Ryan Harvey

Pleng Phua Cheewit: The Story of Thailand’s Revolutionary Folk Music

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:15 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Last year, I had the privilege to meet two members of Thailand’s radical farmer movements, one named Ubon who was the Thai representative of the People’s Global Action network. PGA is a huge network of poor people’s movements from around the world, which put out the first calls for what became known as the “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement. The event was hosted by ENGAGE, a U.S. group that works to promote solidarity between U.S. students and Thai farmers. I performed at the event and sang some of my songs. Afterwards, speaking with Ubon through an interpreter, he told me about their own protest folk music, which was created by students and activists fleeing a military dictatorship in the early 70’s and finding refuge among the farmers and guerillas in the north. Ever since that conversation I’ve been wanting to know, and especially hear, more about Pleng Phua Cheewit. I wrote this article based on web-sources to shine some light on this movement of music, but it is by no means an accurate or all encompassing account.

As China and Vietnam saw communist governments emerge in the late 1940’s, a nationalist right-wing military regime, strongly backed by the United States, took power in Thailand. Political activists and opponents of the regime were kidnapped and executed by the police, though opposition managed to organize several attempts to overthrow the government. With the final attempt, the regime abolished their own constitution, which was only two years old, and effectively eliminated all democratic institutions of government. This provoked strong opposition from the universities, which led to more repression of activists.

Phibun Songkhram, the dictator, attempted to restore the constitution in 1955 to retain power, but the military overthrew him and installed their new ally, General Thanom Kittikachorn as Prime Minister, who in turn gave his place to General Sarit, head of the military. When General Sarit died in 1963, Thanom took power again. Sarit and Thanom were supportive of a monarchy-style government, recognizing the role of the King in Thai tradition, and strict order. Their regimes were strongly backed by the U.S.; Sarit sent Thai soldiers to Vietnam and Laos to fight the Vietcong and associated guerilla movements along side the U.S. and opened Thailand’s east to the U.S. to build airbases for bombing their neighbors. To challenge this, the Vietcong supported Thailand’s own Communist Party and guerilla movements in the north, northeast and south of the country.

With U.S. military backing came U.S. culture, and Thai society was effectively westernized by the late 60’s, the family unit breaking down and an economic boom bringing many into the cities for work. The population of Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol, grew tenfold from 1945 to 1970. This westernization also opened Thailand’s universities to a revival of student activism, as more ideas poured in and opposition to the military regime took a solid shape.

THE PEASANT AND STUDENT MOVEMENTS

During the military rule from 1945 up through 1960, the nobility was given free access to the north, where peasants were systematically deprived of their traditional land. By 1960, 30 percent of peasants in the north were landless. As the cities saw a rise in standards of living and a new middle class towards 1970, the rural poor saw nothing. Rural movements against the government grew quickly and the government sent soldiers to many villages to instill fear. This however, only intensified rural opposition to the government, and a peasant movement emerged. Students from the south helped the growing peasant movement with solidarity protests in the cities, mainly focused on land-loss, high rent and police repression of rural activists. Though the government held hearings and created a committee to hear peasant’s complaints, which saw over 50,000 petitions, little changed. The committee called many of the peasants’ demands unrealistic and the government continued to drive peasants further into poverty.

In 1968, in response to growing calls from student and business organizations, Thanom called for elections, and of course, his military-party won. The clear set-up caused many lawmakers and professionals to openly challenge the regime, which then, with Thanom’s command, dissolved Parliament and suspended the constitution once again, bringing about another era of absolute military rule.

Their regimes were strongly backed by the U.S.; Sarit sent Thai soldiers to Vietnam and Laos to fight the Vietcong and associated guerilla movements along side the U.S. and opened Thailand’s east to the U.S. to build airbases for bombing their neighbors. To challenge this, the Vietcong supported Thailand’s own Communist Party and guerrilla movements in the north, northeast and south of the country.

With U.S. military backing came U.S. culture, and Thai society was effectively westernized by the late 60’s, the family unit breaking down and an economic boom bringing many into the cities for work. The population of Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol, grew tenfold from 1945 to 1970. This westernization also opened Thailand’s universities to a revival of student activism, as more ideas poured in and opposition to the military regime took a solid shape.

Student protests grew to be a real force by the early 70’s. In June of 1973, nine students from the Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok were expelled for writing and publishing an article in a student newspaper that was critical of the military-regime. In response to this act of repression, thousands of students demonstrated at the ironically named Democracy Monument, established by Phibun after seizing power in 1932. The monument was highly unpopular due to such ironies, but now students would use it as their own symbol. The rally called for the nine students to be re-enrolled in school. The government backed down and allowed the students to be re-enrolled.

CARAVAN

During the 1973 protests, two student organizers from Ramkamhaeng University, Nga Surachai Chanthimathon and Virasak Suntornsii, formed the band Caravan, and effectively created the genre “Pleng Phua Cheewit” (Songs for Life). This title, according to Nga, derived from Chit Phum Sak’s translation of a book by Mao Tse Tung’s on art and music. “From this book, he coined the phrase ‘For Life’. So if you wrote a radical play, it was called ‘Drama For Life’. If you wrote a song, it was ‘Song For Life’. Chit Phum Sak was killed in the jungle by government troops in 1965, but he started it all. He was our hero.”

This style of blending traditional Thai and Khmer folk music with American protest-folk was largely inspired by the arrival, via U.S. soldiers in the northeast, of Western anti-war songs from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles. “Remember this was the late 60’s. I grew my hair like Jimi Hendrix. I loved listening to this new music, smoking ganja, hanging out with artists, students and journalists. But I was a writer. My friends told me ‘Become a musician, you already look like a hippy.’ So I learned to play a little, a few chords, A minor, C, D… I was against the Vietnam War. I had fun with the GIs but I hated the war. In the nightclubs I heard American music and socialized with the soldiers. But I felt I had to ask questions about why the US were fighting in my area, my part of the world. We demonstrated much like young people did in the West at the time. This was the hippy generation –anti-war. And the Thai government in 1972 was fascist. At that time, the Army stopped us in the street to cut our hair. There and then, we had no choice. My country was really terrible then.”

In October 1973, 13 students were arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. Students mobilized a support campaign that drew in large numbers of workers, businessmen, and other Thai citizens. Hundreds of thousands marched demanding the release of the students. Members of Caravan, including Nga and Virasak, helped organize at Thammasat, drawing maps for the protests. As the numbers grew, so did the demands, and soon they were calling for a new constitution and government. The government released the students soon afterwards, and a large rally was called off by organizers. However, as students tried to leave the monument area, police harassment and intimidation led to tear gas and gunfire. Students rioted and the military was called in, firing into the university from helicopters and bringing tanks to occupy the city. Students attempted to hijack buses and fire engines to stop the tanks but were unsuccessful. Dozens of students were killed. King Bhumibol ordered the gates of his palace opened to the students, a clear and significant act of protest against the military. Though Thanom called for a full military crackdown, Army commander Kris Sivara ordered the soldiers to withdrawal. With the Army withdrawn, the King issued an order that Thanom leave the country. Thanom resigned as Prime Minister that night and went into exile, to the United States, effectively ending the military dictatorship. A new constitution was formed and a democratic government and Parliament took power, the King appointing Sanya Dharmasakti, an employee of the Thammasat University and a sympathizer with the students, Prime Minister.

After the ousting of Thanom and the dictatorship, many students, including those from Caravan, traveled to the farm-regions in the North, to meet with and experience the culture of the peasants they had fought to defend. They experienced rural poverty and shared with the farmers their understandings of the Thai economy, how the dictatorship had led to the poverty of the North. Singing around campfires the students and farmers weaved together their stories into songs. These songs helped bridge the gaps between the students and peasants and, when brought back to the cities, helped mobilize student support for the peasant movements.

It is here that Caravan really found their niche. Their lyrics, set to traditional Thai instruments like the pin, a 3-stringed instrument on the Northeast, violins, and flutes, as well as western instruments like electric guitars, talked about the struggles of these farmers, as well as protest songs about the U.S. military presence and backing of the Thanom regime and support songs for the guerilla movements. Some lyrics were written by Jit Pumisak, a leftist historian, author, intellectual, teacher and poet who is considered the first historian to write a Marxist-based history of Thailand. After the 1957 coup, Jit was arrested for his writings and held until 1965. Upon release, he joined the armed struggle of guerillas in the Northeast and was killed one year later by government soldiers. He was a hero of the student movement and Caravan. Caravan’s most popular song, Man and Buffalo, talked about peasant guerillas working the land:

Man with man work the fields

In the way of man.

Man with buffalo work the fields

In the way of the buffalo.

Man working with buffalo

Is rooted deep in our history.

They’ve worked together for ages.

But it works out alright.

Come, let’s go now! Come, let’s go!

Carry our plows and guns to the fields!

Poverty and weariness endured too long!

Bitter tears held back too long!

Hardships and troubles so heavy,

But whatever the burden, we will not fear!

Here is the song of death,

The death of our humanity.

The rich eat our labor,

Set one against the other,

As we peasants sink deeper in debt.

And they call us savages!

We must destroy this system!

After a few years of playing shows nearly every day, traveling the country mobilizing students, farmers and workers, Caravan enjoyed some underground fame: “Channel 3, the government channel invited us to play on one of their shows. We played three times and they cut the show. They stopped the program. All our songs were banned immediately. That made us very famous.” With the economy slowing down and movements from the Right gaining power, Thailand again experienced a wave of military repression. Right-wing militant groups like the Village Scouts, tied to the Border Patrol Police, the Red Gaur, and the far-right Navapol grew strong. A wave of anti-communism swept Thailand over these years, aided by these right-wing militias.

THE OCTOBER 6TH MASSACRE

While Caravan toured the country and the Right trained themselves with weapons, Thanom returned from exile and was secretly ordained a monk at Wat Bovornives, a Buddisht temple in Bangkok, guarded by Navapol soldiers. Major protests were organized in response, prompting Parliament to vote to again expel the former military dictator from the country.

On September 25th, 1976, police beat and hung protesters in the Nakhon Pathom province, noth of Bangkok. Labor and student groups held mass marches on September 30th and October 3rd in response. On October 4th, students at Thammasat University, where Nga Surachai Chanthimathon and other members of Caravan had helped plan the 1973 demonstrations, students staged a play about the hangings in Nakhon Pathom. A newspaper article about this play replaced one of the faces of hanged students to resemble the Crown Prince, causing a rumor that students were planning to assault the King’s palace and the Wat Bovornives temple. The Army encouraged right-wing militias to attack students via the radio and militias, the Army and the police mobilized outside the university.

By nighttime on October 5th, 4000 right-wing paramilitary troops were gathered at the gates of Thammasat University. In the morning, the militias started firing into the school, the police chief authorizing a “free fire”. Though students called for a ceasefire, the shooting continued as the paramilitaries entered the university. Students were beaten to death, shot, hung, set on fire, and raped by the soldiers. Fleeing students were shot trying to jump into the Chao Phraya River. The massacre continued until the various paramilitary, military, and police groups voluntarily withdrew. Immediately following the massacre another military government seized control of Thailand under the rule of Tanin Kraivixien.

TO THE MOUNTAINS

On an online anarchist/socialist website, Ji Giles Ungpakom writes: “The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship in Bangkok, shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. It was the first time that the pu-noi (little people) had actually started a revolution from below. It was not planned and those that took part had only vague notions about the need for democracy, but the Thai ruling class could not shoot enough demonstrators to protect their regime. In fact the shooting just made people even angrier. It was not just a student uprising to demand a democratic constitution. It involved thousands of ordinary working class people and occurred on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes. Success in over-throwing the military dictatorship bred increased confidence. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. They wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges. Some wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. In response, the Thai ruling class, together with most of the middle class, organized brutality of the utmost barbarity against workers, students and peasant activists. They installed a new dictatorship on the 6th October 1976 over the mutilated bodies of those struggling for freedom.”

Interviewed in 2001, Nga Caravan said “I was not in Bangkok on the 6th of October 1976, the darkest day in our history. Caravan played in Korat on the 4th, in Ubon on the 5th and on the 6th in Khong Kaen. Then we heard that the fascist Thai government was killing demonstrators in Bangkok. It was too dangerous to return to the capital. The revolution had come. We fled into the jungle. We became fugitives.” Many students fled for the Northern hills after the 6th of October, joining the Communist Party of Thailand and other guerilla movements, or seeking refuge with the peasant farmers long supported by the student movement. “The fascists came back and on 6th October 1976, many leaders of our movement died in Bangkok. From Kong Khaen, where we played our last gig that day, we disappeared into the jungle, some of which was under communist control. First we went to Loei, then Udon and Nong Khai. All these places were safe. Many students fled to communist Laos, which welcomed them with open arms.”

Caravan fled into the hills and joined the ranks of peasant farmers and insurgents: ”We joined disaffected farmers, we joined the comrades, we set up art centers in the jungle. Our job was to move, sing and dance. If one of our comrades died, I performed songs for him. Like a monk. The communist party was strong, for a while it was safe.“ Caravan members were wanted fugitives. “After a year I crossed the Mekong and went to Vientiane (the capital of Laos). I stayed over a year in the north of Laos, near Luang Nam Tha. I turned from Hippy to soldier. I cut my hair, I wore a uniform. I carried a gun and a guitar in Laos. I learned to shoot. But I was in safe areas most the time, though sometimes I had to fight, sometimes I almost died… One day, eight of us set off from Udon. At some point we split up. My group got to our rendezvous point, the other four never made it. I wrote a lot of songs for dead friends. From Laos I slipped back into Thailand in 1979 and hid in the forests around Nan. Sometimes my wife and child traveled with me, at other times she traveled for her own activist work. Caravan then worked for communist radio. We wrote songs for a radio channel in Kunming, China. After the Thai government made peace with China, the station closed. We lost our jobs.”

A STRANGE AMNESTY

The genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia caused many on the Left in Thailand to put their weapons down. The government announced a general amnesty for communist rebels, activists and artists. Many accepted this and returned to a somewhat normal life in the cities. “I didn’t want to go back. I was having a great time. I was who lived in the mountains. One by one the other members of Caravan drifted back to the capital. The Thai army was closing in on us. We got into a skirmish with three hundred soldiers, just three of us and we ran and ran and escaped. It was all over. I came back to Bangkok for New Year 1982.”

Caravan reformed immediately and played a large UNICEF concert at Thamasat University. Their performance that night was immensely powerful: “We felt like heroes. Everyone in the audience was crying, because they were so happy to see us. We thought we were the losers crawling back from the jungle but in fact everyone wanted to hear our stories.” Nga reflects that not much had changed in returning. “I don’t know if things were really better. Everything was much more expensive. And we finally sold a lot of records. But I still didn’t like the government. We all had to register with the army. At the same time we did a live album for EMI, which sold well. We did a lot of TV and radio then. We toured in Japan and the Philippines many times and traveled to the USA, to play to Thai audiences there. In Canada we played a big folk festival. In Japan there are Caravan fan-clubs.”

Caravan played their last concert on their 15th anniversary in 1987. Phreng Phu Chiwit has now found a place in the pop-charts, with bands like Carabao, a former protest band, selling beer and energy drinks on national television. By the 1990s, Song For Life theme bars became a nation wide franchise. “Some of these bands do really good business. They do big deals with corporations. We are still half-musicians, half-activists. We don’t sell soft drinks. But Song For Life has been absorbed by Thai society.”

CARAVAN’S LEGACY

None of the right-wing militias involved in the October 6th massacre have even been tried. Many modern history books leave the October 6th massacre out, or mention it as a skirmish between rival forces. Those who were there remember it as a massacre by fascists on a popular, democratic movement of students, peasants and working people.

Though Caravan’s success after 1980 brought them some commercial fame, and the music they sacrificed so many friends and comrades to make has been fully incorporated into the mainstream capitalist market, their history and the story of Pleng Phua Cheewit remains as an example of the power and importance of musical traditions, culture, and art in political movements.

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