Giles Ji Ungpakorn
In 2017 I wrote an article about “Monument Wars” after the disappearance of the metal plaque celebrating the 1932 revolution against the king. The latest casualty is the Lak-Si Democracy Monument, north of Bangkok, which commemorates the military victory against the Boworadet royalist rebellion one year after the revolution. This monument was removed at night, under the watchful eyes of soldiers, in late December. A democracy activist who took pictures of the removal on his phone had his phone confiscated for 24 hours by police.
The history of the crushing of the royalist rebellion shows why the royalists wish to destroy the monument. In 1932 Prince Boworadet assembled rebel soldiers at Korat ready to move down by train to attack Bangkok and restore the power of the monarchy. The royalists spread propaganda that the government, and especially Pridi Panomyong, were communists who wanted to establish a republic. The rebels planned to assassinate leaders of the People’s Party when they entered Bangkok.
As soon as news of the royalist rebellion reached Bangkok, many citizens volunteered to form an army to fight off the rebellion and defend the constitution. Military reservists started reporting for duty even though the government had not yet issued any orders to report. Civilians also volunteered to help the police in intelligence gathering about those involved with the royalist rebellion. Boy scouts reported for duty to help keep the peace in the capital city and they also played an important role in supplying government troops with ammunition and other essentials. Trade unionists were prominent in volunteering to fight against the rebellion. Workers from munitions factories, aircraft maintenance workers, Siam Cement workers, boatmen, taxi drivers and railway maintenance workers at the Makasan repair shop, all expressed enthusiasm to join the fight against the royalists. This fight ended in defeat for the royalists and forever ended their dreams of restoring the absolute monarchy. [See https://bit.ly/2uXDfAT ].
Historians have described the importance of monuments in modern day to day political struggles. This is part of what Gramsci would have called “the War of Position”. It is an ideological war between different sides or classes. The recent disappearance of the metal plaque celebrating the 1932 revolution and the removal of the Lak Si monument are part of this war.
The fact that these monuments were removed while leading members of the junta and various authorities all deny knowledge or responsibility, raises some interesting questions. Those who have questioned these acts have been harassed by the police and military.
A study of the works of Thai historians shows that the Democracy Monument, in the centre of Bangkok, is also part of the continuing Monument War. The Democracy Monument was in fact built by the military dictator Pibun in the 1930s as an anti-royalist monument. Pibun was a nationalist republican who favoured dictatorship over democracy. The monument was built in the middle of the “King’s Avenue”, a bit like giving the “middle finger” to the monarchy. It is worth visiting this monument to look at the modernist imagery which does not contain a single reference to the monarchy.
The Democracy Monument in Bangkok is interesting because it shows that through popular struggle the meaning of monuments can change. Ever since the days of the royalist dictator Sarit, who overthrew Pibun, Thai citizens have seen this monument as a symbol of democracy. So far no dictatorship has ever dared to demolish it because of the strength of the democratic ideology among Thai people.
When Sarit came to power, he promoted King Pumipon in order to give himself more legitimacy and power. He never had any intention of giving Pumipon any power and Pumipon was never powerful. We need to remember that “political power” is concrete. It determines social and economic policies and international relations. Neither Pumipon nor his idiot son have or have ever had this kind of power.
Conservatives have constantly tried to cover up and dismiss the history of the 1932 revolution. That is why most Thais probably have never heard of the 1932 plaque or the Lak-Si monument. That is also why the conservatives built the moment of the deposed king Rama 7 in front of the present parliament after the 6th October bloodbath in 1976. It is like building a monument to King George in front of the US Congress!
In this Monument War, the progressives have fought back by building monuments to those who were killed by the military in 1973 and 1976. The latter monument is inside Thammasart University, which is also the location for a monument to Pridi Panomyong, founder of the People’s Party and a key leader of the 1932 revolution.
This is truly a “Monument War” in Thailand’s War of Position.