From a mark to a monument : the contesting symbols of Thai politics

On 25 June, the Democracy Monument was once again the venue of a political movement. The New Democracy Movement (NDM), led by the 14 embattled anti-coup activists from Bangkok and Khon Kaen, gathered at the Monument to declare their stance against dictatorship and urged the Thai junta to return democracy to Thailand. Around 100 people joined this rally. The event was a reminder of the popular uprising in 14 October 1973, when the gathering of students and people at the Monument led to the end of the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. The Democracy Monument has always been part of the struggle for democracy in Thailand.
 
Nevertheless, interpreting the Democracy Monument as a symbol of democracy is a controversial subject. Since 2010, both pro- and anti-establishment groups, the so-called yellow shirts and red shirts, claimed that they support democracy (and the other side does not), and both liked to stage rallies close to the Democracy Monument. Even the anti-election People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) used the Democracy Monument as its rally venue to affiliate itself with the symbol of democracy. 
 
The red shirts gather at the Democracy Monument on 10 October 2010
 
The PDRC rallies at the Democracy Monument on 22 December 2013. Photo courtesy of Matichon Online
 
Another living symbol that has been used and appropriated by both sides of the Thai political conflict is the Khana Ratsadon mark. This is a metal mark, embedded on the surface of the Royal Plaza, Dusit, Bangkok. It is a memorial to the forced change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy 83 years ago. The so-called Siamese Revolution on 24 June 1932 was followed by the abdication of King Rama VII. 
 
At about 6 am on 24 June at the Royal Plaza, a group of anti-establishment, anti-junta activists and poets came to polish and decorate the mark. Four days before, a pro-establishment group came to the mark and attempted to destroy it by holding a black magic ceremony. There were also attempts to cover the mark with asphalt by an anonymous group.
 
The Khana Ratsadorn mark is decorated with flowers on 24 June 2015.
 
Sombat Boonngam-anong, an embattled pro-democracy activist also known as Nuling and Polka Dot Editor, said that the ceremony has been held at the mark only in the past few years after Thailand has been divided by colours. Nevertheless, because the ceremony organizers have never explained or communicated the story behind the symbol to the people, the symbol of the Siamese Revolution is not as powerful as it should be. 
 
The Democracy Monument is a strong symbol and was used many times because the picture of the monument is seen on every work concerning democracy, including children’s textbooks, Sombat said.
 
Puangthong Pawakapan, an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, said that nobody could monopolize the meaning of symbols. Even in academic circles, the Khana Ratsadon mark is still a debatable subject between the pro-democracy view and the pro-establishment view. 
 
Puangthong commented about the Democracy Monument that nowadays every movement claims to be democratic. The Democracy Monument can easily signify that a movement is democratic and their action is righteous. So every movement, whether the Redshirts in 2010 or the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2013-14, used the Monument as their venue.
 
Symbolic acts have also had an important role in the anti-coup movements in Thailand over the past years. A lot of symbols were developed and used as expressions of opinion. There is the Three-finger Salute, a popular anti-junta symbol derived from The Hunger Games movies. There are Sandwiches for Democracy and eating at McDonald's at Ratchaprasong intersection. Some gathered to read the dystopian classic 1984, along with playing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, in public. Less subtle acts are exemplified by holding placards, and wearing t-shirts with the slogans ‘Peace Please’ or ‘Respect My Vote’. As most of the users of symbols are apprehended and detained, still more symbols are developed and more symbolic acts are performed.
 
Puangthong said that symbols are used because they make it easy to communicate.  Furthermore, symbols convey both ideas and emotions and it is easy to use the body as a symbolic gesture.
 
“In a place that does not allow space for discussion, symbols allow people who share the same ideas to communicate,” said Puangthong. 
 
Sombat said that symbols are an esoteric form of communication. It is limited to those who already know the meaning. The symbols spread when people who are curious go find out the meaning. 
 
Sombat said that expressing a defining idea by symbolic acts is generally safer. By suppressing expression on politics, the current military regime is unintentionally forcing people to express their ideas through symbols. 
 
Although symbols are quick and concise, they also have limits. Symbols cannot communicate details or explain ideas clearly. Therefore, many political movements have both symbols and expressions of their ideas. 
 
“The junta is like a giant who wants to sustain its power. So they stopped both symbols and discussions.” Puangthong said.
 
Sombat said using symbols and expressing ideas must be coordinated. “They are each other’s tools.” They also need to be coordinated with the social context.  The three-finger salute was once a powerful symbol in Thailand, nowadays it has become a cliché and the police are apathetic about it.  Sombat concludes that symbolizing is to put meanings and strong emotions into one picture so that the symbol is powerful enough to shaken the authorities.
 

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