BANGKOK: The mystery surrounding the disappearance and replacement of an 80-year-old bronze plaque embedded in the road of the Royal Plaza, in front of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok, is at the centre of a new and slightly bizarre political scandal brewing in Thailand.
The plaque commemorates the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932. According to witnesses, the plaque was last seen on Apr 2. By Apr 8 it went missing, and was replaced by a newer plaque.
Since this discovery, the authorities have failed to offer any kind of explanation. Instead they play down the plaque’s historical significance and sent policemen to guard its replacement.
Channel NewsAsia visited the area several times this week and was told by police officers on site that we could not film or photograph the new plaque for “security reasons”.
Several Thais and even tourists who took photographs of the replacement plaque told Channel NewsAsia that they were immediately told by police officers to delete all the new plaque’s photos from their camera and mobile phones, with no explanation.
Some were told that no photos could be taken because the plaque is located on “royal ground”, but the authorities were fine with people taking photos of the nearby throne hall and statue, just not the plaque.
OLD AND NEW PLAQUE
The original plaque, which is 30cm in diameter, was created in 1936 as a tribute to the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932 by a group of military officers and civil servants known as the Peoples’ Party.
The newly replaced plaque.
One of the leaders of the group, Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena, had the plaque made when he became prime minister. He planted the plaque at the spot where he stood and read out the manifesto proclaiming an end to absolutism and the establishment of the country’s first constitution.
The inscription on the plaque reads: “Here at dawn on 24th June 1932, We the Peoples’ Party gave birth to the constitution for the progress of the nation.”
Earlier this month, a group of university students discovered that the plaque has been replaced with a new plaque celebrating the monarchy.
The replacement plaque reads: “Long Live Siam forever. Happy, fresh-faced citizens are the power of the land.”
Its edge contains the motto of the ruling Chakri dynasty: “Loyalty and love to the Buddhist Triple Gem, the State, one’s family, and an honest heart for the King are good tools for the prosperity of the state.”
Photographs later emerged on social media that lead to public speculation that the plaque may have been replaced a day or two before Apr 6 when the area and the throne hall hosted the constitution signing ceremony attended by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
AUTHORITIES' EVASIVE RESPONSES
The replacement outraged many political activists, historians, and public figures. Their demand for an official explanation were met with blase and mixed responses from government officials.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised a probe into the matter but played down the historical significance of the plaque.
“Democracy was introduced to the country more than 80 years ago and it depends on all Thais, not the plaque,” he said.
“Some groups are trying to call for the plaque’s return, but I think this is useless.”
Several activists were briefly detained this week by the military for trying to file a police report over the alleged theft of the old plaque. Some were threatened with charges of instigating unrest and spreading false stories online.
The country’s deputy police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul said that the police could not consider the case because they did not know who owns the plaque. He even suggested that the original plaque might have been placed at the Royal Plaza illegally despite its history.
The Director of the Fine Arts Department said it is not responsible for the plaque because the department does not consider the plaque a national monument but merely “a sign of past events”.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, which operates security cameras in the area, said all of its 11 CCTV cameras around the Royal Plaza were removed for maintenance on Mar 31.
The spokesperson for the military government, Colonel Piyapong Klinpan, has urged people to stop pursuing the missing plaque “for the sake of political reconciliation”.
CONTESTING HISTORICAL SITES AND MEANINGS
The removal of public monuments associated with the Peoples’ Party is not a new phenomenon in modern Thailand.
Architectural historian Chatri Prakitnonthakan from Silpakorn University in Bangkok explained that there has been a political contest between conservative and progressive forces that came after the 1932 Revolution and it is still being played out in public spaces.
“Thais tend to associate the meanings of public monuments and statues with a degree of superstition and sacredness. That’s why many Thais performed rituals at public statues,” explained Chatri.
"There was a degree of this after the Peoples’ Party overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932."
Democracy Monument on Ratchdamnern road. (Photo: Panu Woncha-um)
The missing plaque is an obvious example, as it was placed in the middle of the Royal Plaza, right next to the statue of King Chulalongkorn, arguably the most powerful absolutist monarch in modern Thai history.
"It is likely that superstition was also the main motive in the disappearance of the plaque," said Chatri.
“When the Peoples’ Party was ousted from power in 1947, a reactionary ideology, which scholars call 'Royalist nationalist' was developed. And it came to dominate Thai politics and historical discourse.”
This new force, Chatri explained, wanted to revive the importance of the monarchy by downplaying the legacies of the Peoples’ Party in history books, literature, as well as monuments and other public sites.
“Names of many monuments built by the People’s Party were changed; some were demolished or replaced over the years to reduce the sacredness and symbolism attached to them,” Chatri said.
There are many examples.
A “Constitution Defender Monument”, erected in 1936 to commemorate the quashing of the 1933 Boworadej Royalist rebellion, was renamed after 1947 as “Lak Si Monument”, referring to its location in Lak Si district. The monument was quietly removed last year to make way for road expansion.
The old Supreme Court building, built in 1939, was demolished in 2013 amid public opposition. One of the reasons given was that the old building stood taller than the Grand Palace next door.
The Chalermthai movie theatre, built by the Peoples’ Party’s government in 1940, on Ratchdamnern road was demolished in 1989 amid public oppositions. Some proponents of the demolition, including former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj, cited the need to rid the city of architecture from the Peoples’ Party’s era.
Even the iconic Democracy Monument on Ratchdamnern road was almost demolished in 1948 to make way for a new monument depicting King Rama VII giving the constitution to the people instead, but the move was later scrapped.
“These moves were part of an effort to make the Peoples’ Party the 'villain' of history at best, or at least it made the public forget about their legacies,” explained Chatri.
CAUGHT IN THE CURRENT POLITICAL POLARIZATION
“The political polarisation between Yellow and Red Shirts in the last decade has created new political meanings for some of these old statues and monuments, including the missing plaque," said Chatri.
Some in the Red Shirt movement use the symbolism of the Peoples’ Party as a political tool in their fight for democracy. One Red Shirt group named itself as “The Peoples’ Party of 2012”, while another is named “June 24th group”, referring to the date of the Peoples’ Party revolution.
Monuments like the missing plaque became gathering places where Red Shirt activists hold political activities.
“From forgetting the historical significance of these monuments, new political activities at these sites have instead breed fear and hatred among many royalist conservatives,” explained Chatri.
The removal of the plaque and reactions from government officials have also sparked new public debates, particularly online, about the missing plaque, the Peoples’ Party and its role in modern Thai history.
While noting that some of these debates are clouded by current political polarisation, historian Siriporn Dabphet said that the new interest in Thai history after 1932 is important.
Pro-Democracy activist Nuttaa Mahattana (right) shows a complaint she filed over the missing plaque. (Photo Panu-Wongcha-um)
“At least people are now debating the events after 1932 more openly because of the missing plaque,” said Siriporn. “This shows that the plaque is an important historical artefact for the country regardless of official recognition or people’s political leanings”.
Writer Sujane Kanparit said that the politicisation over the missing plaque is understandable in the current context.
“We all know that official history is written by those who are victorious, this is the case here and elsewhere,” Sujane said. “But we must also recognise that beyond the current political conflict, the plaque is an important national heritage, like other historical artefacts in temples or palaces. So it should be preserved and protected by any government.
"It should not be treated the way it is being treated now by the authority."