Because the Blood of the Plebeian is not without Value

By Thanavi Chotpradit
Translated by Sudarat Musikawong

[Click here to read the archived PDF of the Thai original, or go to https://www.the101.world/99-dead/]

When performing arts encounters visual arts in one area, and when multiple ‘narratives’ run parallel, overlapping, interlacing, and detaching all in one area, within that space, is a prism of meaning. Korkrit Jianpinidnan created The House No. 1, an installation that transformed 100 Tonson Gallery into a space in-between the world of literature and the world of reality for Pichet Klunchun to perform Ganesha.

This ambiguity of space between the worlds is not only a story about the loss of Ganesha’s tusks, but the current state of political affairs in which, even we, cannot tell the whole truth, but still witness a fraction of it.

Thanavi Chotpradit

Prism, 2010

The above quote is from a curator’s essay in the 2010 exhibition Prism, the year that Red-Shirts gathered from all over the country in Bangkok. Led by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the rally lasted from March 12 to May 19. And if anyone remembers, the conflict expressed between the ‘commoner plebeian and the elite aristocracy’ Prai-Amart had spread throughout the movement.

‘Prai-Amart’ indicates inequality, an inequality marked by unequal persons (or that which does not see ‘People as the same’). For the Red-Shirts, words like “I’m just a commoner” or “Is plebeian’s blood worthless” are both declarations of identity and a counter-criticism question. These were articulated because one realized that they were merely commoner plebeians in an authoritarian structure that was both hardened and reinforced…

The only difference was that year, the commoner plebeians rose up to fight.

March is when I was preparing to hold an exhibition Prism which is a collaboration between Kornkrit Jianpinidnan and Pichet Klunchun at 100 Tonson Gallery. In the last part of my curatorial essay, “but the current state of political affairs in which, even we, cannot tell the whole truth, but still witness a fraction of it,” I am not only referring to the aspects of reality in the political situation outside the gallery fence, but something that the audience could not see. It is the black letters sprayed on the galvanized corrugated sheet walls— a question: “Will the plebeian’s blood be worthless?” (changed from the original word ‘it'[mun derogatory ‘it’] to ‘will'[ja]) as part of The House No. 1 of Kornkrit.

This degrading question disappeared from the audience’s eyes because I abided by the gallery’s wishes. In art exhibition, the curator is the intermediary between the artist and other stakeholders. At that time, I failed to insist that the work to be installed where it was intended to be. The ultimate compromise was to turn the back-side of the galvanized corrugated sheet to the front face of the gallery. While the words were not censored from the room, and the question is still there, the artist’s intentions escaped the gallery walls. Now facing the white wall, that which represents traditional institutional power in the art-world, the work stood wall-to-wall, but without the power of perception from the outside viewpoint. No manifestation of personal testimony was visible. The fragments of that reality were allowed to turn inward and showed no hint of what was hidden and turned inside behind the wall. The question only shouted in silence with nobody to hear it.

Such is the state of art that with a predictable attitude tells itself that it will not scream or yell about the crackdown that ensued but a few months ago. It is the same with the plebeian protesters who survived the crackdown in April-May. We keep it to ourselves, staying with the question that is hidden behind the galvanized corrugated wall. We dispersed and went about our other work. We haven’t forgotten the resentment. We meet each other at other gatherings and wait for the right time.

19 September 2020

10 years after the red shirt massacre and 14 years after the coup by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin,[1] the Red Comrades and Liberation Arts (FreeArts) organized a performance 99 Dead [99 Sop] on the road in front of the Supreme Court. which was part of a large rally on the 19th of September by the Thammasat United Front gathered at Sanam Luang to rally in an effort to reclaim power to the people.[2]

When the darkness fell, the spectators lined up along the road behind the black and yellow crime scene tape stretched between the white and red wooden barriers. The tape-barrier separated the performance area from the audience area. However, still on the same level, the street performances did not have a stage. Here, no one had to look upward. Only the intimacy of the inner observers who, for one step closer would become participants, was present.

Nevertheless, the short distance was strictly maintained. (Regardless of stickers on the floor– “the space of using real bullets,” and the “sanctuary area” as marked on the ground), the distinction between the world inside versus the world outside, was further exaggerated by the tape barrier. As rain mist fell during the middle of the show, most of the audience had to cover themselves with raincoats, covering their faces, their heads with hats, umbrellas, and masks. We became watchers from a different time.

On the street that has been transformed into the theatrical space memorializing the tragedy of the massacre, a decade ago, there were small plastic bags with red powder paint scattered everywhere. The show began as a poet walked from the end of the street. Poet Kal Real questioned the state violence repetitively committed since the events of October 6 to the present, as white-robed persons followed slowly behind in procession.[3]

Have you forgotten, or not?
The scratch marks, the old poems & verses
The melodies of revolutionary songs, the eulogies for martyrs
The tragedy of massacre on the grounds “under the Bodhi tree”

……………………

Or, is it unrememberable?
The pile of people’s bodies on a pyre of hatred
Like scrap parts of plebeians & slaves
Torn off by the force of booby traps & land mines left after the war
Left for the vultures & the crows to feast on merrily

Bold is mine, the plebeian.

While the poet lingered on the words and the demands bound to the call for mourning, welded to the deaths by the state. Of each era, there was the next wave of the plebeian deaths. The next scene unfolded without waiting for the poet to leave the scene. People in white fell down one by one. Then a small group of men in black shirts and camouflage t-shirts rushed in from behind with the national flag and plastic weapons, sprinting and screaming, “Kill it!” There was a bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! The coloured bags on the floor broke and blood splattered on the white shirts. Even the poet was unable to escape. Likewise, the poet fell; then rose again, staggered, and still muttering the poem, “Or, is it unrememberable?”

Then a procession of white-shirted people paraded in a lined along the boards. One after another, and they slowly fell to the ground. The bang was still aloud. Everyone’s bodies were stained red, their clothes, faces, limbs, blood, all over. But, like zombies, they rose up again, slowly moving on, following one another in procession only to fall again and again. The sound of the bang and red in the air contrasted against the endless darkness.

The scene of the massacre finally came to an end, leaving the audience in a silent trance dream-state. But suddenly a new set of brutal acts appeared in the form of smiles and laughter that erupted. The national flag and the broom appeared as fast as a storm. “Big Cleaning Day” swept and washed away the streets of blood. Remnants of the Red Shirts or was it but for the city’s middle class— Was the plebeians’ blood worth nothing?[4]

It is a simulation of the April-May 2010 Red Shirt massacre that has been condensed to but a few minutes in the form of performance. Among the more than sixty volunteer performers there was one person who was special. She is Phayao Akahad, mother of Kamolkade Akahad, a volunteer nurse who was shot dead in the nursing tent at Pathum Wanaram Temple on May 19, 2010.[5] Here Phayao plays her own daughter. She wore the same nursing vest that Kamolkade wore on the day of the killing. The real thing was the red on the vest that was the blood stain of her daughter from that day.

For me, Phayao’s appearance was the most heart-breaking picture. She wore a real blood-stained shirt unlike the fake blood on the other performers, her shirt was one that did not come from a wound of an unknown person. Yet another thing was that this mother played the role of her own child. Unlike the other actors who played the role of someone who had no direct relation, when we gazed at Phayao, we saw the shadow of her daughter cast over her. The living and the dead, together as a pair (Phayao and Kamolkade) are the blood relations between mother and daughter. Such truths are resonating because generally it is the younger person that remembers those who first came onto the world prior. Nature assigns the expression of mourning as but a role for the descendants of a later generation.

Of course, there are always counter-cases in which the child dies before their parent. If it were not for an illness, it might had been an unexpected sad but comprehensible accident. Her death was absurd. How do you explain why a volunteer nurse who was on duty in a nursing tent in a temple (Aphaiyathan Area/ Wat Pathum Wanaram Rachaworawihan), the day after the announcement that the demonstrations ended, was shot dead?[6]

Of the “99 Dead,” Phayao is the most powerful actor in this story (without uttering a word); not because she has better acting skills, but because the role she must portrayed was based on an actual incident with her own daughter. The drama was brutally cruel, as it also returns the grief of a mother having to play the role of her own child, on the very day of her death.

At the end of the performance, the names of the deceased were read in order. Upon arriving at “No. 84, Miss Kamolkade Akahad,” Phayao was turning another performer lying on the floor, and slapped a red-colored bag at her own forehead before falling down herself… It was a re-enacted experience, repeating past pains. When a mother becomes a child, the mother is also a mother. With the other actors, she stood up again, but as a mother who rose up to fight.

The elements of experiential and emotional truth concentrated and embodied in Phayao, makes her a performer that consists of two characteristics. That is- even if she ‘played the role’ as the deceased daughter, yet she – in the same body – is also a ‘real person’ who is directly affected by these past events.

The fake blood from the dust paint smeared on the mother highlighted the lineage, linking mother to daughter. Mixed with the real blood from ten years ago, stained on the nurse’s vest she was wearing, the 99 Dead performance embraced historical truths, suturing into the flesh, firmly embedded in blood stained fabric. Not to underscore the suffering of loss, but the performance was but not for the process of returning a mother’s pain; but if only to open the eyes and hearts of the public.

This performance created a learning process that arose from a sensitivity what is seen before the audience. It certainly was in a format different from that learned through reading or other means because most of the viewers knew who this middle-aged woman in front of them was. Because after the death of Kamolkade, Phayao became a key activist who has continued to demand justice for her daughter and other victims [in the 2010 massacre] over the years. Of the 99 Dead, it was not mere pretend role, but Phayao Akahad represented the wounds of unrealized justice.

As a performance that is part of the political movement, 99 Dead creates an understanding between external conditions (as an event of the past– ten years ago) and the mental state within the audience in self-refection, a process when you get to know the events of the past. This leads to the emergence of a collective consciousness that binds between the past and present battles. The connection, transmission and adoption of such ideologies were consistent with other forum phenomena that bound a hundred former plebeian fighters. Examples abound, such as the People’s Party, Chit Phumisak, prisoners and political refugees, those murdered for political reasons, as well as the red shirts in the present-day, because “their fight came before ours.”[7]

Towards the end of 99 Dead, there were shouts of “Someone died here” referring to the Red-Shirts commemoration for those who were killed in the crackdown of the demonstrations. This aspect of the performance was initiated by the Bor Kor Lai Jud [alias, Editor-in-Chief Polka dots], Sombat Boonngamanong.[8] On July 11, 2010, Sombat along with more than 100 participants came to tie pieces of red cloth at the infamous Ratchaprasong Intersection. In the cloth, there is a message– “here— there are people who died.” Some of the demonstrators poured red paint over their bodies and lay down on the ground to re-enact those killed.

Once again, [on a different day] August 1st of the same year, Bor Kor Lai Jud and about 500 participants gathered at the Democracy Monument. After singing the national anthem at 6:00 p.m., the participants dropped on the ground. Re-enacting like they were shot, in remembrance of those killed, again there was shouting “here— there are people who died” as well.

The decision to select the Ratchaprasong area and the Democracy Monument reflect the importance of different types of spaces.[9] The performance and the memorial for the dead at Ratchaprasong was a re-enactment on the space where in 2010, the crackdown against the demonstrators took place. It is a return to the original battlefield, in order to seek justice, but using the space of the Democracy Monument had a more meaningful and memorable dimension. The Democracy Monument was not the only area where the Red-Shirts congregated. The space also importantly symbolizes the ideologies of the People’s Party version of democracy that the Red Shirts desired to inherit.

A mock burial mound strewn around the Democracy Monument sent a message that their deaths were a death for democracy. It underscored the same message that had previously been sent when Red Shirts used the Democracy Monument spatial grounds to hold a funeral service for the dead in the April 2010 crackdown.

The main difference between the 2010 memorial service and performance of the 99 Dead lies in the freshness of the massacre and the distance of time that resulted in a relationship between the demonstrators murdered and those who performed in remembrance of them. Of the 99 Dead, many of the volunteer performers were 18-20 years old. They have no memory of the events from ten years ago. What they know about the crackdown on the demonstrators came later. Another note is that while the 2010 memorial event linked the Red Shirts to the People’s Party (like other Red Shirts actions in 2009-2010 that were held at various monuments built under the People’s Party rule), the performance 99 Dead extended a much-like connection between the plebeian fighters of another era, passed onto that of the present-day person.

Remembrance is not just about reviewing and memorizing, but about creating unity, forming solidarities that transcend time between different groups of people, classes, tastes, and specific interests in the process of performance. The dead are arisen, the corpses rise and fall. They awaken the living to join the long battle. This battle is passed on with a [much known] saying reflecting a strong desire… “Let it end with our generation.” Although no one knows for sure whether or not “our generation” must continue to expand the struggle without knowing the end date– – it is to dream the impossible dream.[10]

As part of a social action the performance 99 Dead revisits and counter-acts the destruction of humanity through killing. All 99 of the dead were resurrected in the bodies of volunteer performers. They are not spirit-possessed mediums because it is all role re-enactments. But even then, they might that be considered a type of ghost or a zombie-demon who fell and got up, to keep walking and spreading thoughts and memories to the living in every which direction. The ultimate purpose of the performance, however, was not only to learn and remember, but an act in the pursuit of justice and deliverance from oppression. The same shared intention for a large gathering is so that there will be no more oppressed, so that there are no more plebeians, commoners [who must die]. In order to have only equality amongst the people the death of the plebeian common people must not be meaningless, because— “the blood of the plebeian is not without value.”

To go back but a few hours before the show started, I travelled to Sanam Luang via Na Phra Lan Road. The first eye-catching object seen through the crowd was the green iron fence and tamarind trees that line the area was a large red cloth flag placed in the center of Sanam Luang, then I was suddenly overflowed with tears.[11]

About the translator:

Sudarat Musikawong is a sociologist at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University. Her work research examines two forms of justice: historical justice in the public sphere in Thailand (regarding past state violence) and Thai migrant worker justice. She positions her investigations within cultural-political sociology and ethnographic research. Her long-term research goals are to develop methodologies and theoretical frameworks that provide connections between these often-divergent research agendas between the social sciences and humanities.


[1] https://prachatai.com/english/node/7069
https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Ex-army-chief-who-ousted-Thaksin-backs-use-of-coups-in-Thailand

[2] https://www.facebook.com/FreeArtsTH
https://goo.gl/maps/EvrA5DtRz58CktKi7

[3] https://www.facebook.com/KalRealStudio/photos/?ref=page_internal

[4] Big Cleaning Day was a joint effort by the 2010 Abhisit government and civilians that washed the streets and removed the forensic evidence of the May 2010 Massacre, making subsequent investigations impossible and truth commission efforts challenging.

[5] For more details about the May 2010 Massacre and details about victims see Human Rights Watch Thailand link:  https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/05/03/descent-chaos/thailands-2010-red-shirt-protests-and-government-crackdown

[6] https://www.khaosod.co.th/newspaper-column/in-the-news/news_4147530
https://goo.gl/maps/WhTSPNURgjU4AzH57

[7] https://spectrejournal.com/down-with-feudalism-long-live-the-people/
https://prachatai.com/english/node/8041

[8] https://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/tag/sombat-bunngamanong/
https://www.wikipe.wiki/wiki/th/สมบัติ_บุญงามอนงค์

[9] https://goo.gl/maps/Nvo3tSEvgRKCMYwS7
https://goo.gl/maps/X39MugiiRGqPWLXo9
https://prachatai.com/english/node/5235
https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/05/03/descent-chaos/thailands-2010-red-shirt-protests-and-government-crackdown

[10] https://www.facebook.com/ThammasatUFTD/videos/vb.104134454728017/732227387328344/?type=2&theater 

[11] The Sanam Luang tamarind trees are reminiscent of infamous the 6th October 1976 massacre hangings. 
https://goo.gl/maps/X7xKkrjpiF3t98qK6
https://prachatai.com/english/node/7416
https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/arts-and-entertainment/1098817/in-the-eye-of-the-storm

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