The 1932 Siamese Revolution was heralded in part by stories, novels and and writing groups. The ideals of the People’s Party were nothing new, compared to movements that had already taken place in the literary field.
The 1930s in Thailand have been recognised as a time of change marking the transition from absolute monarchy to democracy, as well as the birth of the first constitution. But the power of writing was given to the people earlier than the power of self-rule. Works from the period are now, in some ways, memorial plaques of the literary revolution that contributed in turn to political revolt.
Preedee Hongsaton, a historian teaching at Thammasat University, told Prachatai that literature must not only entertain, but also reflect the intellect, values, and perspectives of society, conveying efforts to strive towards progress and equality.
During the 1930s, a number of writing groups such as "The Gentleman" or Khana Suphapburut rooted their works in the ideal of equality, just as the People’s Party or Khana Ratsadon stated in their manifesto that, “Everyone will have work to do. Everyone will have equal rights and be free from the slavery of the aristocrats”.
The works of Kularb Saipradit Sri Burapha, the head of Khana Suphapburut, for instance, center around love between classes. “A Real Man” or Luk Phu Chai (1928) stood out in particular as a novel preaching that people should be judged by their own deeds, rather than their family’s fame.
The writer Sri Burapha, a pen-name, deconstructed Thailand’s class system by depicting villains from noble families, showing a disjuncture between class and virtue. Sri Burapha, however, was also skeptical of trends from the Western world, and played with them critically.
The cover of Sri Burapha’s “A Real Man” (photo from: Tarad)
Kor Rang Noi Ter (Give Me Hands), for instance, attacks the disadvantages of capitalism through the story of a rich man who refuses to give charity to a poor couple. The next day, the rich man, now in a spot of trouble, asks for help from the poor couple who reply, “Let your money help you instead”.
Not only did Khana Suphapburut dare writers to question class inequality, the group also defined the duty of a writer as being a spokesperson for the people.
“The literary revolution created the condition of possibility, telling the people that anything is possible,” Predee said.
It is as if Thailand’s literary movement heralded modernity even before Khana Ratsadon made its crucial move towards democracy. In challenging long-held social values, it prepared the people for the changes to come.
Writing as a career
Writing will always be a key medium for circulating ideas in society. Whoever owns the power to write also wins the power to shape ideas and ideologies. War via writing often ignites before any formal changes at the level of political structure.
“Traditionally, the culture of reading and writing literature was firmly held in the hands of a few elite,” says Preedee.
Some royals and nobles composed poems in their spare time, while others had their personal poets do the work for them. Elites largely played the role of patrons who sponsored artists.
But elites were unable to maintain of their pre-eminence as time went by. Modernity encouraged Western-educated members of the bourgeoisie in Thailand to seek ownership over their own literature.
This wholesale yearning for autonomy grew alongside the advent of new technologies, specifically in the field of printing technologies. The printing industry gave rise in turn to the field of journalism and quickened the transfer of control over writing from the hands of the aristocrats to those of the people.
Literature as a commodity reduced the influence of royal patronage over poets, Preedee explains. Writing became for the first time a career in the sense that one could make a living from it.
In this way, writing groups that formed in the lead up to the 1932 Revolution played an important role in not only providing a platform for new writings, but also establishing the occupational identity of a writer.
The picture of the Suphapburut group (photo from: Sarakadee)
“What made Khana Suphapburut different other groups was their efforts … to withdraw themselves from the aristocratic patronage system,” explained Chusak Pattarakulvanit, an assistant professor teaching literature at Thammasat University, at a forum “(Un)modernity in Thai Society”.
Kularb Saipradit, the head of Khana Suphapburut, wrote in the first volume of the group’s magazine that, “Our Suphapburut group must go beyond amateurs. We must be professionals. [Our work] has to be good enough to be sold to people who are ready and willing to buy it.”
The first volume of Suphapburut magazine (photo from: Museum Thailand)
The power to write was now dispersed across society, empowering people to be writers of their own lives.
Literature keeps changing
Even after the People’s Party Revolution in 1932, the literary arena in Thailand remained in motion. Feminist writing, for instance, was popularly consumed for the first time.
According to Preedee, many of the essays and novels of M. L. Boonlua Debhayasuwan laid the foundations for modern Thai literature and literary criticism. “A Civilised Woman” by Susan Fulop Kepner chronicles the life of M.L. Boonlua, depicting how the upper class adjusted to the political changes of 1932.
The cover of A Civilized Woman (photo from: New Mandala)
M.L. Buppa Nimmahaemindra or Dok Mai Sod was another crucial female writer from the revolutionary period, frequently writing novels centred around women protagonists facing patriarchal social norms.
Tracing the flowering of literary movements before and after the 1932 revolution reveals how progress in Thai society has moved insistently, proving untrue the discourse of “ripe early, rotten early” used by elites to argue that the 1932 revolution hastily enacted political change upon an unready nation.
If the richness of progressive literature is anything to go by, much of the country was already anticipating change at the end of the absolute monarchy.