THE CIRCLE OF NAKHON PATHOM
By Andrew Biggs
Greetings from Nakhon Pathom! This week your favorite columnist finds himself in a hotel room for five days in this little town just west of Bangkok.
“Little town” is hardly a good description, though it was certainly that way when I first visited here a quarter-century ago. Bangkok has since extended her tentacles, swallowing up the likes of as Samut Prakan and Nonthaburi and Minburi.
Over to the west is a motley crew of smallish provinces, Nakhon Pathom being one of them, and in the process of being devoured as well. There are two things I associate with Nakhon Pathom, namely the massive historic pagoda smack bang in the middle of town. The other thing I have always associated the province with is unrest, which is kind of weird, until I checked back on my diaries and found out the reason why.
But before we get into that, the pagoda. It is the single most dominant and striking aspect of the night sky through my hotel window.
(The other window looks onto an adjacent apartment block, where I can see into every single apartment and, if I weren’t so deadline-challenged, would spend my evening not unlike Jimmy Stewart in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window; armed with a lot of curiosity and a discreet telescope. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night.)
The pagoda at Nakhon Pathom is not your average Buddhist structure. Nor is it technically a pagoda; it is a “stupa.” With a rotund base it resembles a massive upturned burnt-orange bell, shooting 120 metres into the air, making it the tallest stupa in the world.
Original construction began more than 2,000 years ago, but fires and earthquakes and time took their tolls. It has been constantly built upon, the latest incarnation being about 150 years old. It was here that Buddhism first entered the region from India and spread throughout what is now Thailand. The name Nakhon Pathom means “first city” for this reason.
It is 235 metres around the base, which I walked this evening, before returning to my double-windowed hotel room and choosing to open the curtains on the temple side. So why do I also associate this giant stupa with unrest? The answer can be found in my diaries.
At this point I have to confess that as a serial writer I have kept a daily diary for the last 30 years of my life. This may seem unremarkably admirable or obsessive compulsive depending on the way you look at it, but it does serve a purpose. Whenever I need to check back on events, I can pop back into my past. I know exactly when my beloved three-legged dog Kanokwan died (December 6, 2000), or a strange week in 1995 in Koh Samui where my diary entries are nothing but weird drawings of planets and cryptic passages such as NOT MUCH LONGER NOW TILL IT WEARS OFF.
For this reason I know I came to Nakhon Pathom on Friday, May 8, 1992, writing a travel column for The Nation newspaper. I decided to stay the weekend until Sunday lunchtime when I caught a bus back to Bangkok.
No wonder I associate the province with unrest. That was one week before Black May, a series of dark events in modern Thai history which I experienced first-hand.
I had been in Thailand just three years. Only the year before the military had toppled the Chatichai Choonhavan government on the grounds it was corrupt.
Under General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the military set up a government and installed the popular Anand Panyarachun as prime minister. In March, two months before my Nakhon Pathom trip, there were national elections. The winning coalition government appointed General Suchinda as prime minister all over again, despite his not running in a constituency. An unelected prime minister would lead the country.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This was at a time when the Thai middle class was starting to get a little savvy. It was still a good two or three years before the internet would arrive, but mobile phones had certainly infiltrated society (albeit in the form of bricks). The general feeling was: Why did we just have elections? What was the point if the politicians go ahead and appoint an outsider to lead the country?
This fueled a groundswell of dissidence. These were not rebel-rousers or insurgents. The average Thai was incensed. A middle-class uprising was in progress. And all they wanted was for Suchinda to stand down and an elected prime minister take his place.
I attended one of the first major rallies in Sanam Luang a few nights after I returned to Bangkok from Nakhon Pathom. It was a night I will never forget; a hundred thousand Thais gathered, riding on the backs of pick-up trucks down Ratchadamnoen Avenue into Sanam Luang. I stayed there well into the early morning hours, buoyed by the frenetic energy of the place.
According to my diary I woke up the next morning with a bad cold, no doubt from rubbing shoulders with the masses the night before. I took the day off work and stayed in bed all day. And it was later that night the military rolled the tanks in and started firing mercilessly at the crowds in and around Sanam Luang.
What followed were three hellish days of shootings and cat-and-mouse chases between unarmed protestors and the well-armed military. Average Thais dodged bullets and some did not, with at least 50 dead from the shootings. It would have been even worse were it not for an intervention by King Bhumibol himself. On the night of May 20 a rally was called at Ramkhamhaeng University and I saw, with my own eyes, trucks of armed men in formation moving towards the university just hours before the protest was due to begin.
At around 9 pm that evening, all channels broadcast an amazing scene. His Majesty was seated as he gave a stern lecture to arched enemies General Suchinda and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang, who both sat meekly on the floor after having prostrated themselves before the King. Stop acting like selfish people, the King instructed, and put the interests of the country first.
Immediately after, TV stations televised those two arched rivals with stony faces seated at a table reading prepared speeches. Chamlong would call off the protests. And unelected General Suchinda would stand down, which he did four days later.
What a time in Thai history!
For me it was a fascinating glimpse into the machinations of Thai politics. So many things happened behind the scenes and I watched many of them unfold.
One of my greatest memories; sitting in the newsroom as a more-than-slightly-eccentric Thai reporter approached me in the newsroom and threw down what I thought was a pebble onto my desk.
“Do you know that that is?” he asked, visibly shaken. “A portion of a cranium of a pro-democracy protester shot dead.” Such were the scenes from those out-of-the-ordinary days.
And now, here I am back in Nakhon Pathom. The pagoda hasn’t changed, though bathed in better lighting now, and I am still writing a daily diary.
\But what a chilling coincidence, isn’t it, that I am here on the day the military government is laying plans for an election in which provisions have been made to allow for an unelected prime minister. I hope … I pray … that there is no circle coming around in that regard.