Thailand Should Not Talibanize its Past

Two women walk in 2012 past the huge cavity where one of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, known to locals as the "Father Buddha," used to stand in Afghanistan. Photo: Ken Scar / Wikimedia Commons

The mysterious removal of 1932 Revolution Plaque has opened up a Pandora’s box. The news about the removal of the brass plaque – marking the spot where the revolt which ended absolute monarchy in 1932 began with a declaration – led to debate. Not just over the merit of the historical object itself but over a re-assessment and rediscovery – particularly among younger Thais – of the Promoters, also known as People’s Party, or Khana Ratsadon, which overthrew absolute monarchy 85 years ago.

While many social media users were angered by loss of the historic plaque and concluded it’s an attempt to literally remove the past, some ultra-royalists jubilantly greeted its disappearance and replacement with a similar plaque extolling the virtues of loyalty to the throne.

Both sides have their reasons to be disturbed or delighted. While it’s normal for people to have differing political ideologies, and we should debate about our past, Thai society should not Talibanize its historical relics – lest we learn or remember nothing from our past. If we continue to allow our past to be removed or deleted, we risk not knowing who we are. The same applies to society and our collective memory.

The fact that a number ultra-royalists are jubilant about the disappearance of an important historical relic is a disturbing sign. It points to a vision for a society that desires amnesia about its unpleasant or inconvenient collective past.

We should not try to be selective in remembering our past because there’s a lot we can learn, even from its bitter chapters. (Think Germany’s preservation of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a reminder of Nazi atrocities, for example.)

The past is distant, and we need all the jigsaw pieces possible to properly and fairly comprehend it.

If people keep destroying historical artifacts that don’t suit their ideology, sooner or later they won’t have any old material culture left to study or remember. This leads to a rootless, and literally ruthless society.

The other unintended repercussion of the plaque’s removal is revisiting the Promoters’ legacy. Prior to last Friday, some younger Thais didn’t even know there existed such a commemorative plaque, which was in fact embedded on Royal Plaza ground in 1936, four years after the revolt.

Those overtly gratified by the plaque’s removal soon found themselves confronted by debate about the merits of the Promoters.

Some said what had happened was nothing compared to the nationalization of the Pathumwan palace, which belonged to the first crown prince appointed by King Rama V, destroyed and turned into what today is the National Stadium. A Twitter user reacted to this, asking about the palace of Chiang Mai’s royalty now turned into Chiang Mai prison.

It was also met with remarks referencing Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, also known as Pibul, who ordered the land which belonged to the Crown Property Bureau be given over in perpetuity to Chulalongkorn University, enabling the university to maintain considerable resources for its development.

Some pointed out that another leader of the Promoters, Pridi Banomyong, founded Thammasat University, the other leading Thai University. So should Thammasat also be demolished to remove the memory of the 1932 revolt?

Not all of the legacies of the Promoters were positive. Pibul eventually succumbed to the temptations of strongman rule. The motto, “Believe in The Leader and the Nation Shall be Safe” led to creation of a personality cult subsequent dictators tried to emulate.

I personally dislike that most Thais automatically freeze to the sound of the National Anthem played at 8am and 6pm in public areas, even if they were just walking past an elevated pedestrian bridge over or resting on a grass lawn in a public park. This is a waste of time, an attempt to control people’s bodies, and a legacy originated from Pibul’s time. I try to resist or ignore it as much as possible.

“[People] were to stand to attention when the national flag was hoisted up the pole at eight in the morning…,” wrote scholar Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, in the book “Thailand’s Durable Premier: Phibun through Three Decades 1932-1957.”

Like it or hate it, society’s past contains various aspects and objects that we may not all like. Removing or destroying it will only impoverish our past and present, as a society however. The Taliban blew up the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001 in Afghanistan because they wanted to erase the Buddhist past from the now-Muslim land. That only made them barbaric and the place barren.

Let us not Talibanize our collective past.