Monday review: how did Thailand commemorate the 1932 Revolution?

Last Saturday marked the 85th anniversary of Thailand’s 1932 Democratic Revolution. Academics, politicians and activists enthusiastically commemorated the historical event. Meanwhile the authorities worked hard to clamp down on ‘sensitive issues’.

The famous photograph of a member of the People's Party distributing the leaflet at the Royal Plaza on 24 June 1932

In the early morning of 24 June 1932, the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) staged a revolt to put an end to Thailand’s absolute monarchy, intending to bring about the age of democracy.

85 years after, Thai democracy remains far from established and conservative elites have never ceased to attempt to nullify the People’s Party’s legacy. The most recent heavy-handed effort was the mysterious removal of the brass plaque installed by the People’s Party at Bangkok’s royal plaza to commemorate their revolution. It remains unconfirmed who is responsible for the plaque’s disappearance.

On the day of the revolution’s anniversary, a former lèse majesté prisoner Ekachai Hongkangwan visited the royal plaza with a replica of the plaque and a bucket of concrete. He was arrested when he tried to install a replacement revolution plaque and was detained for over 10 hours. Fortunately, the authorities released him without pressing any charges.

Another individual who was arrested during commemorative events was Rangsiman Rome, a lead activist from the Democracy Restoration Group. He was scheduled to give a talk at a commemorative event, “Start Up People: Start Up Talk”, but was detained in relation to several charges pressed during the referendum period last year. “Start Up People: Start Up Talk” continued without Rome.

Rome believes that the arrest was prompted by his intentions to petition the junta to reveal details of its controversial Sino-Thai train project the following day. Authorities had not previously notified Rome of outstanding arrest warrants.

Besides activists, academics were also targeted by the authorities over the weekend. On Friday, numerous plainclothes security officers showed up at the seminar, “85 Years of Siamese Revolution”, at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.

Authorities allowed the event to take place but event organisers were asked not to talk about one key issue: the missing revolutionary plaque.

“They asked only one thing: don’t ask or emphasise who removed the plaque. I was willing to comply since that wasn’t the goal of the event. We discussed theory that had nothing do with [the plaque],” said an anonymous event organiser.

But despite threats from authorities, one panel speaker could not resist talking about the elephant in the room.

“We all might know that about two months ago, a group of political thieves stole the plaque,” stated Suthachai Yimprasert, a historian.

“I think that the disappearance of the plaque reflects that, over the past 85 years, the history of People's Party has been yet unfinished ... We still have those conservatives … who dislike the parliamentary system and elections. They think such a system doesn’t fit Thailand and that Thai people are not ready [for democracy], even though 85 years has passed,” Suthachai added.

Nattapol Jaijing (Photo: Prachatai/File)

Another panelist Nattapol Jaijing, a political analyst, tried to invalidate these right-wing claims that the 1932 revolution happened too early — an argument based on the patronising assumption that Thai people were uneducated.

Nattapol explained that after Thailand’s first election in 1933, the People’s Party encouraged members of parliament to raise political awareness via the parliament’s radio station. Citing direct quotes from broadcasted speeches delivered by Thailand’s first MPs, Nattapol suggested that the MPs did a fine job of voicing local problems. Some MPs even dared to criticise the ineptitude of the old regime.   

Son Wongto, a 1932-era MP from the city of Chainat, remarked for instance that, “Chainat is like a hidden and sleeping city. All its roads were built by the people themselves … There’s only one doctor in the whole province.”

Thanin Chaiyakan, an MP from Ubon Ratchatani, complained forcefully that the old regime levied taxes but failed to foster development in return.

Nattapol pointed that these speeches were essentially demands that the government give attention to local issues — something impossible during the period of absolute monarchy.

“When the regime changed, mouths opened,” explained Nattapol.   

Some MPs proposed progressive ideas that have only been achieved recently.

Yukiang Thongnongya, an MP from Kanchanaburi, proposed in 1933 a ‘big waterfall barrage’, or a dam, to generate electricity. The first dam in Kanchanaburi was built only in 1973.

Manun Borisut, an MP from Suphan Buri, went as far as to propose a system of administrative law so that officials who unfairly exploit local people could be brought to justice. Thailand’s administrative court was established only in 1999.

For Nattapol, the People’s Party promoted the principle that governments are responsible to the questions and demands of the people.

“This was the quality of the first MPs,” Nattapol concluded.