Uprooting Democracy: The War of Memory and the Lost Legacy of the People’s Party

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The events at dawn on 24 June 1932 can be counted as a point that divided Thai history into 2 eras, the old and the new, the era of the absolute monarchy and the era of democracy.  But this has disappeared from the record of history as it is taught in social studies, just as the inheritance left behind by the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) is gradually being destroyed.

Thongchai Winichakul, of the History Department of University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, suggests that Thai history follows a paradigm of ‘royal-nationalist’ history, an account of the struggle for national sovereignty under the leadership of the monarch, which has no space for memories which may be unreconcilable with royal-nationalist principles, such as the events of 6 October and the revolution of 1932.

In her article “A Dark Spot on a Royal Space : The Art of the People’s Party and the Politics of Thai (Art) History” Thanavi Chotpradit, Department of Art History, Faculty of Archaeology, Silpakorn University, suggests that there have been attempts to destroy the reputation of the People’s Party and its cultural legacy since the collapse of the government after the coup d’état of 1947, giving as an example the article by M. R. Kukrit Pramoj in Siam Rath newspaper criticizing the People’s Party as having bad taste and no love for Thai arts and culture.  This was one part of the criticisms of the revolution as ‘early ripe, early rotten’.

The Sala Chaloemthai cinema, built during the era of Plaek Phibunsongkram to be another national theatre, opened in February 1940. It was demolished in 1989, after a resolution from the cabinet claims that it obscures the scenery of Wat Ratchanadda and Loha Prasat, situated directly behind it. (Source: BBC Thai/National Archives of Thailand)

Kukrit supported the government to deal with buildings that were ‘not beautiful’ and ‘not suitable’ in the Rattanakosin Island area such as by demolishing the Sala Chaloemthai cinema and many commercial buildings along Ratchadamnoen Avenue were converted into the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, showing exhibitions of the Rattanakosin era under the House of Chakri.

The revolution has also been overlooked by Thai historians.  They have been inclined to focus on art of older and ancient periods that displayed nationalism and royalism.  The art of the People’s Party was modern art and was therefore seen as not possessing Thainess and inappropriate for Thai society and can be regarded as historically eliminated as inconsistent with the prototype of history.

Thanavi’s argument is similar to that of Chatri Prakitnonthakan who says that there is a process of erasing the memory of the People’s Party which “the Thai state has been subtly implementing for decades”.  The project in 2007 to demolish the Supreme Court complex built during the People’s Party era is an example of this process.

Left: The original Supreme Court complex
Right: A model of the new Supreme Court building

The war of memory has been more intense since the 2006 coup, through, for example, the demolition of the Supreme Court complex, the construction of the new parliament, the enclosure of Sanam Luang, the Rattanakosin Island conservation and development project and including the disappearance of the People’s Party plaque and the Constitution Defence Monument at Laksi.

The footpath around Sanam Luang opposite Thammasat University's Tha Prachan campus. The Sanam Luang area is now enclosed by the green railing. 

Embeding democracy

The democratic Siamese state did not come about through the use of language, such as just by choosing the words of the first declaration of the People’s Party: “The time is over when those of royal blood will plough the backs of the citizens.  The things that all people want, the greatest happiness and progress, known by the word ‘si araya [utopia]’, will occur for all citizens.”

Thanavi proposes that the establishment of this new government had to depend on an “performance in space”. Phraya Phahol Phahonphonphayuhasena’s reading of the first declaration of the People’s Party at the Royal Plaza in front of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall as the site of the sovereign power of the monarch is considered an “performance in space” and on 10 December 1936, a People’s Party plaque was embedded on the spot where Phraya Phahol read the declaration.

The People's Party plaque

The People’s Party plaque was a round bronze plaque, about 28 cm in diameter, embedded at a spot near to the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V.  The inscription read “Here, at dawn on 24 June 1932, the People’s Party has brought forth a constitution for the progress of the nation.”  The ceremony of embedding of the plaque on 10 December 1936 was led by Phraya Phahol, leader of the People’s Party.

After the revolution, but, many constitutional monuments were constructed not only in Bangkok, but around the provinces, some before those in Bangkok.  Copies of the constitution were also handed out in various provinces.

A copy of the Constitution found in the office of the Loei privincial governor (Source: Ratchanach Wanichsombat)

Sarunyou Thepsongkraow, a History Department lecturer and author of “People-ocracy: Politics, Power and the Memory of the People’s (Party)”, says that most commemorative events took place in the northeast because People’s Party representatives from the northeast played an outstanding role at the time and the population was politically very active.

According to the account of Cpl Suphan Anantasophon describing the feelings of civilians in Udon Thani province on 24-27 June 1932, the people listened incessantly to the news on the radio even though they did not have much idea about the new system of administration, they knew only that the King was now under the law, citizens had equal rights, government officials were the equivalent of being the employees of citizens with the duty to help relieve the sufferings and maintain the happiness of the people.

1933 saw the Boworadet Rebellion.  The northeast was politically very active both on the side that supported the People’s Party and the side that was hostile to it.  Even though military forces from provinces and bases in the northeast supported the rebellion, since Prince Boworadet had held a position in the army at Nakhon Ratchasima, the civilian population of the northeast supported the government in defending the constitution.

In 1934, after the end of the disorder caused by the Boworadet Rebellion and the Holy Men’s Rebellion, Luang Angkhananurak (Somthawin Thephakham), Governor of Maha Sarakham Province thought that many people in the area still did not understand the system of constitutional government because they still believed the prophesies of the leaders of the Holy Men’s Rebellion who claimed they were magicians, so he thought of building the first Constitutional Monument in Thailand with the symbol of the constitution on its pedestal.

 “What is interesting is that this was not initiated from Bangkok but came from the initiative of a provincial governor and provincial officials. Businesses and the people contributed to building the landmark,” says Sarunyou.

The Maha Sarakham Constitution Monument at its current location at the Maha Sarakham Municipal Office

Taking an overview of the monuments in different provinces, we see they were generally installed in the middle of the town and in a place that the public could access.  For example, in Maha Sarakham, it was at the provincial hall before being moved to the Maha Sarakham town municipal offices.  In Surin it was in the area of the provincial hall.  In Buriram it was in the middle of a roundabout near the market before being demolished.  In Roi Et it was on the island in the middle of Bueng Lan Chai.

These sites would be used to stage festivals or activities like celebrations of the constitution or national day celebrations which were biggest during the People’s Party era.  The first were held on 10 December 1932 when the permanent constitution was promulgated, starting in Bangkok and then spreading to the provinces.

When the People’s Party lost power, constitution celebrations lost their importance and disappeared. Today Trang is the only province that still holds a constitution celebration. In other provinces they have all been transformed into Red Cross fairs.

Symbols of the new system appeared not only in the form of monuments but also in other places such as the pediment of Wat Pong Sanuk in Lampang Province, the front cover of school books, the crest of Thammasat University, the seal of Roi Et Municipality (until it was changed into the image of the city pillar) and the seal of Buriram Municipality.

Prateep Suthathongthai, of the Department of Visual Arts, Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Mahasarakham University, points out that the image of democracy as that of the constitution on its pedestal is problematic in itself since the image is unlikely to relate to the principles of the democratic system

 “(The constitution on its pedestal) has been used since after the revolution as a symbol that most people can still remember.  The problem is that when we think of democracy, we see the image of the constitution, which is like thinking of the image alone.  We don’t know what meaning follows on from that, what the principles of democracy are.  This doesn’t come from the idea of seeing the constitution on its pedestal.  I think that is a limitation and a problem,” says Prateep.

The Democracy Monument when it was opened in 1940 (Source: Silpawattanatham)

8 years after the revolution on 24 June 1940, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, Prime Minister at the time, led a ceremony to unveil the Democracy Monument, which is counted as the first monument that formally speaks about the people.

 “The Democracy Monument and its Unseen Meanings” by Malinee Kumsupa states that there was a proposal by Luang Bijayendra Yodhin, Regent, who raised a question in the 4/2481 (1938) Cabinet Meeting whether the government had a policy to erect a monument to the promotors of the revolution and their assistants.  But the proposal was twice rejected by the government out of concern that it would be censured as inappropriate or done for the benefit of themselves or their party.  So it is not surprising that the Democracy Monument that was built later used symbols instead of images of individuals and also has no inscription of the names of the 99 promotors of the revolution.

Uprooting Democracy

However, this kind of connection could last only 15 years, since the People’s Party lost power after the death of King Rama VIII and the coup of 1947, together with the return of conservative forces who wants to restore greater power to the monarchy which affected power relations in society.

The Monument to Suppressing the Rebellion or the Constitution Defence Monument in 1941. In December 2018, it disappeared from its location at Lak Si roundabout and has yet to be found.

When power changed hands, it had an undoubted effect on the process of creating historical memorials.  The cultural legacy of the People’s Party became blemishes on the national landscape and something that must be thrown away.  Chatri suggests that in fact Thai society had a Rattanakosin Charter or a charter to conserve Thai cultural artefacts, which controlled the idea of conservation in Thai society where people in society “do not want to know”, based on royalist nationalist principles and where the main point is to conserve only the legacy of elite culture under a system of royalist nationalism.  So the cultural legacy of the People’s Party era, which in attitude opposes and rejects the authority and role of the monarchy, becomes something that must be thrown away.

On 14 March 2017, there were reports that the People’s Party plaque had been uprooted from its site.  Until now there is no information on where it has disappeared to and whether it has been destroyed.  It is thought that the People’s Party plaque was removed between 1-8 March 2017, but no one knows exactly.  It has been replaced with a “fresh-faced plaque” which is engraved with the message “Long live Siam forever. Happy, fresh-faced citizens build up the power of the land.  Loyalty and love for the Triple Gems is good, for one’s state is good, for one’s clan is good and having a heart loyal to one’s king is good. These are the tools to make one’s state prosper” which is the same as a proverb on the royal seal on the Most Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri created by King Rama V to honour King Rama I.

Dusit District Office affirmed that it did not change the plaque.  The Fine Arts Department claimed that the plaque was not its responsibility as it was not a historical artefact according to the law “since it is not considered to be movable property of historical value and because the plaque is merely a marker of the place where the speech was made announcing the revolution.”

The "fresh-faced plaque" which replaced the People's Party plaque

Later, in the middle of the night of 28 December 2018, the Monument to Suppressing the Rebellion or the Constitution Defence Monument was moved from its position in the middle of the Laksi roundabout under circumstances controlled by the police and military.  During the move, people, reporters, activists and academics who went to observe the removal were detained. To this day no one knows where it was moved to or whether it still exists.

One day before the disappearance of the monument, Prachachat Turakij Online reported that the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority had held a quiet ceremony to carry out the permanent removal of the monument to the BMA construction centre in the Nong Bon area.  This report was then deleted from the website.  Sakchai Boonma, Director-General of the BMA’s Department of Public Works, later confirmed that it was not taken to the Nong Bon construction centre as had been reported and that he knew nothing about the removal at all.

The Monument to Suppressing the Rebellion or the Constitution Defence Monument as it was being moved for the first time in November 2016, before being moved again and disappearing in December 2018.

There was increasing concern that the legacies of the People’s Party would one by one disappear or be destroyed, including large structures like the Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue.  Some laughed on hearing this, but the book “The Democracy Monument and its Unseen Meanings” states that in 1969 there was a proposal to replace the central structure which includes the image of the constitution with a statue of King Rama VII in the pose of bestowing the constitution, but this proposal was rejected.  Later, in 1980, a statue of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) was unveiled at the Parliament Building (opposite Dusit Zoo).

In her doctoral thesis “Revolution versus Counter-Revolution: The People’s Party and the Royalist(s) in Visual Dialogue”, Thanavi says that the image of King Rama VII in the pose of bestowing the constitution is an expression of the returning influence of the monarchy in Thai politics and the construction of a new memory related to the origin of the democratic system in Thailand.  The construction of this statue is one part of the process of creating the ‘early ripe, early rotten’ discourse, designating the People’s Party as the side that was rushing to change the country when the people were not ready.  King Rama VII then becomes the father of Thai democracy,

However, destroying the cultural legacy of the People’s Party means both conscious, deliberate destruction and unconscious destruction because history in this period has been erased from the stories of the past, so that people cannot remember.  Destruction can then easily occur.  

The case of Buriram Province is one example.  On 6 November 2014, the Buriram provincial constitutional monument was removed.  The Mueang Buriram municipality claimed that it was removed to solve traffic problems.  It had earlier been moved from a roundabout to a site in front of the provincial hall.  But it was moved again when a replica royal funeral pyre was built at the time of the royal cremation of King Rama IX.  Eventually, in October 2019, the Facebook page of Phalo discovered that the pedestal part of the Buriram monument had been dumped at the Public Works Department of the municipality.

The demolition of the Buriram provincial constitutional monument on 6 November 2014 (Source: Wiwat Rojanawan)

When there are no celebrations of the constitution or festivals connected to constitutional monuments, people in the locality forget how they are important to the point of forgetting that they exist, so many of them are removed, replaced or destroyed. At present there remain only 5 constitutional monuments in the northeast: in Maha Sarakham, Surin, Roi Et, Khon Kaen and Chaiyaphum.

As the legacy of the People’s Party was disappearing piece by piece, on 9 October 2019, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha presided over the opening of the Si Sitthisongkhram Room and Boworadet Room in the Royal Thai Army Museum in Honour of His Majesty the King.  The two rooms are named after Prince Boworadet, leader of the Boworadet Rebellion, and Colonel Phraya Si SithiSongkram (Din Tharab), a core leader of the Boworadet Rebellion and the grandfather of Privy Councillor Gen Surayud Chulanont.

However, after the 2006 coup d’état, the narrative of the “People’s Party” was again much talked in terms of heroes and as a symbol of the fight against the royalist ideology which dominates Thai society today.  Chatri suggests that this was a “second birth” of the People’s Party.  So the removal of the People’s Party plaque and the Monument to Suppressing the Rebellion may similarly be called the “second killing of the People’s Party”, but it is not yet clear whether it will be successful since efforts are still being made to preserve the memory of the People’s Party.

In March 2019, the Dean of the College of Politics and Governance, Mahasarakham University, made a request to install a replica People’s Party plaque as a learning resource for students, but the University refused, giving as a reason that it was a symbolic expression and not within educational objectives.  It also feared that it would create division within the University.  Finally there was a compromise that the finished plaque would be placed on a shelf for display.  Also, a replica People’s Party plaque can be seen at the sculpture park beside the large auditorium and in the Pridi Banomyong Memorial Room in the Dome Building, Thammasat University, Tha Prachan Campus.

A replica of the People's Party plaque in the Pridi Banomyong Memorial Room in the Dome Building, Thammasat University, Tha Prachan Campus

Bibliography

Chatri Prakitnonthakan. Thai Architecture after the 19 September 2006 Coup d’État. 1st Edition.  Bangkok: Aan Press, 2015. [in Thai]. 

Thongchai Winichakul.  “Thai royalist-nationalist history: from the era of disguised colonialism to neo-royalist-nationalism or the cult of the royal father among the modern Thai bourgeoisie” Silapawattanatham. 23(1): November 2001, 56 – 65. [in Thai]

Thanavi Chotpradit. “A Dark Spot on a Royal Space: The Art of the People’s Party and the Politics of Thai (Art) History” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia. 1(1): March 2017, 131 - 157

Thanavi Chotpradit. Revolution versus Counter-Revolution: The People’s Party and the Royalist(s) in Visual Dialogue. Doctoral Thesis in Art History, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2559. Accessed 1 November 2019 from https://www.academia.edu/29635672/Revolution_versus_Counter-Revolution_The_Peoples_Party_and_the_Royalist_s_in_Visual_Dialogue

Malinee Kumsupa. The Democracy Monument and its Unseen Meanings. 1st Edition. Bangkok: Vibhasa Press, 2005 [in Thai]

Suthachai Yimprasert “On ‘fresh-faced’ culprits stealing plaque”  Prachatai.  26 April 2017.  Accessed 19 November 2019 from https://prachatai.com/journal/2017/04/71195 [in Thai]

Sarunyou Thepsongkraow. People-ocracy: Politics, Power and the Memory of the People’s (Party). 1st Edition, Bangkok: Matichon, 2019. [in Thai]