Dawn broke over Bangkok at 6 o’clock on Wednesday morning, October 6, 1976—my 32nd birthday. It was already 77 degrees, en route to 91, balmy, though the air was already dripping with 81 percent humidity. The “cool” season, with its moderate temperatures that sent children scurrying for wool sweaters, was some weeks away. Still, it would be one of the rare rainless days in the Thai capital at the tail end of the rainy season—in itself, perhaps, an omen in a nation that pays attention to portents.

The capital was on edge. On Monday, some 2,000 left-wing students had barricaded themselves inside Bangkok’s politically volatile Thammasat University where demonstrations, often violent, by both the left and right had become a routine component of the core curriculum. The leftists, who dominated the campus, demanded the nation’s former military dictator, Field Marshal Thanom...

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