Killing the spectre of democracy: 1932 Revolution Plaque removal

The disappearance of the 1932 Revolution memorial plaque is the latest of many attempts by the nation’s conservative elites to erase the history of Thailand’s democracy.

“Amid the mystery of what happened, this object has unexpectedly created a new memory to welcome the new [junta-sponsored] constitution of Thailand, which is a national embarrassment,” Pinkaew Laungaramsri, Asst Prof of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Chiang Mai University, said of the disappearance of the 1932 Revolution plaque.   

The Happy Fresh-Faced Citizens Plaque (left) VS. the 1932 Revolution Plaque

As Thai people splashed water on each other in the streets of Bangkok during the 2017 Songkran Celebration, the replacement of a small brass plaque located close to the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V at the Royal Plaza has caused public outrage among academics, progressives, and democracy activists.

What the missing plaque signifies is much larger than its modest size of about 30 cm in diameter. It was installed by the first political party of the nation, the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon), which staged a bloodless coup d’état on 24 June 1932, which ended 150 years of absolutist rule of the Chakri Dynasty.

The haunting spectres of the People’s Party

Chatree Prakitnonthakarn, an architecture lecturer at Silpakorn University and expert on historical architecture of the post-1932 revolution era, said “We can’t just look at the People’s Party’s plaque, but must see the process to destroy the history of the People’s Party by the conservatives who are against democracy.”

The removal and relocation of the Lak Si Circle Monument (Anusawari Phitak Ratthammanun) in November 2016 to make way for the construction of the new BTS train line is a prime example of this process.

The monument was built to commemorate the People’s Party’s victory over the Boworadet Rebellion (a royalist counter-revolution) in 1933 in Lak Si, where the stupa-like structure, topped with an image of the constitution, contains the ashes of 17 soldiers of the People’s Party killed in the battle.

The removal of Lak Si Circle Monument in November 2016 (Photo from Matichon Online)

Earlier in 2013, demolition began of the Supreme Court Complex constructed shortly after the 1932 Revolution. The old building was austerely constructed with simple square or rectangular shapes inspired by shapes of machines and industrial plants which at that time symbolized progress. It will be replaced by an elaborate building with multi-layered palatial roofs.

In his book ‘Ultra-Thai Architecture after the 2006 coup d'état’, Chatree wrote that the entire plan of the new Supreme Court complex was designed with features resembling the layout of ancient religious places. That is to say there is a main building shaped liked an ubosot (holiest prayer room or ordination hall) situated in the middle of the site surrounded by an empty space.  

The decision to demolish the building was taken in 2007 by the Ministry of Justice. To no avail, many architects and academics voiced opposition to the demolition, saying the old building is historically important.

The old Supreme Court adjacent to the Snam Luang, Bangkok, which was demolished in 2013 (Photo from OKnation)

The demolition of Sala Chalermthai Theatre is also a vivid illustration. The theatre was constructed eight years after the 1932 Revolution and fully reflected the cultural values of early Thai films and plays that were performed there for decades. However, it was torn down in 1989 for a very simple reason – to open up a view of Ratchanatdaram Temple, a temple under royal patronage.

The fate of Sala Chalermthai offers a stark contrast with another cinema that was built only 10 years before, Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. Although both cinemas were built in the same modernist architectural style, the latter is celebrated and carefully conserved well into present. The difference is that the former was built by People’s Party and the latter was built by Rama VII.

Sala Chalermthai (Photo from Oknation)

Even the most iconic landmark on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, the Democracy Monument, which has been used by many pro-democracy activists as protest site, came close to being torn down.

Built in 1938 under the premiership of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram to commemorate the birth of the Thai constitution, it was nearly replaced by a statue of King Prajadhipok in 1948 as the power of the People’s Party began to wane due to internal friction and attempts by the supporters of the old absolutist regime to creep back into power. The replacement, however, did not materialise as Field Marshal Plaek cited lack of money.

The plan to replace the Democracy Monument with the statue of King Prajadhipok in 1948

Gone for good this time?

Despite the fact that the identity of those responsible for the removal of the plaque remains unknown, we do know that the old plaque is likely to have been removed between 4-5 April during preparation of the area around Equestrian Statue of King Rama V when tents were installed to cover the area. In fact, in the early hours of 5 April, a mystical ceremony was held at the Royal Plaza featuring a dance by a group of traditional Thai performers.

The mystical ceremony held at the Royal Plaza at 00:21 am on 5 April 2017

This is not the first time that the 1932 Revolution Plaque was removed. Thamrongsak Phetlertanan, a historian who is an expert on the 1932 Revolution, told Prachatai that Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the military dictator from 1958-1963, once removed the plaque in 1960 and did not bother to replace it. It was not until 1963 after Sarit’s death that the plaque was restored by Prasert Patamasukhon, the Secretary of Parliament at the time.  

“Field Marshal Sarit wanted to show the authority of his dictatorship, but this time the new plaque seems to manifest the power of royalism not militarism,” Thamrongsak told Prachatai.

The People’s Party inscription on the missing plaque reads “At this place, at dawn on 24 June 1932, we the People’s Party gave birth to the Constitution for the progress of the nation”. The message engraved on the new plaque seems to echo the days of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom, which predates Bangkok by about 800 years.

The message of the new plaque reads “May Siam prosper forever [with] happy fresh-faced citizens to be the force of the nation,” and around the rim “Respect and loyalty to the Buddhist Triple Gems, to one’s family clan, and being honest towards one’s King are tools for making the state prosper.”

The Happy Fresh-Faced Citizens Plaque   

The phrase ‘fresh-faced citizens’ echoes the phrase ‘fresh-faced subjects’ found on the controversial stele of King Ramkhamhaeng of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom. Many have questioned the authenticity of the stele, believing that it was in fact produced under the reign of Rama IV in the early Bangkok era.

According to Chatree, it is not likely that the plaque will be restored this time. The new plaque will likely stay or it might be replaced with just plain concrete, said the expert of on the aesthetics of the People’s Party architecture. The authorities’ measures in dealing with people calling for return of the old plaque seem to confirm his statement.    

The Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) on 18 April filed a complaint against Watana Muangsook, a politician from Pheu Thai Party, for breaching the Computer Crime Act, accusing him of posting false information on Facebook that the 1932 Revolution plaque is a ‘national heritage’ in order to call for people to demand its return, adding that the post might also incite chaos.

Royalists performing a ‘removal ritual’ for the 1932 Revolution plaque on 21 June 2015 (Photo from MThai)  

On the same day, the military detained Srisuwan Janya, a transparency activist, for 10 hours for attempting to submit a letter to the junta leader to call for the return of the missing brass plaque and for prosecution of those responsible for its removal.

As several activists lodged complaints with the police and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) about the missing plaque, Pol Gen Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, the Deputy Chief of the Royal Thai Police, on Wednesday said the complainers might be prosecuted for filing false charges.

Like an undying ghost, however, Chatree believes the spirit of the plaque will live on. “The non-existence of any symbolic symbol is best, because when one [symbolic] object is replaced by another object which stands for the opposite ideology, it constantly reminds us of the old object.”

Pro-democracy activists commemorating the 1932 Revolution by placing flowers of the memorial plaque of the People’s Party on 24 June 2014