A brutal but largely forgotten episode from recent Thai history has united several contemporary artists to produce a ‘trauma art’ to comment on the loss of collective memory.
The Thammasat University Massacre on 6 October 1976 was a shocking moment. The violence took place in the midst of an anti-communist crackdown in Bangkok, provoked by fears of a communist takeover following the recent Fall of Saigon. The national police collaborated with right-wing paramilitary groups to stage a premeditated attack on a university campus to quell dissent, as part of a plot to reinstate a military junta. By official count, the orgy of shooting, beating and rape left 46 people dead and 167 wounded. Unofficially, the episode is said to have ended over a hundred young lives. Of those that survived, about a thousand demonstrators were arrested, forced to parade naked and subjected to further violations in public.
Despite the viciousness of the attack on unarmed citizens, none of the perpetrators of the massacre have been brought to justice. The episode is largely airbrushed from history textbooks in Thailand and those making public comment on the event still risk state censorship.
The artistic response to the massacre gained pace in 1996 as public rememberance of the atrocity increased around its the 20th anniversary. At that time painter Vasan Sitthiket created his series Tulalai (Blue October). Recreating black and white photographic images of the massacre, the royal blue alludes to the tacit collaboration of the monarchy, while the dead are made sacred through the use of gold leaf, normally reserved for Buddhist sculptures. The upside-down title represents the skewed collective memory of the event.
Five years later, Manit Sriwanichpoom superimposed Neil Ulevich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of the massacre with the ‘Pink Man’ (artist Sompong Tawee dressed in a bright pink suit) to represent a consumerist society that had forgotten its radical past. Yet despite these interventions, the massacre remains largely forgotten by Thai society.
This complex episode and its effect on Thai art has been explored fully by Sudarat Musikawong in the article ‘Art for October: Thai Cold War State Violence in Trauma Art‘ (2010).
Images: Top – Vasan Sitthiket, from the series Tulalai (Blue October), 1996. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas, 6 pieces, each 1.5 × 1.5 m. Courtesy the artist; Bottom – Manit Sriwanichpoom, Pisat si chomphu (Horror in Pink) No.2, 2001. Colour print, 120 x 174.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.