First stirrings of a passive population

First stirrings of a passive population - The Nation, September 1, 2003
Starting today, The Nation will revisit daily events leading up to October 14, 1973, one of the most important days in modern Thai history...
The salary of the Prime Minister at that time was Bt120,000 and the population was 39 million. Local newspapers still referred to Thais of Chinese ancestry as Khon Chine, while Thailand was trying to resume diplomatic relations with Red China after US President Nixon decided to befriend the Maoist state...
"Thailand has for millennia practised feudalism and it was only abolished 40 years ago," said Prapas at the time. "The attachment to old traditions remains strong and it's still in the people's blood. Villagers who go to district offices still feel hesitant about taking a seat [on the chairs] that was provided. And even university lecturers still feel kraeng jai and dare not ask questions even though they may want to."



[2014 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Thus, below is the complete text of the original article.]

FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY: First stirrings of a passive population

Published on Sep 1, 2003

Starting today, The Nation will revisit daily events leading up to October 14, 1973, one of the most important days in modern Thai history

In the month of September three decades ago Thailand wasn't quite as we know it today. No mobile phones, no personal computers - and the latest big story in the Thai media revealed that motor cars indeed emit a form of dangerous pollution called "smog".

The salary of the Prime Minister at that time was Bt120,000 and the population was 39 million. Local newspapers still referred to Thais of Chinese ancestry as Khon Chine, while Thailand was trying to resume diplomatic relations with Red China after US President Nixon decided to befriend the Maoist state.

Politically, the country had gone through some oppressive years. Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri says Thailand was trapped "within a vicious cycle of repeated coups d'etat which created constitutions and then tore them up, and annulled and then for decades trampled on the liberties that the Thai people had just begun to win for themselves".

"Political power," said Charnvit, in a text translated into English by Cornell historian Benedict Anderson, "fell into the hands of a tiny dictatorial clique which manipulated the machinery of the state and the military, police, and civilian bureaucracies".

Charnvit added that in 1968, a constitution was proclaimed, and in 1969, for the first time in more than a decade, general elections were held. "But this trend came to an abrupt halt in 1971 when the crooked government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachon again seized full power by making 'a coup against itself'. By this point the behaviour of the ruling Thanom-Prapas-Narong clique had become intolerable to Thai society."

Little wonder that anyone being thrown back into Thailand of 30 years ago would not fail to notice the dark political climate by |perusing the local newspapers. It wasn't clear however, that within a month and a half, the nation's first popular uprising would strengthen the democratic tradition of Thailand in a way difficult to be erased.

On September 1, 1973, Prachathipatai, arguably the most progressive Thai-language newspaper at that time, gave prominent coverage to a statement that "university students can learn about political science but need not practise it," by Field Marshal Prapas Jarusathien, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior.

In a talk given to Chulalongkorn University lecturers, Prapas illustrated his point with an analogy of producing an atomic bomb and not testing it because it could have devastating effects.

He also added that perhaps Thailand could make do with a democracy without elections. Equally important, Prapas justified the recent order by the State University Bureau to ban outsiders from participating in seminars and symposiums on all university campuses, saying that outsiders might "mislead" students.

"Thailand has for millennia practised feudalism and it was only abolished 40 years ago," said Prapas at the time. "The attachment to old traditions remains strong and it's still in the people's blood. Villagers who go to district offices still feel hesitant about taking a seat [on the chairs] that was provided. And even university lecturers still feel kraeng jai and dare not ask questions even though they may want to."

The passivity of the populace was changing, however, as another news item in the Prachathipatai newspaper reported a drastic increase in complaints filed by workers. The number rose from 350 cases for the whole of 1972 to 558 complains from January 1973 to July of the same year. A columnist at the newspaper referred to the need for administrators to shift their thinking from that of rulers to that of service providers.

Thai Rath, the leading tabloid newspaper, thought juicier news might be appropriate that day, including: "Love-mad college student breaks into lover's house armed with knife, kills her in his embrace."

Meanwhile, Khanchai Boonparn, the man who would later become the founder of Matichon newspaper along with Sujit Wongthes, a Thai-culture expert, was busy lamenting the disappearance of traditional Thai music in a Thai Rath column.

Pravit Rojanaphruk
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