Monday, July 22, 2019

Disappearing democracy

Jan 04. 2019
The Nation
The Nation
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By Phatarawadee Phataranawik
The Nation Weekend

40,975 Viewed

Rights activists suspect a hidden agenda as another historic symbol of freedom is stealthily removed

The Constitution Defence Monument that stood for decades in Bangkok’s Laksi district was wrapped up at the tail end the year and soon after taken away in the dead of night. It occupied what is now a construction site for a new Skytrain line, so it might be presumed that it had to be taken out of the way.

But some historians and pro-democracy activists and folks on Facebook are sceptical and worried. 

And no one in authority seems to know who took the monument away, where it is or where it might reappear.

This was the second symbol of Thai democracy to vanish mysteriously in two years. 

In April 2017, a small plaque commemorating the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy, which was embedded in the asphalt at the Royal Plaza, was replaced with one lauding the monarchy. There was no advance announcement and no explanation afterward.

In November 2014, six months after the military coup, a monument in Buri Ram commemorating the Kingdom’s first constitution was pulled down, ostensibly because it was blocking traffic. It was destroyed, but eventually a replica replaced it.

“Removing these symbols of democracy is like erasing our political history,” says Chatri Prakitnonthakarn, a conservationist and architect who lectures at Silpakorn University on the history of Thai architecture.

The Constitution Defence Monument, he told The Nation Weekend, was “very important” in terms of modern Thai political history. “It commemorated the government’s victory over a pro-monarchist rebellion 80 years ago.”

Prince Bowordet led that failed revolt in 1933, seeking to restore the absolute monarchy replaced the year before by constitutional democracy.

Who was behind it?

The monument was erected in 1936, and on December 27, 2018, it was removed in the middle of the night as young pro-democracy activist Karn Pongpraphapan and a friend streamed the event on Facebook Live. 

Soldiers were on duty, but it was not clear who was doing the heavy lifting or who they were working for.

Karn and his friend were arrested for recording the incident and claimed the police officer told them they were threatening “national security”. They were soon released without charge, but their photos and video were erased.

No one at the agencies involved in the Skytrain extension – the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Mass Transit Railway, Culture Ministry’s Fine Arts Department or Transport Ministry’s Department of Highways – seems to know what’s happening with the monument. 

“The MRT wasn’t involved in the monument’s removal and doesn’t know where it is,” says MRT Governor Kapapong Sirikantaramas, who oversees the railway construction project.

Fine Arts Department director Anan Chochote says he knows nothing about the removal either, or about any plans to relocate it. 

The monument, while little known even among Bangkok residents, was caught in the spotlight in 2010 when the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) used it as a base for red-shirt demonstrations against the then-government. 

Subsequent UDD gatherings were held at other pro-democracy monuments upcountry, including in Buri Ram and Khon Kaen.

Chatri notes that Siam under absolute monarchy erected monuments to the kings and various Hindu gods embraced by local Buddhism.

Dedicated to the public

“This was the first monument erected after the 1934 revolution and it was dedicated to ordinary people,” he says. 

“The base of the monument features a bas-relief depicting a farming family. It’s important that such importance is attached to ordinary people.”

Chatri hopes the government will carefully conserve the monument, wherever it is and wherever it might end up.

“It was designed as a site-specific monument. The authorities involved should put it back in its original location and redesign the MRT car park instead. And the MRT should have a new plaque made that better explains its historical significance.

“If they can’t put it back where it was, they should install it inside Wat Phrasrimahathat Bang Khen, which is nearby. And if they don’t have another site for it, the Fine Arts Department should do conservation work on it and display it in a museum so that the younger generation can learn about this important moment in modern Thai political history.”

Chatri also hopes that the government in future will consult academics and arrange public hearings to gauge public opinion before taking any action over historic sites. 

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