For a millennia Thailand, Siam and its preceding states were deeply feudal, exploitative and hierarchical, a far cry from the idyllic agrarian life presented today by the Thai education system. Governed by power and fear these were functionally slave states, where the landlords would tattoo their property, their slaves, to clearly mark both ownership and enforce the caste system. The reforms started by Rama V in the late 18th century radically changed this dynamic on the surface, providing very basic individual freedoms and rights for the kingdoms subjects. However this change came complete with a revisionist history, absolving the crimes of the past by putting strong rose tinted goggles over centuries of Thai society. This vision remained until Jit Phumisak became the first to truly expose Thai history, to lay it bare for what it really was, and inspire a radical attempt to restructure the kingdom, sometimes referred to as the Che Guevara of Thailand, Jit’s legacy as a folk hero of the working class lives on today.
Previously eulogised in the legendary folk ballad, ‘Jit Phumisak’ by Caravan, he is said to be “a philosopher and writer, he became a candle, giving light to humanity”. Today much of Jit’s life is shrouded in mystery and rumour. Born in 1930 to a modest family in Prachinburi Province, he grew up through the Japanese occupation, spending time as a teen in Thai occupied Battambang, Cambodia where his gift for languages led him to speak fluently in modern Khmer and even have a strong understanding of ancient Khmer. After leaving Battambang, Jit finished his education in Bangkok, his remarkable intelligence earned him a place at Chulalongkorn University. The student world Jit entered at Chula was one brimming with radical ideas and organising. Marxist Leninism and then Maoism had become rooted among sections of the student population following the coup of 1947.
At university his grades were indifferent, as he was known to become engrossed with materials outside of the coursework and often become distracted, handing in his assignments late. He even failed the second year of his history course, having to repeat it, ironic as he would become one of Thailand’s most famous and influential historians. He was known among the faculty to be argumentative and for relentlessly questioning his professors.
It is rumoured that Jit was radicalised in 1953 when he was hired by William J. Gedney, an American linguist recruited by the US government to translate the The Communist Manifesto into Thai in an attempt to warn the Thai government about the evils of communism. Jit was hired as a translation aid and was radicalised to Marxist theory. Jit developed a great friendship with Gedney, who he remained close with until his death, Gendry is sometimes even referred to as Jit’s foster father.
He then settled into the radical student life, mostly focused on writing, covering primarily history and linguistics. Known for his remarkable understanding of the Khmer language, Jit wrote several books and articles examining Thai history through an anthropological Marxist perspective. However contrary to today’s understanding of Bangkok student life in the 1950’s, while there were many radical leftists, there was also a strong right wing contingent of students who plagued Jit and his comrades, sometimes violently, with little to no protection from the university officials. Notably in 1953, during the infamous yonbok incident in which a young Jit was knocked unconscious by members of the faculty of engineering, (the faculty was well known for its far right wing leanings).
Jit became well known in the student community, not only for his academic work but for his original music and poetry as well. He penned over 20 songs still widely known today, notably “Starlight of Faith” “แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา”, which is still often sung a political protests, (though we can find no audio recordings of him performing any of his musical work). Much of his poetry and music are tributes to labourers or calls for the working class to rise up and fight the bourgeoisie. A capable musician he also dove into musical theory from a Marxist perspective, writing the book “Art for Life, Art for the People”, which explored the purpose of art, focused on traditional Thai music, insisting that art must have a purpose to serve the people.
In 1957, aged just 27, Jit penned his seminal work ‘The True Face of Thai Feudalism’. This was the first extensive Marxist reading of Thai history, exposing the harsh reality of everyday life in the Kingdom before the reforms of Rama V. The book was a scathing look at Thai history and became extremely popular among the more radical intellectual community. As such it’s ideas were filtered down and cited widely in other works, having a huge influence on how Thai society saw itself and its past.
The book,was of course banned by the right wing Thai government, who at the time were extremely paranoid about communist agitation. Jit, alongside many other radical students, was arrested and imprisoned in Lard Yao prison, which inmates called ‘Lard Yao University’ due to the large number of students incarcerated. In prison he continued to write music and plays for the other inmates with themes about persisting through hopelessness and overcoming adversity. He also tended to the prison vegetable garden and acted as a teacher to many of the less educated inmates.
Lard Yao Prison, supposedly Jit Phumisak is in the image
After 6 years in Lard Yao, Jit was declared ‘not guilty’ of being a communist and released from prison. He promptly went and joined the Communist Party Thailand insurgency in Sakhon Nakhon Province, Isaan.
While operating as a communist insurgent Jit went by the name Comrade Preecha, while little is known about his time spent in the jungle, it’s widely believed that he was tasked with writing revolutionary songs for the party. It was here he penned “The People’s Liberation Army March” “มาร์ชกองทัพปลดแอกประชาชนไทย” and “The Phu Phan Revolution” “ภูพานปฏิวัติ”, named after the Phu Phan mountains which was home to the insurgency. These songs are far more explicit, more soviet style, communist music compared to his earlier work, clearly influenced by his time spent with and the instructions of the Communist Party leadership. However Jit was reportedly never actually a member of the CPT, just a supporter who joined the insurgency in the jungle.
It was in 1966, aged just 35 that Jit was killed. The circumstances surrounding his death are still extremely murky, with many varying accounts. The official story by the Thai government is that he was killed by patriotic local villagers, however few believe this to be the reality as the insurgency was widely popular among the local people in Sakon Nakhon.
The most commonly held belief, by those who admire him, is that he was killed by Thai government forces. In the Caravan song about his life its sung “He fell at the edge of the forest, his blood soaked the troubled land, a land impoverished and bleak, on the day he came down from the mountains, under the giant eagle’s shadow (a reference to the US military presence in the region), his killers were gleeful, his death brought good fortune; promotion, four stars and many stripes.” Jit was killed a year before his ideological compatriot Che Guevara. Without a doubt Caravan’s rendition is how his death is remembered by the vast majority of those who still speak his name.
The role Jit’s memory and presence played in the Thai left in later years really can not be understated. While the insurgency he joined rumbled on in the more remote reaches of the kingdom there was still relatively little engagement or connection with the student population until the 1970’s. It was at this time that a renaissance of Jit’s work took place as many of his writings began to surface and be distributed among young Thai intellectuals. In many cases his name was still forbidden to be printed or even spoken and Jit was sometimes simply referred to as ‘him‘. Much like Che, Jit became a talismanic figure in Thai leftist organising and thinking at the time. This of course came to a bloody end in 1976 during the Thamamsat massacre, where hundreds of demonstrating students were brutally killed by the Thai state, leading to a mass exodus of surviving students, many of whom followed Jit’s example and joined the communist insurgency in the very same hills where he fell.
Following the end of the communist insurgency in 1983 it became legal to publish Jit’s work. As such it has become foundational material for Thai radicals ever since. Today Jit still stands in Sakon Nakhon, at a statue erected in his honour, which has become more than a mural, the monument has led Jit to becoming an almost demi-god, as locals often bring him flowers and offerings for good luck and prosperity. While in Bangkok at the Thai labour museum a wall is dedicated to the forever young revolutionary, displaying some of his personal instruments and a small shrine in his honour. As well as his widely published books, poems, songs and plays, the story of Jit Phumisak lives on among millions in the kingdom today and he is far from forgotten.
Jit Phumisak statue in Sakon Nakhon