In Thailand, it’s statues of democracy leaders that are disappearing

BANGKOK: Certain historical statues have been disappearing in Thailand, but they are not effigies of colonialists or slave owners torn down by protesters.

Instead, Thailand’s vanishing monuments celebrated leaders of the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand, who were once officially honoured as national heroes and symbols of democracy.

Reuters has identified at least six sites memorialising the People’s Party that led the revolution which have been removed or renamed in the past year.

In most cases it is not known who took the statues down, although a military official said one was removed for new landscaping.

Two army camps named after 1932 leaders were rechristened on the orders of the office of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, according to an item published without comment in the Royal Gazette.

Officials in the military, government and the palace declined to answer questions submitted by Reuters regarding the removal of statues and renaming of military camps.

Some historians say the missing monuments reflect an ideological battle over Thailand’s history.

On one side is military-royalist conservatives whose supporters idealise traditional culture, with loyalty to the monarchy and King Maha Vajiralongkorn seen as the highest virtue.

On the other are populist parties, activists and academics who have risen to prominence in the last two decades, culminating in two military coups that ousted elected populist governments in 2006 and 2014.

In recent years, the conservatives have been in the ascendancy. Elections last year kept coup leader Prayut in power through a vote that opposition parties said was rigged – an accusation that he and Thailand’s courts deny.

Since the election and last year’s elaborate coronation of King Vajiralongkorn, a major People’s Party monument in Bangkok and at least three prominent statues of People’s Party leaders at military sites have been removed, and a museum commemorating the revolution in the northern city of Chiang Rai was renamed.

Months after King Vajiralongkorn took the throne, a plaque marking the spot where the 1932 coup was proclaimed was replaced with one bearing a royalist slogan. No explanation for the change was given.

A representative of the National Defence Studies Institute – where a statue of 1932 revolutionary Plaek Phibunsongkram disappeared in January from the front of its headquarters – said on condition of anonymity that it had been moved for landscaping outside and could not say when or if it would be returned.

PEOPLE’S CONSTITUTION

Thailand officially has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, and its traditional culture is deeply invested in the monarchy as a unifying – and for some, semi-divine – institution.

The king remains powerful and the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current monarch’s father, was widely revered during his 70-year reign until his death in 2016.

Tradition mandates all Thais prostrate themselves before the king and his immediate family, and insulting the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

In recent years, successive military leaders including Prayut have portrayed their critics as potential threats to the monarchy.

But since last year’s disputed election, demonstrations against military dominance have increasingly identified with the 1932 revolution, said Chatri Prakitnonthakan, an architectural historian at Silpakorn University.

Wednesday (Jun 24) is the 88th anniversary of the revolution, and pro-democracy activists plan to defy coronavirus bans on gatherings to protest what they say is the subversion of the principles of democracy by the military.

“We want to commemorate the 1932 revolt,” said activist Anon Nampa, who is organising a pre-dawn protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, the largest and most prominent remaining symbol of the 1932 revolt.

“I think the young generations are looking back at that era and draw parallels about today, about how power is being abused.”

In remarks on Tuesday, Prayut did not directly address the protests, but he told people “don’t violate the monarchy and don’t violate the law.”