The origin of the political song movement
| Starting in 1958, Thailand was ruled
by a one-man military dictatorship under Sarit Thanarat. When he died in 1963, a
triumvirate of his henchman took over and further consolidated military rule. Field
Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn was elevated to the dual posts of Prime Minister and Minister
of Defense. He placed his son, Narong Kittikachorn, in command of the committee charged
with "uncovering corruption," which could be translated as "fund-raising
and blackmail committee," if one were to call it by its primary function. Narong's
father-in-law, Prapas Jarusathien, was given the post of Minister of Interior, with
complete control over 250,000 armed police, in effect a private army. This position also
gave him control of the border guard and the power to appoint all provincial governors.
Under this avaricious and brutal dictatorship, the Thai peasantry was oppressed and exploited almost to the breaking point, along with the workers and anyone else not part of the ruling class. For ten years, until October of 1973, the people chafed under these intolerable conditions, not daring to protest because of the tight controls over all forms of expressions. But at last the student movement became well enough organized to seek out forms, still technically legal, and to pressure with them for an end to the ruling clique. First however, they took up issues which could help build a mass base for their work.
A student-led struggle which touched the entire population was launched during the so-called "energy crisis" which shook the world during the early 70's. The Thanom regime announced that because of the rise in oil prices the fares on buses would be doubled, meaning that people would spend a minimum of 2 baht per day just going to work and back. At the time, $1.00 = 20 baht, and the average daily wage for workers was 10 baht, or 50 cents. Rallies were illegal, so leaflets and posters, seminars and newsletter were among the methods used to mount the campaign.
It was a student-led boycott against Japanese goods, organized in 1972 by Thirayud Boonmee and others, which brought the student movement further into the center of things. For some time, the standard practice of Japanese manufacturers was to send Thai-produced raw materials to Japan for manufacture and then sell them in Thailand as Japanese products. This was seen as a threat to the livelihood of many Thai workers, and to the continued existence of many small manufacturers. A movement was launched to "Buy Thai," which helped build further bridges between the student movement on the one hand and the workers and petite bourgeoisie on the other.
When a group of students at Ramkamhaeng University launched a criticism against the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn some time later, they were immediately expelled from school. In response, the student body demanded the expulsion of the dean who had punished the protesters. Two of the students who mobilized this movement were Surachai Jantimatorn and Virasak Suntornsii, the founders of Caravan. In the space of a few days, this movement escalated into an uprising which led to the deposition of Thanom Kittikachorn on October 14, 1973.
As students fanned out over the countryside, spending weeks in villages helping farmers reap and thresh the rice harvest, they carried their idealism amid energy with them. For many, this was a new experience which taught them a great deal and helped put a firmer footing under their political ideas. At the end of the long work day, it was the farmer's turn to learn--about the real reasons for the low price of rice, about the difference between the meaning of democracy for the students and for the military clique, and about events in other parts of the country and the world. The gap between student and farmer was a wide one, and often both felt awkward and reticent as they huddled over the evening campfires.
Sometimes one of the students would begin to sing, as a way of overcoming his shyness. "This village is ours, it is very old, and has been here for a long, long time...." and the other students would join in "We never saw very much, never went to school, never learned to read or to write, but we worked hard." As the distinctions blurred, some of the country people would rock themselves to the music or hum along. The sense of trust deepened. "Rice fields, full of nothing but sand, always lacking fish and rice. How many thousands more suffer as we do?"
One song ended, another began. So it would continue, until in a moment of silence a farmer might haltingly offer some words acknowledging acceptance of the students. "These songs you sing," one farmer might say, "they talk about us."
New songs were composed to reflect the conditions of the farmers and the stages of their struggle at that time. These songs were: "Nok See Luang (Yellow Bird)" memorializing the heroic people who sacrificed their lives during the recent uprising; "Kon Gap Kwai (Man and Buffalo)" describing the honest and affectionate relationship between the farmers and their most indispensable equipment, the water buffalo, while condemning the exploitation of the farmers themselves by the bourgeoisie; and "San Saeng Tong (Unite Our Force)" urging people to struggle together in unity.
Two of the leading activists in this work were Surachai and Virasak. Both were under the influence of Bangkok's westernized atmosphere at first. Surachai Jantimatorn is a native of Surin Province, the son of a school teacher and formerly a student at Silapakorn University. Virasak Suntornsii was born in Nakorn Rachasima Province but was a fourth-year law student living an urban life until plunging into political-cultural work. Both were non-professionals who, like many of their generation, learned from musical films, juke boxes and nightclub performers catering to the hundreds of thousands of American GIs and civilians brought to that part of the world by the wars raging in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These two, however, were attracted in particular to the anti-war and satirical songs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Caravan's courageous response to the repressive and unjust Thai society helped awaken the people's political conscience, and the group became an indispensable part of political gatherings. A more intensified repression which came toward the end of 1974 forced their political level to rise and their songs to become more revolutionary. Where first they sang of the frustration and poverty of the villagers in songs like "Word from the Village," the hunting down and killing of many leaders of the progressive forces gave birth to songs like "Ten Murdered Gives Birth to Millions." Not only did they expose the roots of Thailand's rotten society but they urged the masses to consolidate their forces to struggle for a free country in which all would be equal and where goods would be fairly distributed.
Thailand's three years respite from military dictatorship ended on October 6, 1976 at Thammasat University, where students gathered to protest the return to Thailand of former dictator Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn. More than one hundred students were slaughtered on the Bangkok campus that morning, and some 3,000 people arrested. They were packed into prison cells so densely that they had to sleep sitting up. By evening, the civilian government was ousted and martial law declared. As night wore on, the government radio issued a series of military decrees.
Some sense of the power and influence of the left literary and musical expression which flourished during the three year period of relative democracy can be felt from that Decree#5 outlawed "all documents and printed material giving news items which create disunity, lead people to communism and undermine national security." In spite of the ban, all that night and for the days and weeks ahead, students crammed into prison cells defied the junta and sang the "Songs for life."
With the bloody coup, all hope for a peaceful struggle for social change was dashed for the Thai masses. On the very day of the coup, the members of Caravan were carrying out their work, singing at Khon Kaen University in the northeast. After the concert they disbanded quickly and disappeared into the night, taking--it is said--only their guitars and their convictions with them. All their songs, along with those of the other musical/political groups, were immediately banned from the official radio.
Until that time, Caravan's songs had described the harsh conditions of life in Thailand and condemned the presence of the U.S. military, exposing the negative role of U.S. economic and cultural intervention. Their songs spoke of repression and exploitation while they tried to offer courage and hope of a better day.
[Credits: Liner notes from 1978 Paredon Records/Box 889/Brooklyn, New York 11202]
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Kon Gap Kwai (Man and Buffalo)
Kon Pukao (Fighters)
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