In recent weeks, worldwide protests against systemic racism have brought down statues celebrating figures with legacies of racial injustice.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis was toppled in Virginia. Belgium’s King Leopold II was taken down by crane in Antwerp. Slave trader Edward Colston was rolled into a harbor in Bristol. Even revered British Prime Minister Winston Churchill—who not only led his country through its worst existential threat in modern history, but also had a troubling tendency to openly denigrate other races—was daubed with graffiti in London, prompting authorities to ensconce him in a protective box.
In Thailand, too, statues are disappearing—but rather than those with racist legacies being chucked into the dustbin of history, it’s those with democratic ones.
At least six sites commemorating the People’s Party—the nucleus of revolutionaries who staged a coup that ended seven centuries of absolute monarchy, paving the way for constitutional monarchy—have been removed or renamed over the past year, Reuters reports.
In one case, a military official reportedly said the statue had been moved to allow for landscaping. In the case of two military bases named for 1932 revolutionaries, the orders reportedly came from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Why the statues are coming down now, and where they’ve gone, remains largely unknown. But after the 88th anniversary of the 1932 revolution on Wednesday, the vanishing memorials are back in the spotlight.
Thai pro-democracy activist Chonthicha Jangrew told VICE News that the statues are an important part of Thai democratic history, exemplifying to Thai people how historical figures fought for democratic values. They personally remind her that “the power should be in the hands of the Thai people.”
The recent disappearances, she added, made “the Thai pro-democracy [camp] learn the big lesson that the ‘man in the power’ [is] trying to destroy democracy.”
Prime Minister Prayut himself took power in a coup in 2014, and has since been accused by rights groups of presiding over a crackdown on dissent. At the same time, Human Rights Watch told the UN in 2015 that Prayut’s administration had made the prosecution of controversial lèse-majesté offenses, or comments deemed insulting to the monarchy, a “top priority.”
Chonthicha said that the removals have prompted the pro-democracy camp to search for more information, and to build a campaign to commemorate and discuss the revolution and its legacy.
Thepmontri Limpaphayorm, a conservative independent historian, speculated to Reuters that the disappearances may have been more the result of individual royalists’ “feelings,” rather than a concerted campaign of erasure.
But architectural historian Chatri Prakitnonthakan disagreed, calling the removals an “ideological cleansing.”
But Thaprachan Awaken, a student political activist group at Thammasat University, said in a statement to VICE News that the statues were important because they revealed a part of history that had been left out of the Thai curriculum—“even in the most basic educational material, this topic was not brought up.”
“The efforts to remove these sites is nothing short of trying to destroy the symbol that marks the bond we have to the idea of democracy,” the group said. “Since they were afraid of even just a nonliving statue or sites that most people didn’t think much about in everyday life to this degree, one can only imagine how afraid they must be if these citizens with the same ideas come together.”
Statues dedicated to two leaders of the 1932 revolution, Plaek Phibunsongkhram and Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena, went missing in January, Prachatai reported.
In December 2019 two military bases named after 1932 revolutionaries were rechristened Fort Bhumibol and Fort Sirkit, the names of the parents of current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, according to Khaosod English.
Mentions of the coup leaders were scrubbed from the army base signs long before the Thai government formally announced the change. In a January article about the missing statues, Khaosod reported, “The mainstream media were also discouraged from investigating or reporting about the disappearances.”
The disappearance of a historical bronze plaque also caused uproar in April of 2017. It was embedded in the ground in 1936 by post-revolution Prime Minister Phraya Phalol, on the spot where he first announced the end of absolute monarchy. A plaque highlighting the importance of the monarchy took its place.
Traditional Thai culture continues to be heavily invested in the monarchy, and the country’s lèse-majesté law against insulting the monarchy carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
With Wednesday marking the 88th anniversary of the 1932 revolution, activists staged small peaceful protests. Around 40 people gathered at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, carrying with them a replica of the commemorative plaque.
“It was festive and a lot different from the past,” Thaprachan Awaken told VICE News. “Even though we haven’t achieved true democracy… Thai citizens have been able to bring what we believe democracy is and the meaning of it back little by little.”
Jangrew told VICE that the demonstrations yesterday showed that there are Thai people trying to keep the memory of the 1932 revolution and democratic values alive, despite authorities “trying to destroy it by trying to stop people and activists to do activities.”
Prayut, for his part, didn’t address the protests, but did warn Thais not to “violate the monarchy” or “violate the law.”
Even with the statues removed, Thaprachan Awaken said that they are not completely disheartened, and believe that Thai democracy will endure.
‘They can only erase the physical place but they can’t erase our thoughts and our morals, these are ours and ours alone,” the group said.
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