and for many, this news photo is a symbol of the 6 October event and testimony that Thailand, the land of Dhamma, our golden land, is no different from Rwanda in April, 1994.

The picture shows the dark side of Thai society, which still hides within. It hasn’t gone anywhere and remains in the policy of violence governing the three southern border provinces (as in the Kru Seh and Takbai incidents), a policy which supported killings during the ‘war on drugs’ and the threats against demonstrators, the breaking up of the wheels of justice in the case of the dishonesty of former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatr.

The thing that always hangs over and haunts me is not just the body of the victim who was hung on the tamarind tree at Sanam Luang, and not the malicious glee of the safari suit lifting the folding chair to slam it against the lifeless corpse. Even more frightening than that are the faces of Thai people in the surrounding crowd of watchers. There are many young boys. Some smile, some laugh – pleased. They appear to be cheering. Some look disturbed. Some look hysterical as no one dares to call a halt to the actions of the man in the safari suit. It is a moment when the stink of blood reeks in every molecule of air, making people insane or disgusted.

Thirty-two years have passed. No one has been punished for the massacre that day. But in Rwanda, even the radio spokesman who called the masses to arise and take part in the killings has been arrested and held for trial.

When Samak Sundaravej was elected prime minister of Thailand, the image in this photo came back to haunt me, leaving me anxious that those who voted for Samak might be like the people in that photograph. I felt discouraged and afraid that those people might rise up again to beat, rape, lynch and burn their fellow citizens whose ideas and understanding differed from their own.

Where are they today, the Thai people in that crowd? What are they doing? What are their jobs? The kids in the picture: when they grew up, what kind of people did they become? What they saw that day, what impact did it have on them?

The mass psychology which can turn ordinary people into bloodthirsty demons (or make school children scream, the whole school, as we hear in the news [mass hallucinations] sometimes) may overtake and mask individuality, both in terms of personal responsibility and human rights. Is that an excuse?

So I drew pictures of that crowd – each individual in the crowd – so that the audience could consider the faces and humanity of each one without compromising the power of their identity as a crowd. I separated each face off, one by one, from the group, to consider clearly each individual, each shock and emotion, in a determined attempt to understand what cannot be understood.

Sutee Kunawichayanont’s installation, Selected Memory History/ Mock Forgetting. Sutee writes very succinctly:

The kind of history which is like a dysfunctional memory, when one chooses what to remember and what, perversely, to forget, in distortion and prejudice. This kind of history begins with the state. These go together very well as history, according to the habits of fun-loving Thai people. They detest difficulty. They don’t like sincere focus and dark determination.

Managing memory and history in those cruel, vicious, and disgusting parts is part of getting to know oneself. Recalling the history of 6 October, 1976 makes Thai society look at itself from another side. It is a reality from which people would like to turn away their faces, pretending that it never really happened. If Thai society doesn’t assess its history, 6 October will continue to haunt us, and Thai people will have learned nothing from it.

And now, the work of video art, Power/Memory/Delete, by artist and political/social critic, Wasan Sittiket:

In order to keep power and to hold on to the reins of government,
those who need to control the power of the state will be the ones
to decide what will be history and what will not. The evil power
of the state will establish a set of various legends and lies to implant,
to make society comfortable with the fabrication. It is a great and
far distant past, full of pride, the creation of a false identity, leading
people to falsely believe that their great nation cannot be criticized.
It is unpatriotic to do it, destructive of the nation.
At the same time
The real past must be erased. The nation works together to create
A history of society, politics and culture – especially our own Thai
society. So many things like this happen. So there is a great bundle
of lies. Then it becomes difficult to know who we are, where we came
from and where we are going. This illusion is an obstacle, the root of
the nation’s problems, until the head crashes into the tail, confused and
mistaken…There are powers above powers which set the rules and give
weird exceptions, always contributing to timidity and stupidity, leading
the masses of people astray, passing on evil, destroying the beautiful
consciousness of the nation, shattering and crushing it. It is a dishonored
land, so shameful.

There never has been a history of the people and democracy. It has been
erased by the powers and thrown out as trash, stupid and stunned, for
example, the events of 6 October, 1976. Hence, it is our duty, we who love
justice and truth, to band together to assess the people’s history so that society
can move forward and develop as a civilized state.
Certainly, it is an extraordinarily
difficult task, but not beyond our strength to bear – right?

I [Manit] brought the installation, Died 6 October 2519.

Not many days after taking the position of prime minister, Mr. Samak
Sundaravej gave an interview on CNN television. At that time, he said
that in the violent repression of students at Thammasat University on 6 Oct. 2519, only one person was killed.
However, when he was minister
of the interior in 1977, Mr.Samak told Thai students in France that 48
people had been killed. (Manager Online, 12 Feb.2008).

There were many questions following that CNN interview as to why
Mr. Samak had now reduced the death count to a single person. Had
he tried to transform this violent event into a little accident of no importance by saying it was not as cruel and barbaric as reported, or as people had been understanding for 30 years and more?

If Mr.Samak really had nothing to do with the incident, why did he lie about the numbers of people killed?

By chance, I ran into K. Pon Ponpanatham from the Saitarn Prachathibothai Foundation, who brought pictures from well-wishers taken in secret, photo-copies from secret files from the office of the state prosecutor. He opened them to the public and the mass media. Protesting against Samak, he insisted to newsmen that more than one person had died.

I thought that one thing that had been lost from the study of Thai history was its barbarism. We should not see only the kindness and charity of ourselves, only our generosity. There is also a dark and shameful side. We should dare to see it, dare to investigate it, in order to know ourselves better. So, I wanted the pictures to show the faces of those killed, those who gave their lives in the October 6 event, to show for audiences, for those who had seen them before and those who had not.

I selected pictures of 36 of those heroes from the 42 people (the other 6 pictures could not be used, and there was a photograph of 4 bodies burned beyond recognition.) Most of these people were young men and women. Luckily, an anonymous policeman still had enough respect for justice to see that this evidence from the event was reported. If there is no photo taken in a period of unrest, each body will have a number and a word (male/female), name unknown, and the cause of death.


Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Haunted History,’ from Silpa Wattanatham in Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, 15 – 21 August, 2008. Yr.55, V.47.

I brought all the pictures to enlarge. Then I soaked them in blood in the developing tray, and then let each picture float to the surface of the blood.

I saw the faces of these heroes slowly appear, as if they were coming back to life again. Some parts of the faces are obscured by blood like stormy clouds dark and opaque which refuse to go away. I raised my hands in respectful gesture before clicking the shutter. I prayed silently that if these elders had anything to tell, please speak through these pictures of mine to the people who come to see them.
The eyes of one women became so red, I still see the image before me.

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