In this first interview, Saguan discusses his university days, his friendship with Sawad Intarat, and his political activities.
Born the son of a poor farmer, Saguan was a classmate of Sawad Intarat when they were both in the teachers’ training college in Chiang Mai. His mother would even pay the tuition fees for both of them. They also had to work part time to fund their education, and Sawad took up weeding jobs while leaving his friend to sell popsicles near a popular girls’ school. Saguan also participated in local boxing competitions for additional income, and was badly injured on some occasions. They also planned to enlist in the Vietnam War together, but only Saguan was selected and deployed on the American side of the conflict.
Right from then, Saguan was involved in leftist political activities, and, in 1974, together with his friends, including Sawad and Santi, he formed the Group of Local Teachers for People (GLTP) in Chiang Mai, with the help of the Socialist Party of Thailand. After he survived two attempted assassinations that took place following the 6 October 1976 Massacre, he eventually joined the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) armed wing.. Due to their strong friendship, Sawad even allowed his friend to borrow his identity when he needed to get loans or cover his tracks due to his activism. As such, although it was Saguan, and not Sawad, who was formally a member of the CPT, the authorities pursued the latter instead of the former in their crackdowns on the left. Sawad’s true role in Saguan’s political activism was limited to providing him and his associates with supplies while they hid in the forests to evade the authorities.
After graduating from university, Saguan and Sawad organized a leftist seminar which was intruded upon by the authorities, and Sawad was arrested. Due to the constant persecution Sawad faced, he had to keep changing identities to evade the authorities, and Saguan lost contact with him. He would marry a fellow activist, with whom he attended the demonstrations in October 1976, but left early on October 3rd before the crackdowns on the 6th, as their child could not tolerate the conditions. Saguan was only able to reconnect with Sawad after hearing of his passing by chance, and attended his funeral on the last day.
After the CPT was dissolved, Saguan returned from the jungles and began campaigning for political change through official, constitutional channels. He joined the Constitutional Drafting Committee in 1996, which contributed to the 1997 Thai constitution. The following year, he joined the Thai Rak Party led by Thaksin Shinawatra. The party’s controversies have left him embroiled in lawsuits to this day.
Calling Mr. Saguan Pongmanee for the first time
November 8th, 2021
Noted by Phianphachong Intarat
Background: I tried to snowball from the other informants to Mr. Saguan Pongmanee, but none of them had his contact information. I was advised to contact either the office of Pheu Thai Party, a political party of which Mr. Saguan has been a long-term member, or the secretary office of the Thai National Assembly where he serves as a house representative from Lampoon Province. So, I looked up for his contact information from the parliament’s online directory and I found two phone numbers. I kept calling the landline number as the cellphone number was not valid. It took a week until someone picked up my call and gave me Mr. Saguan’s correct cell phone number. So, I was eventually able to reach him.
The first encounter (on a phone call) was quite emotional. Since I was not sure how he would react to my approach, I introduced myself with the full name and student status, and my purpose to interview him about the Group of Local Teachers for People. He seemed stunned on the other side of the call as there was silence for a few seconds. And then he asked “oh! What are you to Sawad? Are you his daughter?” I confirmed that his understanding was correct and he responded emotionally. I felt that he didn’t care much about the oral history project because he was overwhelmed (in a positive sense?) with my sudden appearance that brought back his (unsettling?) memories from decades ago. The first thing he told me was about the unbreakable friendship between him and Sawad Intarat, my father.
Mr. Saguan and Sawad were best friend from Chiang Mai Teachers’ College. They went through rough time together during college. “We were so poor that nobody knew we wanted to fight in Vietnam for money.” At the time, the Thai government recruited Thai soldiers to serve the American side in Vietnam. Saguan and Sawad planned to join the troop in hope of receiving a large sum of money in return. “If I don’t die, I will get 8,000 baht. But if I die, my mother will get 40,000,” Saguan explained to me. But what happened was that Saguan went to Vietnam alone because Sawad missed the recruitment process. After Saguan returned, he shared ¼ of his payment with Sawad. They planned to join the recruit program together to be stationed in Laos as the T-28 pilots. However, at the recruit, they learned that Sawad was not eligible because only the Vietnam veterans would be eligible for this round. So, Saguan decided not to go without his friend. He said “if we had gone that time, I would have not been here today. That T-28 troop, none of them returned home [alive].”
Friendship: they were so close and did everything together. While in college, Sawad usually came to stay with Saguan at his house. They ate, slept, hung out together. After they both started working as the local teachers, wheneve they were in need of cash, they took turns using each other names’ to get a loan as part of their career benefits. It’s an act of trust between them. Saguan told me that Sawad changed his name not because he was superstitious, but because he wanted to dissociate himself from Saguan. Once Saguan did something, the police always came after Sawad. “Actually, you father was not a member of the CPT. It was me, but he was always dragged into the dramas.” “He was the secretary of the Prachaban for Prachachon group. I was the vice-president. The biggest event for us to organize was the seminar at Baan Tonkeaw. That was the one that affected your father most severely because he was a public school teacher in the area.”
“Your mom was slightly better-off. But your dad and I, we came from scarcity.” That was his perception toward Panida Worrawong, my mother. In my view, Mr. Saguan’s comment was partially true but my mother didn’t see background as such. Panida and her three siblings were raised by a single mother who was strong and capable. Panida’s mother divorced her husband in the 1950s when Panida was still a little child because of his “lack of vision.” But life with a divorced mother who didn’t have much formal education was not easy, and that’s why Panida saw herself not as coming from a better-off background.
The GLTP advocated for the enforcement of the new farm lease law in Northern Thailand, which directly attacked the wallet of local landlords. That’s why Saguan and Sawad were the target of violence, not only from the security authorities, but also from the landlordswho were affected by this fairer law. He mentionedWorrasak Nimanun, a Chiang Mai house representative who was also a prominent landlord owning up to 600 Rai (roughly 237 Acres) of farm land. Prior to the enforcement of the new farm lease law, the landlord typically earned from 505 to 2/3 of the yields. And the law capped the rent to only 1/3. That’s why the landlords grew so hostile to the reform and the farmer and student activists who pushed forward the agenda.
Saguan’s mother was a farmer. After harvest, she would spare some money for Saguan’s and Sawad’s tuitions at the Chiang Mai Teachers’ College. Every weekend, Sawad couldn’t take the Ror.Dor. class because he had to look for geeks like day laborer kind. For Saguan, he boxed at local competitions. One time, he was beaten up so badly. So, Sawad told their teacher at the college about Saguan’s injuries. The teacher consequently forbid Saguan from boxing and gave both of them 300 bath as a down payment for an popsicle cart. So that they could make money by selling popsicle without getting hurt. Sawad gave the popsicle cart to Saguan and let the latter wander to sell popsicles around the Wattanotai Payup School, a famous girl school in Chiang Mai. “He said he was embarrassed in front of the girls.” Saguan explained the reason why Sawad continued laboriously weeding property developments every weekend instead of selling popsicles.
Saguan and his wife, who was also a political activist, took their toddler son to the gathering at Thammasat University in October 1976. The child got sick after being out there with his parents for a few days. So, Saguan and his wife left the rally on October the 3rd and returned to Chiang Mai. That was another time he dodged a fatal incident.
Phianphachong’s view: there were apparently some speculation and misunderstanding between the 2 sides of Sawad’s loved ones—his wife and his political activist fellows. To me, Mr. Saguan implicitly tried to justify Sawad’s actions/activism as if he had an understanding that I grew up with certain images of my father, the images that didn’t match the figure of Sawad that Mr. Saguan had knew. In the conversation, he told me, “She didn’t understand where [Sawad] had gone to. He didn’t go anywhere but just kept delivering us supplies while I was in the jungles. After the October 6 massacre, I had been hiding in the jungles for 5 years. After I came back, I didn’t go back to teaching job anymore. I just started farming and doing some business.”
Mr. Saguan continued advocating for political changes after the fall of CPT. He returned from the jungles through the amnesty granted to former CPT members by the PM Prem Tinsulanonda administration. However, Saguan’s political approach shifted to institutional politics as he became a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1996. The Thai constitution 1997, which was the brainchild of the Constitution Drafting Committee 1996, was dubbed the most democratic constitution in the Thai political history. Then, in 1998, he was one of the founding members of the Thai Rak Thai Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra.
Phianphachong’s note: Throughout the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra, and the decade-long political hostility against Thaksin Shinawatra and his political entourage, Saguan has been part of the core members of Thai Rak Thai Party, which was disbanded, fractioned, reincarnated, and renamed many times. The Phue Thai Party is one among those avatars that remains. Mr. Saguan’s political allegiance to Thai Rak Thai/Phue Thai, which are intrinsically associated with the controversial figure like Thaksin Shinawatra might have caused him so much troubles. After the military coup in 2014, a long list of political dissidents from a wide range of professions—from politicians to university professors and students, were summoned by the National Council for Peace and Order, the then governing body of Thailand under the military coup. And those who didn’t show up as they were required to, were pressed charges. And Mr. Saguan is one of them. He said, “People won’t let me stay in peace. I can’t believe I’m 70ish years old already and have still been in lawsuits.”
Saguan didn’t know Sawad died until the very last day of the funeral. He said because Sawad changed his name a few times and he didn’t keep up with the latest name Sawad used prior to his sudden death. Saguan heard about Sawad’s funeral even by chance when someone mentioned that piece of news in passing. Immediately after he figured out that it was his best friend, he rushed to the funeral while still wearing a colored shirt. “Paitoon and I, two of us, cremated Sawad. We stayed with him in the cemetery for the whole afternoon and drank whiskey until it got really dark. Probably until 9 pm or something. When we left the cemetery, nonone was there...”
Before we hung up, I thanked him for his willingness to talk about the past that might be hurtful for him, and to help me learn about who my father was in the area that I never heard about. But he thanked me in return. For him, it was so unexpected that Sawad’s daughter would call him out of the blue.
Before I was able to contact Mr. Saguan, my mother told me an anecdote about how close Mr. Saguan was to my father. And the story goes like this: after Sawad’s funeral, Panida’s mother told her to keep record of the amount of donation each guest gave to the family. So that we could reciprocate them in the future. Panida told her mother that there was no way she could reciprocate Mr. Saguan proportionately to what he gave to the family. Her mother asked how much it was, and Panida gave her the figure, which was more than 20 times of the average amount of funeral donation in the late 1980s Chiang Mai. So, her mother replied “in that case, let’s write it down to remember, and give whatever you can.”
Interviewer: Phianphachong Intarat
Sawad Intarat is the interviewer’s father.
Consider the role played by personal networks and relationships in how political actors like Saguan navigated the Cold War in Thailand.
What does Saguan’s continued efforts to campaign for change by constitutional means suggest about the nature of Thailand’s Cold War and its impact on the country today?