Tag Archives: 1932 revolution

The 1932 Revolution

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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

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.

Monument Wars

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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.

Lak-Si

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.

Students call on people to rise up and oppose the junta

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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 at Patum Wan police station (from Prachatai)
students at Patum Wan police station (from Prachatai)

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”.

spokesman of the illegal junta
spokesman of the illegal junta

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.

celebrating the 1932 revolution (from Prachatai)
celebrating the 1932 revolution (from Prachatai)

 

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.

Fat-head general Prawit
Fat-head general Prawit

 

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?