85 Years of Conflicted Memories Over June 24

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Saturday was June 24 again.

The powers that be don’t want Thais to remember the historical significance of the day. In April, the bronze plaque commemorating the 1932 revolt that ended absolute monarchy – which was embedded at the Royal Plaza – was mysteriously stolen, only to be replaced by one bearing a royalist slogan. Last week, the military regime banned any commemoration there, at the spot where the revolt 85 years ago began with a speech. No ceremony was allowed in the Royal Plaza, period. “Forget about it,” was the less-than implicit implication.

These were not the first assaults against the history of the revolt or the People’s Party, aka Kana Ratsadon, the group that would become known as The Promoters.

The first major blow to the memory came when June 24 was abolished as Thailand’s National Day in 1960 after having been celebrated as such for two decades. Today, many young Thais don’t even know June 24 was once the national day.

Today, the history of the revolt and its leaders have been played down in Thai education, and few Thais dare to cite the full text of the Promoters’ manifesto – which strongly criticized Rama VII for the perceived exploitation of the Siamese people.

Part of the manifesto stated that Rama VII maintained powers above the law.

“He appoints royal relatives and toadies without merit or knowledge to important posts without heeding the voices of the people. … He elevates those of royal blood to have special rights over the people,” it read.

Other parts are more scathing. In today’s Thailand, where elevation of the monarchy seems to have no limits, it’s understandable why some people wanted to do away with June 24. They would have removed June 24 from the calendar if they could.

However, removing the plaque and banning people from gathering at the spot where the revolt took place, among other past measures, cannot suppress people’s yearning to remember the date and its significance to Thai democracy. Despite being currently under military rule, some activists and scholars are organizing talks today and tomorrow to discuss politics and democracy at less controversial locations such as university campuses. Since the plaque went missing, activists have also produced replicas of the plaque in the form of key chains, which have become rather popular among the pro-democracy crowd.

In the struggle between those who want people to forget and those who want to remember, there exists a tendency to exaggerate the history of June 24. To many ultra-royalists, June 24, 1932, was the day when power was forcibly and illegitimately snatched from the monarchy and if they could rewrite history, they would gladly opt for a return to some form of absolute monarchy because they see politicians as corrupt and self-serving.

Many of these ultra-royalists seem oblivious to the fact of stark class-based inequality that existed during the time of absolute monarchy, when people were taught and forced to know one’s station in life.

On the other hand, we have a pro-democracy camp which tends to idealize the June 24 revolt and idolize its leaders. These people hardly acknowledge that, no matter how well-intended the leaders of the People’s Party were, what took place today 85 years ago was also a coup d’etat which relied on the use of force and not participation by the mass – thus not a popular revolt.

Prince Paribatra, the king’s second in command who was in charge of the capital while Rama VII was in Hua Hin on the day of the coup, was taken hostage and briefly detained along with 40 others at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall on June 24.

The habit of staging coups lives on and thrives. Eighty-five years on, Thailand has witnessed another 12 “successful” coups since 1932.

Also, one of the leaders of the Promoters, Pibul Songkram, later emerged as a military strongman that would inspire and be imitated by – with greater or lesser success – successive military dictators, current junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha included.

Trapped in the struggle to delete or revive the history of June 24, many have unfortunately succumbed to the tendency to only see what they wanted to see. It seems history is easily remembered or forgotten when it’s edited or colored to the point where there’s no room for contradiction.