Written by Pandit Chanrochanakit
Translated by Samson Lim
[คลิกที่นี่เพื่ออ่านต้นฉบับขนาดเต็ม “อนุสาวรีย์ประชาธิปไตยในความเปลี่ยนผ่านทางการเมือง 1940-2021”]
Through collected photographs, some of them rarely seen before, Pandit Chanrochanakit provides an overview of the role the democracy monument in Bangkok has played as the symbolic fixture in the struggle for a constitutional democracy since its inauguration in 1940 and since the first time a dead body was placed on top of the monument in 1973.
In the past decade, the democracy monument’s symbolic power has been used to great visual effect by successive movements like the Red Shirts in 2010 and the current youth-led social movements challenging both absolute monarchism and military authoritarianism, despite its ambivalent military origins. For a country without democracy, the monument speaks volumes to the cumulative yearning of a country’s populace, since 1932.
What does it mean to be a constitutional monarchy?
Democracy Monument has a long history as an important site of meaning in Thailand. It is connected directly and symbolically to the history of the nation’s demand for democratic constitutionalism (Malinee Khumsupha, 2005).
At first, the new post-1932 was called a “constitutional system.” In Thailand’s early constitutional systems of governance, it was the citizen who was the sovereign. This was truly novel in the region. In the period immediately after the change of the country’s political regime, new terms like “republic,” which means “people’s state” or “public state,” and “democracy” or “pratchathipatai,” were used interchangeably. The terms were also often confused with each other, as if the words and their meanings were the same… While the meaning of the word “democracy” overlapped with the word “republic,” a state without a king belonging to the people, the shift in the political regime of the 1940s was called a “constitutional monarchy” and the “constitution” was celebrated as representing democratic progress.
In 1932, Thailand’s new regime was a democratic political system where the people were the highest power and where the monarchy remained under the authority of the constitution. In this system, the king maintains his status of head of the country. The People’s Party called their new political regime a “constitutional monarchy,” a system that prevailed until September 16, 1957, when Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat took power…
The Birth of Democracy Monument
To commemorate the change of government that took place in 1932, the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkhram initiated the construction of a memorial called “Democracy Monument.” Uniquely, the constitution is placed at the revered top. After the inauguration ceremony took place on June 24, 1940, that day was hence celebrated as Thailand’s national day, until the birthday of King Rama IX on December 5 overshadowed it.
Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkhram’s inaugural speech reflects the compromise and “reconciliation” between absolute monarchy and politics in the new democratic regime. [The Democracy Monument was built with the aim of]:
“…upholding the value of democracy and to have a reminder to everyone to work to maintain the system in a state of eternal blessing. The government therefore voted to build a monument to democracy. This monument will be the center of all progress, such that all roads leading out of Bangkok to various provincial centers will originate from this monument. Ratchadamnoen Road will be lined with beautiful buildings that bring honor the country while fulfilling the royal initiative of His Majesty King Chulalongkorn to make the road glorious.” (Khwanchai Aimjai, 1998: 74)
The unveiling of the Democracy Monument [location on google maps] on National Day of 1940 made the monument the starting point of various roads into the country’s hinterlands, as “kilometer zero” at the center of the nation’s progress. After World War II ended, Ratchadamnoen Road became a parade ground and the Democracy Monument was the site where the country received the members of Seri Tai, a foundational underground movement aligned with the Allies.
The political crisis following the death of King Rama VIII and the coup d’état of November 9, 1947 forced Pridi Banomyong and the civilian faction into exile
d from politics. Hence, the “masterminds” and the main civilian faction of the People’s Party were eliminated from Thai politics. This effectively ended the People’s Party.
With the civilian factions of the People’s Party gone, Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkhram returned to the political arena, but Police General Pao Sriyanon and Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat challenged him for power. With problems stemming from a dirty election, coupled with the September 16, 1957 Sarit coup, Phibulsongkhram faltered and remnants of the People’s Party disappeared into oblivion. The Democracy Monument became a large roundabout on Ratchadamnoen Road that no longer symbolized a “permanent constitution.” Rather, the constitution became just an ordinary document for the governing of “a kingdom.” Under this system, the National Legislative Assembly acted as the interim National Assembly to draft a new constitution.
Field Marshal Sarit was clearly different from previous men who took power, especially the ways he attached himself to the monarchy and the symbiotic way the monarchy recognized Sarit’s regime publicly. When Field Marshal Thanom Kitikajon took power in 1963, the new constitution was not even ready. The first elections finally took place in 1969, more than a decade into the “constitution” under military rule. Soon Field Marshal Thanom found the political openness of the era inhospitable to military authoritarianism. Thanom initiated a coup d’etat against his own government in order to seized power indefinitely on November 17, 1971.
The October 14, 1973 Uprising
The government postponed the enactment of the constitution several times. Only the necessity of the Bureau of the Royal Household to appoint an heir to the king forced Thanom to expedite the certification of a new constitution (Suthachai Yimprasert 2008: 101-111). After fifteen years of military dictatorship, people yearned for a lasting and democratic political system, not Thanom’s constitution. The people’s calls for a democratic constitution were met by the violent events of October 14, 1973.
The Democracy Monument regained its meaning as a symbol of democracy when the body of Jeera Boonmak, who was shot and killed by soldiers. His coffin was placed on the sculpture of the Thai constitution situated on a largetwo-tiered pedestal at the top of the monument. Jeera Boonmak’s soulless body was placed above the constitution and attached to the constitution as if reiterating that the monument represented the sovereignty of the Thai people.
After the successful demonstrations against the military dictatorship, a new democratic constitution was drawn up and general elections took place. The turmoil due to problems that had accumulated over the years coupled with the atmosphere of the Cold War, however, made the student movement isolated and a target for conservative forces. The short-lived victory ended with the Thammasat massacre and the October 6, 1976 coup.
After the events of May 1992, it appeared that democracy had finally been firmly established in Thailand and that there would be no return to authoritarianism, especially with a political campaign to force the army out of politics. The people’s movement put pressure to draft such issues into a new constitution, created from an elected body. The result of the post-May 1992 fight was the 1997 Constitution, the “People’s Constitution.”
The most memorable images of the events of 17-20 May 1992 are those of a rally on at the monument and Ratchadamnoen Road. Violent clashes on Ratchadamnoen Road, the burning of the Public Relations Department office building, and the death of demonstrating citizens by armed soldiers walking past smoking streets, all had the Democracy Monument as their background, infusing place with meaning (Malinee Khumsupha, 2005).
When the government of telecommunications mogul Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra came to power, he was challenged by various groups. It came to the point that a petition was made requesting the removal of the Prime Minister under Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution, which contradicted the intentions of the May 1992 movement. Soon supporters of Thaksin formed the Red Shirt populist movement or the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD).
The Red Shirts led mass demonstrations in Bangkok on Ratchadamnoen Road in April 2010. These protests were repressed by brute force, ordered by the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. Twenty-six people died, including five military personnel, twenty-one civilians, and one Japanese journalist. Red coffins lined the base of the Democracy Monument. Just over a month later, the protest continued and were more brutally repressed in May 2010. The total casualties neared one hundred deaths and injuries to more than two thousand people.
In the aftermath of the first massacre in April 2010, the Democracy Monument was wrapped in white cloth. The Phan Wanfah and the constitution were wrapped in red cloth. Thongthat Thepharak, the lead artist who wrapped the monument explained that he was inspired by the work of the artist Christo and Jean-Claude.
Against the Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawat, the People’s Committee for Transforming Thailand into a Perfect Democracy with the King as Head of State (PDRC) rallied in various areas throughout Bangkok. They took over government centers. The area around the Democracy Monument and Ratchadamnoen Road was seized by a group of artists called Art Lane and by faculty members and alumni from Silpakorn University, as well as actors and singers.
Even after Yingluck was ousted in exile, the PDRC movement still called for the national interim government to rewrite the constitution before any new election. The PDRC then resorted to various forms of subterfuge, including intimidation, threats, and the closure of polling stations. Although elections were held in sixty-eight provinces, with only nine unable to hold elections, and more than 20 million people voted (46.79%), the opposition petitioned the Constitutional Court claiming that the election was unconstitutional. They requested a new election (Pandit Chanrochanakit, 2021: 235-246).
Tensions led the Royal Thai Army to declare martial law on May 20, 2014. They insisted on acting as mediators in negotiations with all parties. In the end, attendees to the talks were arrested and a coup d’etat took place on May 22, 2014.
New artistic life for the Democracy Monument
Artist Arin Rungjang produced a piece titled “246247596248914102516… And then there were none,” a three-dimensional reproduction of the high relief sculpture of the Democracy Monument. It is a continuation of his exhibition entitled “And then there were none… Tomorrow. we will become Thailand” exhibited in Athens, Greece. Thailand’s political history, the events of October 14, 1973 in particular, had inspired the Greeks to rise up against military dictatorship in Greece (ShanghArt 2016). The military emphasis for the monument’s democratic struggle was elicited by Arin’s own military family history (Piyanan 2018).
The dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February 2020 caused great rage among young people. There have been frequent decentralized flash mobs and protests against General Prayut Chan-ocha’s government. Protestors’ demands have become increasingly more pronounced. The Free Youth student assembly has three demands: 1. to dissolve the parliament to hold new elections, 2. to stop harassing the people, and 3. to draft a new constitution with monarchal reform (Workpoint Today 2020; Amnesty International, 2020). Leading activists who demanded monarchal reform have been criminally charged with Article 112.
The latest rounds of political protests have been markedly youth-centered with themes like Harry Potter and Hamtaro. This free speech movement has rocked Thai politics since the May 22, 2014 coup. At the “Casting a spell on the Defenders of Democracy” demonstrations on July 3, 2020, aka Harry Potter Mob, the human rights lawyer Anon Nampha addressed the role of the monarchy directly. Since that time, the Democracy Monument area has been used for youth democracy activities. Despite the government’s intensified pressure on demonstrators, the use of the Democracy Monument area continues to be a space to make claims to politics. Examples include LGBT groups, Thalu Fah, and many others.
This place has become a sanctuary for democratic pursuits in meaning and reinterpretation. As for the LGBT movement, support for constitutional reform is demonstrated through wrapping the monument in a rainbow flag, other politically symbolic flags, or same-sex kissing in front of monument. The protesters realized that the Democracy Monument was both a foundation and a place for announcing their protest agenda.
Efforts to control the Democracy Monument area have included putting a fence around the area and placing flower pots to prevent the demonstrators from entering the area. These have all failed. Demonstrators do not hesitate to use the monument as their political space.
No one knows when this wave of political conflict will end, but one can see that the Democracy Monument has once again become a space for expressing new perceptions and expectations of young people towards Thailand. The Democracy Monument has once again come to take on new social meaning and the space to push the envelop on the Thai constitution’s ability to defend freedom of political speech.
Kwanchai Aimjai. 1998. “History and memories on Ratchadamnoen Road. The way is because of people walking.” Documentary , Year 18 October 1998, pp. 50-78.
Pandit Chanrochanakit. 2021. Contemporary Thai politics. Second edition, amended. Bangkok: King Prajadhipok’s Institute.
_______. 2006. Establishment Constitution: Life and Destiny of Democracy in Thai Culture. Bangkok: Bilingual Publishing House.
Accompanied by Choprakarn, Somboon Khonchalart, and Prayut Sitthiphan. 1978. Three-Term Revolution. Bangkok: The newspaper combines the news.
Plaek Khempila (compiled and compiled). The year of publication does not appear. Reminisce the history “The Great Day of Disaster, 14 October 1973”. Bangkok: No publisher found.
Malinee Khumsupha. 2005. Democracy Monument and the Unseen Meaning. Bangkok: Bilingual Publishing House.
Suthachai Yimprasert. 2008. Stream of Democracy History. Democracy River Foundation.
Pianan, Gail. 2018. Interview with Arin Rungjang. Time Out. January 1, 2018. (Accessed October 6, 2021, https://www.timeout.com/bangkok/art/interview-with-arin-rungjang)
ShanghArt. 2016. Arin Rungjang. (Accessed October 6, 2021, https://www.shanghartgallery.com/galleryarchive/work.htm?workId=104261)
WorkpointToday. 2020. Summary of ‘liberation youth’ calls for the government to dissolve the parliament. stop harassing people Draft a new constitution. Waiting to hear the answer in 2 weeks. 19 July 2563. (Access information on 6 October 2021, https://workpointtoday.com/free-youth/)
Amnesty International, “#WhatsHappeningInThailand: 10 things you need to know,” November 16, 2020: https://www.amnesty.or.th/en/latest/news/865/
Pandit Chanrochanakit is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University. His essay accompanying the photos is part of a long-term project on visual culture and politics. Samson Lim translated this essay. Sanam Ratsadon edited and transformed the essay into a slide show.