Paved over but not forgotten, Thailand’s young rise up for democracy
Campaigns to mark the birth of democratic Thailand almost a century ago appear to be more active this year, as a politically aware new generation calls authorities to account over the disappearance of monuments celebrating of the 1932 Siamese Revolution.
Human rights lawyer Anond Nampa, who led a rally at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on the early morning of June 24 to mark the 88th anniversary of the revolution, said moves by the powers-that-be to eradicate symbols of the revolution appear to have backfired, triggering more public interest than ever in the event.
“The authorities’ moves are helping the public realise the significance of the Khana Ratsadon [People’s Party]. Now, people, especially the young generation, are curious to find who was behind the revolution and what really happened 88 years ago,” Anond said.
Khana Ratsadon was a group of military and civilian officials who staged a bloodless coup against King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and transformed the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy on June 24, 1932 – a date which has held growing significance for pro-democracy groups in recent years.
Meanwhile, at least six sites memorialising the People’s Party are reported to have been removed or renamed over the past few years.
Among them are a key People’s Party monument in Bangkok and at least three prominent statues of People’s Party leaders at military sites, while a museum commemorating the revolution in Chiang Rai has been renamed.
One of the most controversial disappearances was that of the 1932 Revolution Memorial Plaque, in April 2017. It was embedded on the Royal Plaza near the equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn statue, on the spot where People’s Party leader Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena read out a declaration announcing the dawn of democracy in Thailand on June 24, 1932.
It was replaced by a fresh plaque that made no mention of the event, prompting an uproar from activists and some historians. The government has denied any knowledge of the plaque’s fate.
No reason has been given for the disappearance of the monuments, though some military officials were quoted as claiming one was removed for landscaping purposes. Two Army camps named after leaders of the 1932 revolt were also rechristened on orders of the Office of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as per an item published without comment in the Royal Gazette.
The eradication of public symbols of the revolution was highlighted by Anond and other activists at Democracy Monument on Wednesday, under the banner “Repeated Erasing will Never Make Us Forget”.
“This is an ordinary movement under democracy. We don’t mean to insult any institution, we just want to see transparency in the country’s major institutions and establishments,” Anond said, in response to claims that such protests were aimed at challenging the monarchy.
People participating in events this year to commemorate the revolution could be divided into two groups, he said – political activists, and the new generation in their teens and early 20s who are actively following the issue and commenting on social media.
The hashtag #June24 became Thailand’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the new generation’s growing enthusiasm in following Thai politics is another reason why public interest in the anniversary is rising this year.
The academic said young people have a different attitude and values compared to the older generation, and their way of communicating through social media is influencing their political ideology.
“I’m talking about disruptive politics. The old generation sees past political events in a different way, as they are only concerned about MPs in Parliament, but the new gen these days looks at politics in a broader manner,” he said.
“Politics inside Parliament may not reflect their political preferences or solve their problems, so they had to come out and make demands on the day that marked the beginning of Thai democracy [June 24].”
A general frustration with the current government was another reason why pro-democracy moves were so strong this year, Yuthaporn said.
Commemorative events were held one year after the 2019 general election, which has drawn widespread criticism. Public discontent has grown over an electoral system that paved the way for the 2014 coup-makers to prolong their hold on power, a Constitution that was written by the junta, the dissolution of new gen-focused Future Forward Party, and the perceived poor performance of the government.
For Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science dean at Ubon Ratchathani University, the continuous suppression of political rights by the military since 2014 has badly eroded democracy, resulting in more people taking a pro-democracy stance.
“They want the authorities to acknowledge their complaints that last year’s election made no difference to Prayut’s rule and that the problem of corruption has not been solved despite his promises. June 24 is obviously the date, because this was the day that democracy introduced in the country,” the academic said.
Despite the state of emergency due to COVID-19, several political and student activist groups staged demonstrations on Wednesday to mark the historic day.
Around 100 people led by the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) gathered at Democracy Monument early in the morning and projected a re-enactment of Khana Ratsadon leaders delivering a speech after they toppled the government of King Rama VII and ushered in Thailand’s first constitution-based administration.
Meanwhile, the Committee Campaigning for a People’s Constitution and the June 24 Democracy group submitted a petition to the parliamentary committee studying constitutional amendments, demanding that the junta-drafted charter be made more democratic.
An evening demonstration was then held by student activists and the DRG on the Pathumwan intersection BTS Skywalk to commemorate the revolutionaries. Demonstrators read out the People’s Party Declaration and unfurled a giant banner which featured a photoshopped image of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as a blindfolded puppet next to a King of Hearts playing card.
Upcountry, political activists, students and civil groups in at least 10 provinces staged simultaneous demonstrations at local historical monuments.
Some prominent activists claimed they were followed or closely monitored by authorities after the events, though nobody was charged.
Rebirth of political activism?
While organisers of the demonstrations may view the revolution’s anniversary as the time to restore political activism after it was frozen during the COVID-19 crisis, observers say the public still fears intimidation by the government.
Titipol said police called Ubon Ratchathani University on Wednesday to remind students the country was under a state of emergency until the end of this month – a move the dean said was clear intimidation.
If people were not afraid of the authorities, the gathering at the BTS Skywalk would have been far larger, said Titipol, who was present to observe the event on Wednesday.
He said intimidatory moves made by authorities over the past few weeks only prove that the government still functions like a military administration, not an elected government. The insistence on maintaining the state of emergency is another sign that the Army is in charge, he added.
“This proves that the state of emergency is not aimed at preventing COVID-19 but for political purposes.”
Yuthaporn believes that the rallies will eventually lead to charter change because there was widespread public conviction that the junta-written Constitution is part of the ongoing problems in Thai politics.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk