One of the darkest days in modern Thai history preceded the internet by two decades and the social media by four. At the time of the October 6, 1976 massacre of anti-government protesters, the mainstream media consisted of a handful of newspapers and TV stations.
Those who are old today were young when the bloodshed, the brutality, the devastating lies and the lynch-mob fever were spinning out of control in Bangkok and beginning to traumatise the national psyche.
Countless Thais hadn’t been born yet when Thammasat University, focal point of the protests, was violently stormed with terrible results.
The first-time voters in last month’s election would have only heard about the 1976 events from history books – meaning they received a fundamentally inaccurate accounting.
The most important lesson learned from that political bloodbath is that it took so little to trigger it.
Those were the days before “keyboard warriors” roiled emotions online and before smartphones were tools for mobilising crowds.
The event stands as proof that propaganda and other lies can spread like wildfire with all the uncontrollable consequences it brings, and there is little anyone can do about it.
This is why everyone needs to be extremely careful lest the current political divide turns into a recipe for a recurrence of October 6.
It has already produced numerous violent incidents among the yellow and red shirts, claiming lives including those of innocent bystanders.
Bangkok’s central business area was in flames. The Police Hospital was invaded, the country’s primary airports occupied. Bombs exploded at rally sites and at a Skytrain terminal.
One of the leaders of an anti-government protest, a man in uniform, was shot dead in broad daylight, though we’ve never agreed whether his assassination was justified or not.
The chaotic March 24 election, whose outcome is still unfolding, is fuelling the fiery political polarity.
As parties in the opposing camps strive separately to form a coalition government, there have been direct and indirect threats of violence – threats that have circulated on the social media.
If circumstances devolve into another October 6, people innocently drawn into the conflict will be among the casualties.
Those inciting the violence will stay out of harm’s way, too wily to be in the line of fire. It will be their foot soldiers who will make the sacrifices for what they’ve been told is a worthy cause, and they will pay the ultimate price.
Politicians are doing whatever it takes to make ordinary citizens believe they are the real stakeholders in this election.
Social networks are being utilised to build prejudice and inflame hatred.
Expect this to intensify as the fight to form a coalition government enters its most crucial phase following the coronation.
Citizens must be wary. Scrutinise the information you receive for possible hidden motives.
Accept no message as fact before you can confirm its truthfulness.
Avoid becoming an unwitting pawn in any political game that has the potential to turn violent.
Thai history gives little cause for optimism, but it does offer important lessons. One of them is that political rhetoric primarily serves the puppet masters.
Today’s puppet masters must be smiling at the Thai addiction to social media, such a valuable toolkit for manipulating public opinion.
The horrors of 1976 were instigated without the internet. Imagine what can be done now. The Nation (Thailand)/Asia News Network