In a small but highly symbolic gesture, the Thai military regime has arranged the removal of a plaque marking the start of the 1932 revolution which ended royal absolutism and led to the first of many versions of a constitutional monarchy.
The brass plaque on the road surface in the Royal Plaza bore the inscription: “Here at dawn on June 24, 1932, Khana Ratsadon brings into being the constitution for the country’s prosperity.” Khana Ratsadon was the group of military and civil officers behind the move.
The plaque was replaced by a new one bearing the unremarkable words: “May Siam be blessed with prosperity for ever. May the people be happy and cheerful and become the strength of the country.”
That the removal of the original was officially initiated was indicated by police reaction to those who demanded an investigation. They were led by a grandson of one of the group of military and civil officers who led the revolution. According to Police General Srivara, an investigation could only be launched if someone had proof of their ownership of the plaque. Furthermore, anyone planning protests at the plaque’s removal would be in breach of the military junta’s ban on political gatherings.
Whether the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, was behind this little attempt to re-write modern Thai history is not clear. But abolition of any reminders of past political progress and modernization are clearly in line with the attitudes of a military regime. It is in no hurry to be accountable to the people, even under the terms of the very limited democracy offered by the latest constitution it formulated. The 1932 humiliation of the monarchy also does not fit with the current needs of the king and the military to protect each other.
Indeed, in a further step down the road of using lese majeste accusations as a weapon against all actual or potential political opposition, the regime has threatened action against anyone daring to have any contacts with three known but respected critics now living overseas. Netizens are warned not to “follow, contact, share or engage in any activity which would result in any information being shared by the three”.
Such sweeping orders have little substantial impact because their writings are easily accessed on Facebook and similar social media, as well as in academic journals and publications such as Asia Sentinel. Nonetheless they increase the sense of fear among Thais who would like to raise their voices but do not have the option of living overseas.
One of the three, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former diplomat now at Kyoto University in Japan, has long been a contributor to Asia Sentinel.The other members of this “Gang of Three” super-subversives are Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a former Thammasat history professor now in exile in France, and a Scotsman, Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a journalist formerly with Reuters in Bangkok and author of a book on the monarchy which is banned in Thailand but widely admired for being too accurate for royal comfort.
Critics like these three are not wild-eyed fanatics. Their reports have a large following among those who believe that Thailand would be better served by facing up to realities and stop using outdated notions of the monarchy as a crutch rule by authoritarian generals backed by a short-sighted Bangkok elite which despises but uses monarchy for its own purposes.
The junta is certainly not in danger of a popular uprising any time soon. Small demonstrations are swiftly dealt with, the economy is stable if unexciting. But removal of the 1932 symbol may go down in history as symbol of a nation which has come to the end of decades of social, economic and, at times political, development.