Remembering Khana Ratsadon: erasing historical memory and the power dynamic of architecture

On 27 January 2019, a panel discussion was held at Wat Phra Sri Maha Dhatu, Bang Khen. The panellists were Asst Prof Dr Saran Samantarat from the Faculty of Architecture, Kasetsart University, and Kanit Viseshasinha, a student at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. The discussion was moderated by Dr Sarunya Kaewprasert.

Constitution Defence Monument

Thai architecture after the 1932 Revolution and modernity in Thailand

 

Sarunya noted that the architectural style of the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) is very minimalist, favouring simple straight lines and curves over traditional elaborate patterns. This style can be seen in the buildings on Ratchadamnoen Road, most of which were designed by Jitsen Apaiwong. The Constitution Defence Monument at Lak Si, on the other hand, was not designed by Jitsen, but also has the same style.

Saran started his discussion by explaining that he is interested in reading landscapes, which is to understand the ideology behind design concepts. Saran said that reading landscape is related to three things: people, place, and the interaction between people and place, which can be understood as a fight for meaning.

Saran said that the architectural form of the Constitution Defence Monument may have been derived from that of the crematorium built at Sanam Luang for the 17 government soldiers who died during the Boworadet Rebellion of 1933. Saran said that this crematorium marked the first time a commoner’s funeral was held at Sanam Luang, a space often reserved for royal ceremonies. Because of this, Saran thinks that the architectural form itself is the result of a power struggle between the two parties involved. He said that Assoc Prof Dr Chatri Prakitnonthakan also noted that the form of the Constitution Defence Monument was derived from the pillar at the centre of the crematorium, at the top of which is a pedestal bearing the constitution.

The Constitutional Defence Monument was erected in 1936 to commemorate the victory over the revolt. It was removed from its location on 27 December 2018 without notice or explanation. Like the 1932 revolution memorial plaque, which disappeared on 14 April 2017, the monument’s whereabouts are currently unknown.

Kanit added that, after the 1932 Revolution, Thai architecture began to change. Designs now incorporate elements of modern art along with traditional design elements. Kanit said this may be related to Khana Ratsadon’s governing principle, which favours a constitutional monarchy over a republic. “Power needs to be kept in check,” he said, “and therefore modernity and tradition have to go together.”

The power dynamic of architecture and the erasure of historical memory

 

Saran said that conservatives often try to create symbolic changes by changing the meaning encoded in architecture. He gave the example of the old Supreme Court building in the Rattanakosin area, which was opened in 1943 and the design of which was most likely symbolic of Khana Ratsadon’s six principles. The current city plan calls for government agencies to move out of the old town area, but while other buildings which once housed government agencies were put to other uses, the Supreme Court building was demolished.

As for the missing memorial plaque and the Constitution Defence Monument, Kanit said that erasing historical memory is not unusual, and previously, there have been attempts to erase Khana Ratsadon’s legacy. When Sarit Thanarat was the prime minister, there was an attempt to remove the 1932 revolution memorial plaque from its place in Dusit Palace Royal Plaza, but the attempt failed. Kanit said that, as a historian, erasing history is deplorable, since even if history is in the past, we can still learn from it.

Sarunya then added that there was also a failed attempt to demolish the Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue during the Thanom Kittikachorn era. Sarunya said that Khana Ratsadon’s legacy is now fragile, and is a sensitive topic for those who wish to erase this part of Thai history.

For Saran, life, place, time, and social conditions are one and the same. Because of this, he said that to destroy place is to destroy life, and to destroy life is to destroy memory. “I think that such destruction…is an expression of authoritarianism,” he said, “but in what I think is the worst kind of violence because it removes epistemology. … You are stealing the justification of the people…For me, this is extremely violent.”