Article first published in Thai on 15 December 2019 on Aan Online
Written by Nowwanij Siriphatiwirut
Translated by Peera Songkünnatham and Kanyanatt Kalfagiannis
Interrogator: what are your feelings towards the coup d’etat?
Kaew Phromsakun: (hesitates) I feel it to be daring and violent.
Interrogator: What do you mean by violent? Do you mean bloodshed?
Kaew Phromsakun: No, I mean it troubled the hearts and minds of the people.
Interrogator: Are you capable of reading hearts and minds of all people like that?
Kaew Phromsakun: Not all, but I know from listening through the newspapers.
On Constitution Day, 10 December, of the year 1947, a schoolteacher laid a flower wreath at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. He was arrested by police and found himself on the front page of the 11 December 1947 issue of Siam Nikorn newspaper. The headline reads “Democracy Monument Surrounded; Man Arrested for Laying 10 December Commemorative Wreath” with a solemn subheading that reads “primary school teacher fearlessly lays wreath, bows to Monument, and then is arrested.” Featured also are pictures of two wreaths, the teacher Kaew Phromsakun, and a group of police officers standing by waiting to make an arrest.
That an act of laying a wreath at the Democracy Monument became cause for arrest was due to its timing around a month after the coup d’etat of 8 November 1947. When one searches through the news from the 1st to the 9th of December of that year, one will find that it was afire with arrests and manhunts of important figures on the democracy side, including the imprisonment of Dr. Duean Bunnag, leader of Sahacheep [“United/Common Life”] Party; the search and seizure of Thong-in Phuriphat’s house where the office of Sahacheep Party was located; the arrest of Suree Thongwanit, owner and editor of Siang Thai newspaper, on the charge of publishing anti-coup flyers with Dr. Thongplew Chonlaphum; the detention of Dr. Wijit Lulitanon; and the search for weapons at Thammasat University. Meanwhile, Dr. Pridi Banomyong, Navy Lieutenant Watcharachai Chaisitthiwet, and Mr. Cham Promyong, the Sheikhul Islam of Thailand, were reported to have already fled the country to Singapore.
Furthermore, the coup side had learned that some Members of Parliament were going to daringly lay a wreath at the Democracy Monument on Constitution Day, the 10th of December, so there were preparations for a contingent of police and military officers to make an arrest. However, it appeared that a mystery offender had already laid the wreath there by the time police arrived that dawn. The message on the wreath read “With sorrow from the Thai people / Born 10 December 1932 / Ended 8 Nov 1947.”
Thwarted in such an outrageous way, the authorities deployed many more officers to stand by, ready to make the arrest of the MPs who would be coming to the Democracy Monument. They waited until late morning without any MP turning up. The situation then took a turn: “an individual clumsily barged in and laid a not-so-well-made wreath of bauhinias and bougainvilleas there. When the officers saw that, they made a big scene of the arrest.”
That individual was Teacher Kaew Phromsakun, who stated that he laid the wreath “for Absolute Democracy.”
The news story of Teacher Kaew Phromsakun’s arrest on the front page the following day, therefore, stood out from fiery reports of the political situation in that period. With the colorful circumstance, the statements from Kaew himself, the reporter’s approach to writing, and the fact that even some military officers called Kaew a “hero”—all of these very much pique the interest about the perception of and the opinion about democracy during that time (and this time as well?)
It is true that, in the end, there were no festive decorations at the Democracy Monument that year, as seen in the picture above with the caption: “The Democracy Monument on 10 December. There did not appear to be any national flag decorations.” But the act of grabbing a rusty knife, cutting branches of flowers from the backyard, trimming off the leaves to make a DIY wreath in red, and then walking intently to the Democracy Monument in the midst of police and military officers on that cold day—this “fun idea” by an ordinary ratsadon is worthy enough of a retelling.
For that reason, the column Yesterday’s Papers has reproduced below the two relevant news articles for the reader. The author would also like to take this opportunity to show respect to Teacher Kaew Phromsakun, along with the many commoners from then to now, who held fast to the pillar of democracy, even when they had to stand alone.
News report in the 11 December 1947 issue of Siam Nikorn
DEMOCRACY MONUMENT SURROUNDED
Man Arrested for Laying 10 December Commemorative Wreath
Primary school teacher fearlessly lays wreath,
bows to Monument, and then is arrested.
Another laid by mysterious hands at dawn.
Numerous soliders and police flocked to the Democracy Monument yesterday morning in order to arrest former Members of Parliament who were going to bring flower wreaths to place at the monument. Soldiers and police kept watch until late morning, but not one Member of Parliament showed.
It was already on the news that certain MPs were going to carry out such acts. As it was unclear who they were, soldiers and police took to interrogating multiple MPs whether they knew which MPs planned to bring flower wreaths to the monument.
The MPs interrogated by the authorities denied knowing anything about such a plan. The authorities, uncertain as to who the schemers were, went to the monument and waited for the opportunity to arrest the wreath-laying MPs. Hours passed, and no MPs turned up.
However, earlier that morning, before the military and police officers arrived, a flower wreath had already been laid at the monument by mysterious hands. The police found only the wreath featuring various messages without knowing who it belonged to. This led the authorities to call for more backup. Late that morning, it turned out that rather than an MP, there was instead an individual who clumsily barged in and laid a not-so-well-made wreath of bauhinias and bougainvilleas there. When the officers saw that, they made a big scene of the arrest.
The first wreath, laid by mysterious hands at dawn, was a faded one, featuring in the top part the words “With sorrow from the Thai people” written on paper, and, in the center, written in large white letters on a strip of black cloth, “Born 10 December 1932 – Ended 8 Nov 1947.” The authorities seized the wreath and sent it to Nang Loeng Police Station to be forwarded later to the Bureau.
This second wreath-laying began at 10 a.m. The image seen by all was of two males, one aged 25, the other a child trailing behind carrying the wreath. Before reaching their destination, they stopped by a coffee shop on a corner of the Democracy Monument.
Our newsperson approached the man bringing the flower wreath to inquire his name, and was informed that he was Mr. Kaew Phromsakun, a primary school teacher, that his bringing a wreath there did not have the same meaning as what the former MPs were going for. He pointed out to our newsperson the meaning, spelled out in big bold typeface: “PILLAR OF DEMOCRACY,” and more in pencil: “To Remember on the Tenth of December that Absolute Democracy is the Most Beloved the World Over.”
At 10:00 a.m., the usual time for the State Ceremony in Celebration of the Constitution, Mr. Kaew, flower wreath in hand, went and stood before the Democracy Monument. He bowed for one minute. The soldiers and police let him pay his respects, and then flocked up to him. Immediately after Mr. Kaew finished laying the wreath, Mr. Somchai Srisomwong made the arrest. Our newsperson approached and asked Mr. Somchai what the charge was for the arrest, and was informed that he did not know, but Wang Suankularb [the government headquarters at the time] had ordered that whoever brought and laid a wreath there should be taken into custody. Mr. Kaew was therefore taken into custody, surrounded as he was by journalists and photographers as well as many pedestrians.
News report in the 20 December 1947 issue of Siam Nikorn
Soldier Asks: Why Lay Wreath?
Kaew: For Absolute Democracy
Mr. Kaew Phromsakun, the wreath-laying man at the Democracy Monument on 10 December who had been arrested by the authorities and detained at the Ministry of Defence on grounds of “resistance,” has been released by the authorities after a round of interrogation. During his time inside the ministry, Kaew Phromsakun acquired another name for himself: “Hero.” The quartermasters at the ministry, instead of calling him by his first name “Kaew,” called him “Hero” because Mr. Kaew Phromsakun was the lone wreath-laying man in the 10 December incident. No other person went there to lay a wreath as loudly publicized in advance.
The interrogation at Wang Suankularb was done [illegible text] presided over by a Lieutenant Colonel, and included a Police Captain. The interrogation lasted two hours from 10 to 12 o’clock. [The detainee was] summoned to Wang Suankularb for the interrogation, in which Kaew Phromsakun stated that he had no idea what the charge was, until he took a peek and noticed on a piece of paper the word “resistance.” He thus learned that laying the wreath that day had been an act of resistance.
The interrogator asked what time Mr. Kaew had learned of the coup d’etat. Kaew Phromsakun replied that he learned of it the day of, at 8 o’clock at a coffee shop. The interrogator asked what Kaew Phromsakun’s feelings were towards the coup d’etat. After a moment’s hesitation, Kaew Phromsakun replied: “I feel it to be daring and violent.”
The questioning continued: What do you mean by violent? Do you mean bloodshed? Kaew Phromsakun replied: No, I mean it troubled the hearts and minds of the people. The interrogator retorted: Are you capable of reading hearts and minds of all people like that? Kaew Phromsakun answered: Not all, but I know from listening through the newspapers.
The interrogation then came to the point of whether Mr. Kaew Phromsakun was satisfied with the coup d’etat. Mr. Kaew Phromsakun replied that he was indifferent. The interrogator reposed the question: That means you are not satisfied, doesn’t it? Mr. Kaew Phromsakun answered: I am undecided, because I don’t know which side to take.
When the interrogator asked what Kaew Phromsakun aimed to achieve by laying the wreath, the answer was that he aimed to demand absolute democracy. And then the question: What is absolute democracy according to Mr. Kaew Phromsakun? Kaew Phromsakun replied: the people’s power. Then the question: Why do it this way (laying the wreath)? The answer: Because I respect democracy.
About the new constitution, the interrogator asked if he had read it. The answer: Yes. Then the question: What clause are you unsatisfied with? The answer: There are multiple. The 35 years of age clause,1 for instance.
The wreath-laying on 10 December, which led to Kaew Phromsakun’s arrest, came as a result of the much-publicized news on the papers saying that a group of MPs would show up to lay a wreath. Kaew Phromsakun said that he had read the news article2 on the 9th. Then when he woke up at 5 in the morning, he sat up in the sharp cold, unable to decide where to go on an excursion that day, the 10th.
The coldness in the air recalled to him that a wreath-laying event was going to take place. Kaew Phromsakun had a fun idea to join in. Since he was going to go watch people lay wreaths anyway, bringing one of his own would only be fitting. And so Kaew Phromsakun sprung to his feet, rummaged up a rusty knife, and used it to cut some branches of bauhinias and bougainvilleas in the backyard. By the time the rusty knife managed to lop off the bauhinia branches, all the flowers had already fallen off. He stuck the flowers to curved-up twigs, entwining them together to make a wreath in that swift instant.
Kaew Phromsakun said that he did not agree with those planning to bring black wreaths. “They go with black, we’ve got to go with red,” said Kaew Phromsakun, who then gave a rationale: a black wreath would mean that power was already dead, but this was not dead, we should bring red into play. Even with the red wreath, Kaew Phromsakun was arrested nonetheless.
Prior to his release, Kaew Phromsakun said that he was in the middle of dreaming. When a soldier woke him up telling him they were letting him go, he was joyful.
1 Early in December of that year, the Constitutional Commission reportedly made a resolution to decrease the minimum age requirement for electoral candidates from 35 years old to 25 years old.
2 In a preliminary search, this news article referred to by Teacher Kaew about a group of Members of Parliament arranging for a wreath-laying event at the Democracy Monument on Constitution Day could not be found in the 9 December 1947 issue of Siam Nikorn. Presumably, this appears in other papers.
All the featured papers have been photographed from original copies which are kept in the National Library of Thailand. Photos by the Aan Archives Project, Read Publishing.