by Mads Boedker
The Democracy Monument commemorates the coup of June 1932, which brought down the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy. King Prajadhipok, known as Rama VII, ruled the country. A group of young intellectuals who had been educated abroad staged a bloodless coup, demanding a constitution. This change represented the first curtailment of the monarchy’s powers in over 800 years.
The constitution has undergone myriad revisions since then, but the framework and central tenets of the first constitution remain the backbone of the current incarnation. The constitution of 1932 created a bicameral legislative body called the National Assembly. The Lower House was elected by popular vote, while the Upper House was appointed by the King and his cabinet. It is no surprise that this and other aspects of the constitution mirror Western ideas, since many of the proponents of the coup were educated in the West. But as much as the initial constitution strove for democracy, it would take a long time for democracy to truly take hold.
Increasingly, the democratic ideals of the coup fell by the wayside. King Prajadhipok went into exile after the coup, and eventually abdicated the throne rather than accept what had become a military dictatorship. When King Prajadhipok abdicated, he issued this statement regarding the impasse between himself and the new government:
“I am willing to turn over the powers I formerly exercised to the people as a whole, but I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people.”
The government appointed Prince Ananda Mahidol as king, a move obviously intended to erode the power of the monarchy further. King Mahidol was very young, and at the time was studying abroad in Switzerland, leaving Thailand with an absentee ruler. It would be another 15 years before Thailand regained a functional king.
Sadly, that was the situation that had developed. Soon after the coup, internal struggles for power stymied any potential progress. Although the proponents of the coup had taken Western ideas of democracy, they had ignored some principle ideals. Notably, some of new leaders advocated a single party system. When the initial struggles for power were over, the coup had succeeded in exchanging one absolute government for another. Thankfully, the regime followed through on various reforms, such as education, but it made for a long slow climb to democracy.
The Democracy Monument ironically celebrates a coup that quickly led to a military dictatorship. The inappropriately named monument was constructed in dramatic Art Deco style in 1939, with Thai-style flourishes like the fountains depicting the mythical Naga snake in the mouth of Garuda, the half-man, half-bird deity. The military ruler of the new regime, Plaek Phibulsonggram, known as Phibun, commissioned the work. It was designed to be the center of a new, Westernized Bangkok. The Democracy Monument would stand at the head of Ratchadamnoen Klang Road in the same way as the Arc de Triomphe of Paris stands at the head of the Champs-Elysees. One can see the parallels, and the positive legacy that Phibun’s regime can legitimately claim is one of its modernization plans. However, giving the name “Democracy” to a monument commemorating a coup which resulted in a military dictatorship was blatant propaganda.
The construction of the monument was very unpopular at the time. The military dictatorship was very nationalistic and very anti-Chinese. This area of the city housed many shops which were mostly owned by Chinese. They were evicted with only 60 days notice. The widening of Ratchadamnoen Klang Road resulted in the cutting of 200 shade trees, no small matter in a city as hot as Bangkok, especially in the days before air conditioning.
Mew Aphaiwong, who was the brother of a high ranking official, designed the monument to be rife with symbolism. The centerpiece is a round turret with a golden bowl that holds a carved representation of the 1932 constitution. The four towers represent the four branches of the Thai military that carried out the coup. Since the coup took place on the 24th day of June, each tower stands 24 meters tall. The central turret is three meters high, representing June, which is the third month in the Buddhist calendar. The six tenets of the Phibun regime, independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education are represented by the six gates of the turret.
The sculptures at the bottom of each tower were done by an Italian sculptor named Corrado Feroci. He was a Thai citizen who went by the Thai name Silpa Bhirasi. The sculptures are another piece of propaganda and are largely inaccurate. They recount various scenes of the coup and depict the ideals of the regime in a very biased way.
The actual history behind this monument is largely ignored by Thais as they assign new meaning to it for the modern day. For example, a recent celebration for King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday was held here. To hold an event in honor of the king at this location could be considered slightly inappropriate since the monument commemorates a coup that took powers from the monarchy and caused the abdication of one of the king’s predecessors. The monarchy has since struck a balance with the elected government, and the power struggles of the Phibun regime are in the forgotten past. Today, everyone focuses on Thailand’s future.
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