Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Seven
If I had a baht for every time, back home and in the far east, I’ve been told or read how Buddhism is different, it’s a religion of tolerance and enlightenment, I’d almost have the daily wage of a red shirt by now. The Shrine of the Seven Martyrs show that at times Buddhism is more than capable of lining up alongside its Abrahamic counterparts in the prejudice, fanaticism and murder department.
The small village of Ban Song Khan lies in the far north of Mukdahan Province near the Nakhon Phanom Border, better described as the middle of bloody nowhere, look Ray Mears would think twice about going there. Deep in rice growing territory surrounded kilometres of paddy fields and scatterings small wooden villages, what made this tiny un-outstanding village different was at sometime in its history it had been visited by French missionaries from just across the river in Lao and many people in the area were Catholics.
In 1932 Thailand had a coup de tate and absolute monarchy ended. The coupers however fell out on how to run the country, and ultimately the army seized control under a Mussolini admiring dictator. Thailand was a very devolved country of many cultures and languages with little sense of being a single people. The fascist government began to address this and using techniques that had worked for Mussolini in Italy, a program a centralisation and nationalism was initiated along with anti foreign propaganda. Though aimed mostly at Japanese and Chinese, all foreign ideas came under suspicion and one of these were the Catholic residents of Ban Song Khan.
Xenophobia of foreign influences reached a height in 1940 as the imminent threat of Japanese invasion emerged and the government concerned with stamping out everything foreign tasked the police with the job of dealing with Ban Song Khan. The demand was simple; to show their loyalty the whole village was to convert from Catholicism to Buddhism immediately. To enforce this order police in September 1940 fell upon the village knocking on each door and firing their guns in the air and running the catholic priest out of town. Believing this shock to the system would be enough they departed. Anyone who had the misfortune of attending Catholic school such as I did will know just how dumb that last part is. Catholics just don’t see intimidation (they also don’t see reason, common sense or the other person’s point of view either, as a matter of fact) as a reason to back down.
Leaderless and frightened the villagers turned to a Philip Siphong who took on the role of headman and encouraged the villages to resist the demand. On the 16th of September he became the first of the Martyrs after receiving a letter inviting him to visit the local sheriff, as he was travelling through the forest; he was ambushed and murdered by the police.
Village leadership now fell on two nuns who ran the village convent Agnes Phila and Lucia Khambang. Police made more visits to the village firing guns in the air, but the villages would still not capitulate. On December the 25th Police Chief Lue of Songram visited the village personally meeting the nuns in the local church, where he quite categorically ordered them to convert to Buddhism or they would be killed. The nuns apparently refused on the spot and the next day he returned with a number of policemen. The police ordered the nuns and several children to the convent cemetery and lined them up in front of the gathered villagers. The line consisted of 3 nuns and 5 children, the father of one of the children interveined and was able to carry his daughter away despite protests. The rest were given a final offer by police Chief Lue at gunpoint to convert or die which they refused and the police opened fire. The 3 nuns and 3 of the children were killed, however a fourth child Sorn apparently covered in blood but not hit crawled out from under the bodies when the police had gone. She lived to the 1990’s and retold the story frequently.
Eventually an investigation was called and Police Chief Lue found responsible and received transfer to another station as punishment.
Shrine of the Seven Martyrs
Done with typical Catholic hyperbole, the monument resides on the site of the now vanished Ban Song Khan or swamps it more like. I guess when the Catholic Church budgeted for it, they didn’t quite realise how cheap building is in this country, expecting a reasonable size statue they got a mini Mecca. Also the Catholic church doesn’t seem to understand the notion of overkill, as every inch of the postmodern glass church at the heart of the monument is filled by images, references, mock tombs and stories of the martyrs. It’s surrounded by a complex which then tells the story in stone murual. Beside the monument is the massive convent and school site again knee deep in statues, monuments graves and references to the martyrs.
I guess the moral of the story is if you’re a dictator of a backward third world country with low labour and building material costs, try to avoid massacres at small insignificant catholic convents, otherwise the Catholic Church will go completely mental and build a humungous monument on a pyramidic scale to embarrass you about to for centuries to come. But if this doesn’t discourage you from doing it, make sure you do it in the middle of bloody nowhere where even catholic overkill of this proportion can go unnoticed.
The place is well worth a visit. Not only for the stunning scenary around but just for the shock of finding something on this scale built in such an out the way place and the fact you know if this happened in the UK it would simply get a plaque on the wall.
The monument got me thinking, if you build something on this scale for just 7 people who were murdered for their Catholic beliefs by the police. How big must the monument for many who were murdered by the police for their Communist beliefs? I guess Isan better start saving.