One discussion you will not find at the Thai Studies Conference in Thailand!!
Watch the talk and the debate from Cologne on the 85th anniversary of the 1932 Revolution organised on 24th June 2017 here.
This kind of discussion could never be held in Thailand under the military dictatorship or the Lèse Majesté law. The military dictatorship and the new king will be the elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to see during the Thai Studies Conference. So what of substance are the academics at the Thai Studies Conference talking about??
Conservative western academics and royalist Thai commentators like to paint a picture of the 1932 revolution, which overthrew the absolute monarchy, as a “mere coup” with little support from the general population. In the past I have mentioned the work of historian Nakarin Mektrairat in challenging these distortions of history. In addition to this, a book published last year by Nuttapon Jaijing about the abortive Baworadet royalist rebellion in 1933 has some very interesting details.
Prince Boworadet assembled rebel soldiers at Korat in October 1933, 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.
The Siam Tram Workers Union, led by the radical trade union leader Tawat Rittidet, offered on two separate occasions to go straight to the front to fight Baworadet’s army. The government politely declined the offer, stating that at that moment they had enough soldiers. As a result, the tram workers organised teams to act as guards in Bangkok and also collect intelligence, instead of going to the front. The Siam Tram Workers Union already had a long history of opposition to the Absolute Monarchy and apart from printing a workers’ newspaper, its offices were open for use by radicals who campaigned for women’s rights. After the Baworadet rebellion was crushed, Pridi Panomyong made special mention of the support from the union.
In Samut Sakorn young men assembled to form a volunteer force to fight the rebellion and they also demanded that the government send them arms. There are numerous records of different groups of citizens in the provinces forming volunteer teams. A group of ordinary women in Gang-Koi, near Saraburi, volunteered to help supply the government troops. Even monks volunteered to help the government.
In Kon Kaen troops and members of the public mobilised to stop the rebels from moving north to seize the city and after the rebels retreated from Lak Si, north of Bangkok, they tore up the railway lines and damaged bridges to prevent the rebels from moving north beyond Korat.
The rebels had another centre in the south around Petburi and Hua Hin, near the king’s palace. A low-ranking railway clerk at Petburi railway station organised workmates to secretly empty diesel fuel from locomotives to stop any military advance on Bangkok.
In the end the rebels were unable to advance on the capital city and were defeated at Lak Si where a monument to the victory against the royalists was erected.
Nuttapon Jaijing’s book is an important source of historical research which helps to destroy the right-wing myth that the 1932 revolution was merely a military coup by a small group opposed to the monarchy and that the revolution “lacked legitimacy in the eyes of most Thais”. It is a snap-shot of the radicalisation that was taking place among ordinary citizens at the time.
On 24th June this year, at the Asienhaus Foundation in Cologne, Germany, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the 1932 revolution in Thailand. What follows is a summary of my talk.
The present military constitution has a prologue which praises the great achievements of Generalissimo Prayut in achieving “democratic reform”. It carries on by explaining that the aim is to establish “Thai-style” democracy and repeats the great lie that king Rama 7th “gave democracy” to the Thai people. The pathetic king actually had to be overthrown in the revolution to establish constitutional government!
If Thailand is marching towards Absolutism, it is not the absolutism of any monarchy, but the absolutism of the military. I have explained in other posts on this site about the nature of the 1932 revolution and the fact that King Pumipon never had any independent power. He was a tool of the military and his son is even weaker and not at all interested in Thai politics or society. However, it is necessary to deal with the issue of whether 1932 was an unfinished revolution.
If 1932 was an unfinished revolution, it is only true if we consider it from the point of view of a struggle for democracy. It is not an unfinished revolution in terms of “bourgeois revolutions” like the French Revolution or the English Revolution. Bourgeois revolutions open the way to establishing capitalism and capitalist states and political systems. The successful Thai bourgeois revolution was led from above by King Chulalongkorn, in much the same way as the Meiji revolution ocurred in Japan. New state centralisation, albeit in the European colonies, was also achieved in Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam around the same time. But these were unfinished changes because the nations were not yet independent.
In terms of a failure to establish democracy, the 1932 revolution was a failure because its leader Pridi Panomyong did not understand the need to build a mass political party. Instead he relied on the military, which eventually helped the military to increase its power. Pridi once wrote, when looking back on his life, that “when I had power I didn’t fully understand politics, but when I came to fully understand politics, I had already lost power”.
The march towards “military absolutism”, which may be too strong a word to use, can be seen in the military’s new constitution which attempts to lay the ground for “Guided Democracy”. We see…
The establishment of the junta’s hidden hand which is determining the National Political Strategy for the next decades. This opens the door for the military and its hirelings to use the powers of veto against any decisions made by an elected government and also for the military to take power at any time via a “legalised coup”, if and when it deems fit.
The Prime Minister can be non-MP under certain circumstances, as written in articles 5 & 272.
The military will appoint an all-powerful Senate and Constitutional Court which can veto government policy and remove elected governments that do not conform to the National Political Strategy. So-called Populist Policies which favour the poor are outlawed.
The military appointed Electoral Commission can vet manifestos of political parties standing in elections to make sure they conform to military policy.
The method of calculating MPs from votes after elections favours the military aligned Democrat Party.
It is virtually impossible to amend constitution.
Article 47 destroys the concept of universal health care as the Government only has a duty to provide for the very poor.
Article 54 cuts free education in the final years of secondary school.
It is absolutely amazing that given this clear enshrinement of military political power, that there are some people who still claim that King Wachiralongkorn is amassing absolute power in his hands and creating a climate of fear. In fact Wachiralongkorn has never expressed any real opinions about the above sections of the constitution or any aspect of Thai society. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, nothing would change, just like nothing changed when his father died some months ago.
Thailand was well integrated into the world market in the 1930s and as a result of this, suffered the effects of the 1930s economic depression. The political fall-out from this was that a group of civilian and military state officials, under Pridi Panomyong’s Peoples’ Party, staged a revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy of Rama VII in 1932. The first declaration of the revolutionaries clearly identified the economic crisis as bringing things to a head, with mass unemployment, cuts in wages and increased taxation experienced by the mass of the population. The Royal Family was notably exempted from these tax increases!
The 1932 revolution was carried out on the back of widespread social discontent. Farmers in rural areas were becoming increasingly bold and strident in their written criticism of the monarchy. Working class activists were involved in the revolution itself, although they were not the main actors, and cheering crowds spontaneously lined Rachadamnern Avenue as the Peoples’ Party declaration was read out by various representatives stationed along the road. The landmark work of Thammasart historian Nakarin Mektrairat details this wide movement of social forces which eventually lead to the revolution. It is important to stress the role of different social groups in creating the conditions for the 1932 revolution, since the right-wing historians have claimed that it was the work of a “handful of foreign educated bureaucrats”. In fact, there has been a consistent attempt by the right, both inside and outside Thailand, to claim that ordinary Thai people have a culture of respecting authority and therefore show little interest in politics.
The 1932 revolution had the effect of further modernising the state and expanding the base of the Thai capitalist ruling class to include the top members of the civilian and military bureaucracy, especially the military. The reason why the military became so influential in Thai politics, finally resulting in 16 years of uninterrupted military dictatorship from 1957, was that the left-wing revolutionary leader, Pridi Panomyong, failed to grasp the need to build a mass political party, choosing instead to rely on the military. In addition to this, the working class was still weak in terms of social forces which could oppose the military. Nonetheless, it would be quite wrong to conclude that class struggle was non-existent.
Pridi wrote the first declaration of the Peoples’ Party, which was strongly anti-monarchy. He also drafted an economic policy paper which set out plans for the nationalisation of land, a super tax on the rich and a welfare state. Yet Pridi’s weakness meant that the economic plan was shelved and compromises were made with the conservatives about the role of the monarchy.
Never the less, the 1932 revolution meant that the role of the monarchy was significantly changed for the second time in less than a century. In the 1870s King Rama V abolished Sakdina rule in favour of a centralised and modern absolute monarchy. Sixty years later, the 1932 revolution destroyed this absolute monarchy so that the king merely became one weak and powerless member of the Thai ruling class. This is the situation today. It is important to understand this, because there has been a tendency by both the left and the right to exaggerate the importance of “long-lasting traditions” about the Thai monarchy. Todays’ monarchy may seem to have the trappings of a “traditional” king, especially to those observers who see the degree to which King Rama IX was revered among huge sections of the population. Yet the influence of this institution has fluctuated over the last sixty years and the “sacredness” of the monarchy has in fact been manufactured by military and civilian rulers to provide themselves with political legitimacy.
Many 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 against the king is part of this war.
The plaque was removed in secret sometime in April this year and replaced with what can only be described as a ridiculous right-wing pro-monarchist “drain cover”.
The fact that the monument was removed, while leading members of the junta and various authorities all deny knowledge or responsibility, raises some interesting questions. Those who have questioned the whereabouts of the plaque have also been detained by the military for “attitude changing sessions”.
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.
Pibun also built a huge nationalistic monument in Ayuttaya in the shape of the old provincial administration centre and the clumsy “restoration” of three pagodas. The old provincial administration centre has statues of past kings, much like the king statues built by the Burmese junta or statues of past kings built by modern day despots in former Soviet republics. Neither Pibun nor the Burmese junta nor the despots of former Soviet republics wanted a return to the days of 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. No dictatorship has ever dared to demolish it because of the strength of the democratic ideology among Thai people. In fact all these dictatorships, including the present Prayut junta, have all had to claim that they are “democratic”. None have dared to openly celebrate dictatorship over democracy.
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.
The 1932 revolution plaque was and still remains an anti-monarchy symbol, like the monument at Lak-Si, north of Bangkok, which commemorates the military victory against the royalist rebellion just after the revolution. At one time Sarit ordered the removal of the 1932 plaque, but it was returned to its original setting after his death. However, the conservatives have also 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 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.
There are the usual conspiracy theorists who make up ridiculous stories about how King Wachiralongkorn ordered the removal of the 1932 revolution plaque. It is likely that the intellectually challenged new king was not aware until recently of the existence of this plaque.
Now a member of a strange right-wing sect called the “Smarn Si Ngarm Group” has claimed responsibility for removing the plaque. We shall have to see whether this is true or not. The “Smarn Si Ngarm Group” evolved from an earlier group set up by Communist Party turn-coat Prasert Supsuntorn. Prasert Supsuntorn joined with the military in opposing the CPT’s armed struggle. He then became a royalist. He and Smarn Si Ngarm use the language of the Left to promote pro-military ideology and royalism. Using secret funds from the military, they tried to spread their ideas among trade unionists and other political activists. They even provided some generals like Chawalit Yongjaiyut with “political education”.
But more importantly, we must not forget that for ten years now, the royalist anti-democrats have acted to destroy the democratic system and invite the military to take power. They acted on their own initiative, but the military was happy for the excuse to stage two coups. These fanatical royalist also threatened to take away the 1932 revolution plaque, especially after pro-democracy activists started to hold small ceremonies around the plaque coinciding with an increasing republican political mood in society. This is truly a “Monument War” in the War of Position.
On the anniversary of the 24th June 1932 revolution which toppled the Absolute Monarchy, groups of pro-democracy students have defied the illegal military junta and staged protests outside a Bangkok police station. They did this in order to defy the police warrant for their arrest because they refused to report to the police over their peaceful protests on the first anniversary of General Prayut’s May 2014 coup d’état.
Students and their supporters, along with many reporters, gathered outside Patum Wan police station, near Chulalongkorn University. They read out a declaration calling on people to join them and rise up and oppose the junta. They also accused the police of using violence against them in order to break up their peaceful protest in May.
The military spokes-person for the junta accused the students of being “trouble makers with a hidden agenda”. Fighting for democracy in the open and on the streets can hardly be classified as a hidden agenda, nor can the military’s wilful destruction of democracy! On previous occasions military loud-mouths have accused the students of “being too young to understand politics and democracy”.
Meanwhile the military still calls people in for “attitude-changes”. The latest case is that of people from a north-eastern women’s group who dared to make merit at a temple on former elected Prime Minister Yingluk’s birthday.
Also on 24th June this year, at the metal plaque commemorating the 1932 revolution, a group of activists laid flowers as a symbol of democracy.
Meanwhile Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Fat-head General Prawit tried to claim that the military junta was “protecting the tradition of the Peoples’ Party Revolution” because it was “building and protecting democracy”. From somewhere around his hindquarters, he was heard to exclaim that the government was “not a dictatorship”. … Perhaps he is too old, too stupid and too military to understand politics and democracy?