Thai Monuments Are Disappearing in the Dead of Night
This week’s student protests are part of a backlash against a monarchist elite trying to erase Thailand’s democratic history.
Late one night in April 2017, a small brass plaque disappeared from the Royal Plaza in central Bangkok. Embedded in the asphalt close to an equestrian statue of a 19th-century king, it had been easy to overlook: just 12 inches across, with a ring of ornamental Thai script worn smooth by time. The plaque marked the spot where, 85 years earlier, a small band of revolutionaries proclaimed the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy, creating a constitutional political system modeled on Britain’s and relegating the Thai king to figurehead status.
The disappearance of the plaque bore all the signs of official involvement. CCTV cameras in the plaza were turned off at the time, and police warned journalists not to investigate its removal. The government later forced the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand to cancel a panel discussion about the vanished plaque and charged an opposition politician who demanded its return with sedition.
The medallion was one of a number of monuments to the 1932 revolution that have been quietly removed by Thailand’s government, in what critics describe as a systematic campaign to efface the country’s constitutional legacy and permanently cement the power of its military-royalist rulers. Over the past few years, monuments to the revolution have disappeared, statues of its leaders have been taken down, and buildings and military institutes whose names honored the revolution have been renamed.
Just as Western nations are debating the toppling of statues to slave owners and colonial plunderers, the removal of the Thai monuments has sparked a public discussion about the legacy of the 1932 revolution, a pivotal event in Thailand’s modern history. At the forefront is a young generation of political activists who have mobilized the legacy of 1932 in order to assail the legitimacy of the government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army officer who came to power in a military coup in 2014 and subsequently headed the military junta that ruled Thailand until March 2019, when he prevailed in a controversial and deeply flawed election.
On June 24, the 88th anniversary of the revolution, around 100 political activists, some dressed in replica period military uniforms, took part in a pre-dawn demonstration close to Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, the largest surviving monument to the 1932 revolution. There, a speaker read out the historic declaration of the revolution’s leaders. During this and other commemorations, the missing Bangkok plaque figured prominently. A mock-up of the medallion was paraded during gatherings, and activists emblazoned its image on T-shirts, playing cards, pancakes, and cookies. One Thai netizen even created an Instagram filter that superimposes the plaque on photos of the ground.
The anniversary commemoration has since flowed into larger nationwide protests calling for Prayuth’s resignation, a new constitution, curbs on the power of the monarchy, and the end to the routine harassment (and worse) of political dissidents. On Monday, up to 4,000 protesters gathered at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, a longtime locus of student activism. Chanting “long live democracy” to calls for Prayuth to step down, they also issued a startlingly frank list of 10 demands for reducing the powers of the monarchy, explicitly referencing the 1932 revolution.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist for the newspaper Khaosod English who has covered the removal of revolutionary monuments, said the event 88 years ago has become more prominent in public discourse than at any time he could remember. “This year’s June 24 commemoration piqued the interest of young Thais in wanting to learn more about the past like never before,” he told Foreign Policy. “A new generation is discovering a past that some people don’t want them to know.”
The bloodless revolt of June 24, 1932, was a watershed in modern Thai history. Led by an elite group of French-educated civil servants and soldiers known as the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon), the revolution overthrew King Prajadhipok and abruptly curtailed nearly 700 years of absolute rule. The Thai king, once revered as a godlike figure who emanated supernatural power, was shackled by a constitution for the first time. By the end of World War II, as Paul Handley relates in his sweeping biography of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the throne in 1946, the “king’s powers and prerogatives were gone, and much of the throne’s prestige had withered. The ranks of celestial princes were dangerously thin, and the crown’s magnificent wealth had been stripped away.”
Chonthicha Jangrew, a pro-democracy and human rights activist who took part in several events marking the anniversary, described 1932 as a milestone in the progress of a democratic tradition in Thailand. “It is part of our democratic roots that show us how Thais fought to establish democratic values,” she told Foreign Policy.
But the years following World War II saw a royalist counterattack, including the establishment of the elite nexus that is now reasserting itself against demands for democratic reform. A military coup in 1947 led to the writing of a new constitution that restored to the monarchy many of the powers taken from it in 1932. Through the dizzying rotation of governments, coups, and constitutions that marked the subsequent decades, the monarchy and military established a firm alliance, rooted in the common threat of communism and reinforced from without by strong American support during the Cold War. Equating the integrity of the monarchy with the security of the nation, palace and barracks joined in a mutual survival pact that guaranteed the preservation of each other’s powers and prerogatives. Even as the leaders of the People’s Party were publicly feted in stone and marble, their legacy was hollowed out from within.
Over the decades, Thailand’s military-monarchy nexus legitimated itself via an ideology that Thongchai Winichakul, a former student activist in Thailand who is now a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has described as “hyper-royalism.” The monarchy was reinfused with godly power and positioned as the guardian of “true” democracy. Courtly practices like ritual prostration, banned by Siam’s modernizing King Chulalongkorn in 1873, were revived. (To this day, even the prime minister is required to prostrate himself at the feet of the king.) The events of 1932 were presented negatively to schoolchildren, if they were taught at all, while the state fashioned a cult of personality around the king, characterized by songs, flattering documentaries, and public images. While Bhumibol was a genuinely popular monarch during his 70-year reign, traveling his kingdom and spearheading extensive charity works, his reputation was ring-fenced by a harsh lèse-majesté law that criminalized any criticism of the royal family.
Thanavi Chotpradit, a professor of art history at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, said the removal of monuments to the 1932 revolution represents the logical culmination of this decades-long attempt to delegitimize and erase reminders of Thailand’s constitutional past. “I see it as a reclaiming of the royal territory, both physically and ideologically,” she said. “It demonstrates an exercise of the monarchy’s power.”
Many royalist-minded Thais have long seen the monuments, symbols, and architectural styles of the post-1932 period as a “painful physical reminder of a time when royal prestige was at its lowest,” said James Buchanan, a doctoral researcher at the City University of Hong Kong who specializes in Thai politics. But it was only relatively recently that the 1932 revolution reentered the Thai political consciousness. It was even more recently that monuments started to disappear.
One key factor, observers say, is the accession of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne following the death of his father, Bhumibol, in October 2016. Since then, the government has sped up its efforts to remove 1932 from Thai history. This has been paralleled by Vajiralongkorn and his allies’ consolidation of power, which has involved the appointment of loyalists to the upper echelons of the military, the purging of perceived rivals, and the rehabilitation of traditions from the days of absolute monarchy. In 2017, Vajiralongkorn assumed full ownership of the mammoth Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarchy’s estimated $30 billion in assets and landholdings. Two months after his coronation in 2019, he took an official royal consort, the first king to do so since Chulalongkorn.
In a broader sense, the dispute over the legacy of 1932 has also grown out of the intense and protracted political crisis that has gripped Thai politics since 2005. This pitted the country’s military-royalist elite against supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon who was elected by a landslide in 2001 on promises of universal health care and microloans, which garnered overwhelming support in marginalized parts of rural Thailand. Thaksin’s political successes soon came to threaten the wealth and power of Thailand’s urban, royalist elites, who resorted to increasingly undemocratic methods to curb his influence.
When a military coup in 2006 removed Thaksin from office, his supporters, known as Red Shirts, massed in the streets and helped his proxies win elections in 2008 and 2011. Red Shirt leaders actively claimed the legacy of the 1932 revolution, marking the June 24 anniversary with protests and holding rallies at monuments including the Constitution Defense Monument in Bangkok, which commemorates the quashing of a royalist countercoup in 1933. (The monument was demolished without notice in December 2018.) As the 1932 revolution was conscripted into Thailand’s political battle, it spurred further calls by royalists—led by their own supporters, the Yellow Shirts—to scrub away all traces of this assault on monarchical privilege.
According to Thongchai, the dispute over the legacy of 1932 traces a deeper division between those who believe that political authority ought to derive from the will of the people and those who think it should be vested in a traditional elite claiming a moral right to rule. At the core of this, he said, “is the place and the extent of the power of the monarchy in Thailand’s democracy.”
Remarkably, this sensitive question is now being aired openly for the first time in many decades. At recent rallies, young demonstrators have waved signs calling to “abolish 112,” the section in the Thai criminal code that punishes any criticism of the royal family. Others have risked prison by demanding openly that the palace’s powers be curbed, displaying a candor that was virtually unknown during Bhumibol’s reign.
Online, criticisms have been just as explicit. A Thai-language hashtag that translates to #WhyDoWeNeedAKing? has trended on Twitter, as has one calling for a boycott on graduation ceremonies, traditionally presided over by members of the royal family. Netizens have actively assailed the behavior of the 68-year-old king, who spends most of his time in southern Germany, particularly his self-centered passivity during the coronavirus pandemic.
While open criticism of the monarchy is a risky business—on July 9, one Facebook user who posted a picture of himself wearing a T-shirt printed with the words “I lost faith in the monarchy” was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric institution—the authorities may find this genie hard to put back in the bottle. Prayuth told reporters he was “concerned” by Monday’s protests, but has given no clue as to how the government will react.
Indeed, the effort to remove the last remaining symbols of Thailand’s democratic revolution may have simply drawn further attention to its legacy, restaging once again the social and political struggles that have dominated Thai politics for the past century. “Suddenly it’s like we’re back in 1932 again,” Buchanan said, “with some sections of the population preferring the monarchy be kept in check by the constitution, while royal-nationalists seek to defend its sanctity.” It is a question that seems to be coming to a head once more.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist covering Southeast Asia and the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century (forthcoming in August 2020). Twitter: @sstrangio