How Thailand’s “Father of Democracy” is being erased from history

By: Paul Millar - Posted on: November 15, 2018 | Current Affairs

Thailand’s first popularly elected prime minister, Pridi Banomyong, was instrumental in the overthrow of the Kingdom’s absolute monarchy and the creation of the nation’s first constitution. But as the palace-backed military junta continues to pave the way for the long-promised return to elections, Pridi and his fierce struggle for democracy are being increasingly written out of Thailand’s chequered history

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Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong with his wife, Poonsuk, who returned to Thailand from exile in France in 1986

In June 1932, in the dying days of an absolute monarchy that had ruled Thailand unchecked for centuries, the streets of Bangkok were plastered with a manifesto issuing an ultimatum to the almighty sovereign.

“The government of the king has treated the people as slaves,” it read, calling for the king to submit to the will of a proposed popular assembly of people’s representatives and be bound by the laws of an as-yet-unwritten constitution. “If the king replies with a refusal… it will be regarded as treason to the nation, and it will be necessary for the country to have a republican form of government.”

Like the constitution that would soon follow, the manifesto and the radical ideas that underpinned it were the work of Pridi Banomyong, a former law student who led the civilian side of the People’s Party that united with powerful military figures to overthrow Thailand’s absolute monarchy. But despite becoming the first prime minister of Thailand to be elected by the will of the people, the Kingdom’s so-called Father of Democracy and his revolution have been increasingly written out of Thai history by the very elites he spent his whole life fighting against.

Last year, under the blind eye of the military junta that has ruled Thailand since 2014, a plaque commemorating the 1932 revolution mysteriously went missing 80 years after it was embedded in the road at the Royal Plaza. The plaque, which had received a resurgence in popularity as a focal point for Thailand’s pro-democracy red-shirt movement, has since been replaced by a royalist slogan promoting loyalty to the nation, religion and king. To those for whom the plaque had come to symbolise the nation’s long struggle for democracy in the face of authoritarian rule, the symbolism is only too clear – as was the fencing off of Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to the public earlier this year, the framed constitution first written by Pridi now lost behind a labyrinth of elegantly bland topiary.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai-British academic and socialist who was forced to flee Thailand in 2009 after publicly criticising the palace’s complicity in the 2006 coup against the popularly elected Thaksin Shinawatra, said that Pridi had paved the way for Thailand’s long struggle for democracy – a legacy, he said, that the palace and its military supporters have long tried to stamp out.

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A statue of democratic reformer Pridi Banomyong at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, site of a grisly crackdown on demonstrators in 1976

“His legacy was to overthrow the absolute monarchy and install some form of constitutional rule – although that has been disrupted by a number of military coups,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “The other legacy is less well known, and that was his proposal for a welfare state – and that’s something that people still need to struggle towards in Thailand.”

Kevin Hewison, emeritus professor in Asian studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that Pridi had been “expunged” from Thailand’s official history.

“What has happened in recent years, and especially since succession in 2016, has been an effort to roll back memories of 1932 – broader than Pridi himself – and to re-establish royal control of areas of Bangkok around the Dusit palace as a ‘royal precinct,’” he said.

No visitor to Thailand can escape the feeling that they’re being watched. Rising above the boulevards of Bangkok, hanging from the walls of Chiang Mai, the face of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn stares down at his subjects. It is this face, repeated on every street corner, that serves as a reminder of Thailand’s long and bitter fight to fill its public spaces with images of the people who have shaped the course of the nation’s history – although not always for the better.

“There’s been a monument war, if you like,” Ungpakorn said. “After the sixth of October 1976 bloodbath, which was actually the ruling class hitting back against the rising socialist and communist movement within Thailand, after the defeat of the left on the sixth of October, they built a monument to Prajadhipok, Rama VII, outside parliament.”

This statue of the Kingdom’s last absolute monarch, erected not long after state security forces and far-right royalist paramilitaries raped, murdered and lynched scores of left-wing student protesters on the grounds of Bangkok’s Thammasat University, is a stark reminder of the constant struggle to rewrite Thai history to twist the revolution from democratic revolt to royalist largesse.

“I mean he was the king who had to be overthrown in order to have a parliament!” Ungpakorn said. “But that is something that really shows their imposition of their version of history. Growing up in Thailand and learning history, we were taught Prajadhipok gave democracy to Thailand. School students are taught that he is the father of democracy. So you have these competing narratives.”

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Current King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Bangkok

Long accused by right-wing royalists within the military as an ardent communist, Pridi proposed a sweeping programme of public ownership, land reform and universal basic income intended to give millions of poor farmers the right to reap the rewards of their work. Horrified, the palace united with members of the People’s Party’s conservative faction to shut down both the parliament and judiciary, driving Pridi into exile for more than a year.

For Ungpakorn, it is a familiar pattern – and one he sees repeated in the 2006 military overthrow of Thaksin, whose policies of healthcare and rice subsidies for the nation’s impoverished farmers infuriated the moneyed Bangkok establishment.

“I think there are similarities,” he said. “Of course Thaksin was not a socialist in any way, shape or form. Pridi Banomyong was a socialist. But nevertheless, the conservative elites didn’t like the fact that he wanted to improve the lives of ordinary people, and that’s really a fundamental reason why he was overthrown and his political parties were overthrown – he won their hearts and minds, and the conservatives couldn’t compete with that. So there is a thread there, where whenever people have tried to do something for the poor or decrease inequality, then the conservative elites have struck back.”

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Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn passes the royal fire to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha

Despite his return from exile and subsequent election, Pridi proved no exception. Although his fight against Imperial Japanese domination at the head of the Free Thai Movement during World War II earned him the support of the people, the newly minted prime minister continued to face opposition from the palace and its supporters. When the young king Ananda Mahidol was found shot dead in his room – a mystery that endures to this day – Pridi’s staunch republican reputation was used by his rivals to paint him as a conspirator in the monarch’s death. Pursued by the military that would soon seize total power in a coup, Pridi was once again forced to flee the country.

Ungpakorn said it is essential for Thailand’s true history of democratic struggle to supersede the narrative forged by the palace and its backers in the military and wealthy urban elite.

“History is actually about contesting politics in the here and now,” he said. “Throughout the world, people contest history and try to impose their version of history. So the ruling class will tend to downplay the role of social movements and struggles from below.”

For Hewison, the future of Thailand’s embattled pro-democracy forces looks uncertain.

“Thailand has seen several revolts against military domination,” he said. “It could happen again. However, the middle class has seemingly abandoned electoral democracy and embraced dictatorship. With no links to the past, it is difficult to advance a non-royal vision of democratic reform.”

With the long-promised elections set for next February, the absence from the nation’s textbooks and popular history of Pridi Banomyong and the social movements that have pushed for democracy in Thailand is a glaring one – one that may prove fatal in undermining the power of the people to push back against military dictatorship.

“It’s important in terms of struggling against the conservative mainstream ideas,” said Ungpakorn. “If you don’t shine a light on the role of Pridi, if you don’t shine a light on the 1932 revolution, if you don’t shine a light on the rising communist and socialist movement in the 1970s, if you don’t shine a light on the mass movements that have overthrown the military in 1973 and in 1992 and the red shirts, then you weaken the ideological advantage for the pro-democracy movement. So it’s very important that these things are not forgotten.”

This article was published in the November 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.