Why Samak was so popular

This is just an attempt at putting some thoughts together to see if they make sense.

First, the background for 1973-1976 developments is Sarit’s regime and Sarit’s legacy. Though there’s not much good to say about him, he nevertheless instilled some very deep values in the generation that played a major part in how 70s turned up for Thailand.

Sarit was a strongman in every sense, completely dominating political scene. In fact he simply outlawed politics altogether. With a man like Sarit in charge there was no need for things like parliament, and there was no need for any checks and balances. He was incorruptible, dedicated, selfless servant of the nation and the King. Whether he lived up to this image is not the point – people believed it and they cherished it. Sarit brought the monarchy back into the center of “Thainess”, making it a symbol of the state and everything good in the world, monarchy was again inviolable and indispensable. Sarit also showed no mercy to “troublemakers”, I think he even executed a few himself. Sacrificing troublemakers lives for the betterment of the nation, in the name of unity and the King, was deemed acceptable and no one gave it a second thought.

Sarit’s reign also coincided with Americanization of the country, when the US made Thailand it’s strongest ally in South East Asia. In exchange Thailand got growing investments, then Vietnam war brought in even more, and good times rolled. The country boomed, Americans built roads to Eastern borders and with that came even more development, spreading deeper into the countryside. Everything was on the up, up, up.

Then Thanom-Prapas took over, continuing in the same vein, but without Sarit’s charisma and public presence.

Middle classes expanded tremendously during those years, people really started to think they could climb up the social ladder and get rich. Education was also booming with university enrollment doubling and tripling every couple of years. Middle classes thought their kids would really really make it big, any moment, aspirations were set really really high.

Then the reality asserted itself.

First there were allegations of corruption against Thanom and Prapas. Perhaps people didn’t want a repeat of embarrassment of disclosure of Sarit’s assets after his demise, perhaps it was toying with democracy in the form of national assembly (Thanom-Prapas staged a coup against their own government and dissolved the parliament), but they were not going to tolerate these two one way or another, then Thanom’s son married Prapas daughter and it became Thanom-Prapas-Narong evil trio.

That brought 1973. While the movement was spearheaded by the students, the vast majority of protesters were middle class, respectable citizens. When half a million of well dressed and well mannered people took to the streets the establishment couldn’t ignore it. So there was “people revolution”, it was exhilarating, but while the notion of benevolent dictatorship has quietly disappeared, people were not prepared to ditch its values, and they had no idea where to go from there, and so from then on it got only worse.

First there was the worldwide oil crisis that drove inflation up and the investments and land speculation down, and the boom as people knew it was basically over. Then Americans started losing the Vietnam war, Thais were left to themselves, and it wasn’t very promising. Then Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia fell into communist hands and Thais were really scared they would be next as communist insurgency was raging through the countryside.

Internally, students who were leaders of 1973 uprising were taking a very anti-American stance, following their counterparts on campuses in the US. That was alarming.

Another major problem is that culturally students didn’t turn out as middle classes expected them to be. In Sarit’s days “student” was a status symbol, students were supposed to enter the sacred halls of bureaucracy and become model citizens. Instead middle classes were confronted with generation of free thinkers who didn’t display any outward respect to the monarchy and analyzed reverent Thai history in terms of class struggles and parallels with Europe. That was shocking. This new generation was very anti-establishment, the same establishment parents groomed them to be the best part of.

The growth in student population during economic crisis also meant many of them were unemployed, or even unemployable.

Another disturbing feature of post 1973 period was tremendous growth in labor strikes. In Sarit’s days unions were outlawed, strikes were unimaginable, and punishment was death. Instead middle classes were forced to endure personal inconvenience, losses in profits, increased wages, absolute impunity, and some unkempt, good for nothing layabouts arguing that this is the way it should be.

It’s in this soil that the right-wing establishment planted the seeds of 1976 crackdown. They came up with their own propaganda – people should unite around Nation-Religion-King triplet and good old values so that the country can pull through the crisis together and fight off communist malaise.

There was nothing scientific or rational about it – the country was supposed to be saved through faith and sacrifices, the country was punished and it needed to be put back on the straight path.

It worked brilliantly. It appealed to people’s core values and memories, and it strengthened itself by offering a “full package” in form of various Village Scouts, Red Gaurs, Nawapon and other popular organizations. Many of those groups were acting as social clubs where disillusioned people got their doze of nationalism, monarchism, traditional culture, songs and stage performances etc. The leaders were local pooyais and hi-so and I suppose membership was somewhat prestigious.

When crisis fully hit and they were told horror stories about what’s to come, and there was a need to blame someone for it, guess who was at the top of their list, edging out Chinese and Vietnamese? Students and the leftist movement in general.

That strategy assured middle class support for the crackdown. The muscle itself came in the form or Nawapon and Krating Daeng (Red Gaurs).

For Nawapon the establishment recruited vocational students, playing up on their second class status and higher unemployment rates. They were offered a chance to get back at their “superior” university counterparts, and they were enticed with the offer of the same goodies their parents wanted them to enjoy – money, booze, brothels, good life. For some reason violence was in these guys nature, when not fighting leftists they were busy bashing each other (and they still do, in 21st century).

Red Gaurs were established by Border Patrol Police, had people close to royal family, and they were driven by pure ideological hatred.

Nawapon and Red Gaurs were armed to the teeth and between 1973 and 1976 they attacked and killed a number of students and leftists, and the police couldn’t touch them. They were practically flaunting their untouchable status.

Ideological connection with middle classes prevented any serious public backlash, and so the right wing was fully prepared to unleash the horror of 6 October, 1976.

People like Samak, with unquestionable loyalty to the Nation-Religion-King, resolute and merciless to enemies were the heroes, and people voted for them with their hearts, and it stayed in their memory for decades – Samak won over a million of Bangkok votes in 2000 elections, people still don’t care about several hundred dead students.

Samak was literally the voice of their hearts back then, and he was no doubt articulate, witty, and intelligent, and they couldn’t accept that he might have been wrong.

After 1976 Nawapon and Red Gaurs were sent off to fight communists, and Village Scouts disappeared themselves, as far as I know. The whole massacre episode was rather embarrassing and was left unspoken, a quiet admission that it was a mistake. Thais don’t do soul cleansing very well, it’s not Christianity with it’s value of confessions, people deal with sins in a different way here.

Samak’s passing

What to make of it?

On one hand it’s a good time to forget his controversial side and focus on “RIP” but I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose.

There’s a lot to be learned from his life and death.

Politically speaking he was a very very unpleasant fellow with absolute disregard for freedoms and even human lives, not to mention the media. It was less than two years ago when he declared with a straight face that only one person died during 1976 massacre to which he personally contributed by rallying the mobs against the commies.

In a one dimensional world he’d be served nothing but condemnation for this, but I believe there’s more to this story.

Take the media. He made a career and a name for himself as a journalist and even once owned a newspaper. I believe he knew how media works a lot better than any of us, internet critics. We believe in unbiased reporting and some abstract “truth”, from Samak’s point of view none of that exists and media and journos are dirven by their own agendas, and I find it hard to disagree.

If he didn’t give them as much respect as we expect it was probably because he knew how much respect they deserved exactly. In my opinion CNN deserves to be lied and manipulated, for example. They accept it when it suits their editorial line, why protest when someone lies to them about something they don’t like?

When Samak was shouting at some female reporter from Al Jazeera we saw him attack the press, Samak probably saw a young and ignorant faceless upstart biting a lot more than she could chew just because she was sent there by an “important” news agency. Samak probably didn’t want to talk unless she was “properly introduced”, and I believe should would have behaved differently, too.

Samak lived in a world where everybody was connected and related to everybody else and no one was allowed to pretend any independence. In that sense I can easily trace my own connection to Samak, either via my family or my work. It would be just a few steps before he would say: “Ok, enough, now I know who you are.” My Internet persona is something different, though.

If I talked to Samak as StanG who writes this blog, he’d probably skip on that and asked for my real identity instead, and then tried to reconcile what I write here and what I would say in real life. I would have some real explaining to do, if he even paused to listen, and I think it’s fair and I wouldn’t blame him for that or for whatever unflattering words he’d chose for me.

Reconciling his involvement in 1976 is a lot more difficult, but I believe it deserves an attempt, too. Why? I never had any positive thoughts for those mobs and the police that let them on a mad rampage on that day, but one short blurb in The Nation’s report on Samak’s last moments made me puzzled about this:

“..Samak’s relatives had no idea the end was near until the patient deliriously remarked about angels surrounding his hospital bed..”

There’s no chance he was visited by angels if his 1976 exploits were not somehow forgiven. Of course you could simply refuse to talk about any angels at all and stop reading right here, but let’s assume that there were indeed angles and not demons surrounding his deathbed, and he wasn’t taken to one of the numerous buddhist hells but to some heavenly planet with lots of cats and heaps of noodles and unrivaled fresh produce.

That’s what forced be stop and think of possibilities. Maybe he was just doing his job, like an executioner who doesn’t go to hell for chopping people’s heads off. Or maybe he sincerely felt it was the right thing to do, and maybe he was somehow right.

Like with media example, we approach those events from a certain angle, in our universe October 1976 is universally condemned. For Samak, however, and the rest of the Thai society, it wasn’t a black and white affair as it is portrayed to us in popular history. There were real people involved in it, with real aspirations and feelings, sharing some and diverging in other areas.

Prapas-Thanom regime overthrown in student uprising in 1973 is viewed extremely negatively, too, but just a few years earlier it was perfectly acceptable and there was nothing major to complain about, judging by former British ambassador letter. On page 5 Thanom is described as “benevolent, accomodating, cautious, not spectacularly rich” and carries “general goodwill”. Compare this to how he is viewed now on wikipedia – it’s as if they are describing a different person.

Something happened in those three years between 1973 and 1976 that turned public opinion in a completely opposite direction. So far I’ve heard only the student side of the story, the “prosecution”. I’ve yet to see “defense” arguments. I think it’s quite plausible that Samak’s role in those event shouldn’t be demonized, as I myself have done in the past. It is unacceptable now, but in those days, over thirty years ago, it could have looked entirely different and, perhaps, the judgment should be reserved until more information is available.

And then there’s human side of Samak, and it was almost universally adored, there seems to be a consensus that he was everybody’s favorite uncle. I have no doubts that he was a devout Buddhist, exemplary in his behavior and thoughts. I’m pretty sure that it was this side of his life that earned him a visit from the angels, if it ever happened. Even his harsh speech was admired by many, if only for his skill and presentation. While some wanted to sensor his weekly radio program for inappropriate language, others were apparently glued to their radios, trying to learn: “His Sunday talks when he was prime minister, on the Thai language, history and culture, was a weekly enjoyment as I could close my ears to his political views.” – from a letter by Songdej Praditsmanont.

At the end of the day, many of his political enemies would pay him their last respects on his funeral. Newin, who blocked his return to PMship last year and later defected to join Democrats, went to Samak’s bathing rights already. He was duly booed by some reds, as were Democrats themselves, even though Newin cannot be really called Samak’s protagonist.

Samak started his political career in Democrat party, btw. Of course it was a different outfit than it is now but it’s an interesting factoid to reflect on.

I wish I could conclude by saying customary RIP, but, I think Samak wouldn’t have cared even a little about that. He never wanted any reconciliation with his “enemies”, he never felt the need to apologize for any of the things he is accused of, so I don’t think extending that unwarranted forgiveness is necessary, as in “Samak, we forgive you, RIP”. Crap.

I’d rather ask for his blessings instead, he doesn’t need any of mine.