If you come to Bangkok it is likely that you will pass one or both of the monuments described in these posts. Both were built at the height of the nationalistic regime headed by Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, an extra ordinary figure in Thailand’s politics, who led his country in a successful war against France, declared war on the United States and Great Britain in 1942, survived the calamity brought on Thailand as an ally of Japan in 1945, lived through five assassination attempts, became the Prime Minister again in 1948 after imprisonment as an “accused” war criminal because in part he was sponsored by the Americans who liked his anti –Communist credentials and disliked British ambitions on Thailand – survived being bombed by his own troops during a coup attempt in 1951, and stayed in office until 1957 when he was “removed” in a silent coup – he had to drive himself to exile in Cambodia, and died in Japan. Well now we will look at the similarly extraordinary histories of our monuments.
Democracy Monument is the first we shall look at, which was built in 1939, the second year of Phibun being Prime Minister, constructed to commemorate the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932.
The Thai Arc de Triomphe
Phibun, who led the design committee even though he was not directly involved in the coup, wanted this monument to be the Thai version of the Arc de Triomphe – but then he needed a Champs-Elysées, so the residents around the then narrower Ratchadamnoen were given two months to get out before houses, shops and tamarind trees were torn down and the new art deco concrete structures we see today were erected at break neck speed.
The monument was designed by Khun Mew (Aphaiwong), the brother of one of Phibun’s cabinet members, and a student of the co-founder of Silpakorn University, the Italian Corrado Feroci (who became a Thai national, taking the name Silpa Bhirasri to avoid arrest by the Japanese in 1944 when Italy changed sides in WW2).
However this is the only reference to monarchy in the monument. The King in 1932 – Rama VII – H. M. King Prajadhadipok, was essentially a democrat who wanted to change the constitution anyway – events preceded his actions – he abdicated and tragically died in exile in England in 1941 as he did not agree with many of the provisions the new constitution – by 1939 the Thai government was already a military dictatorship. The 1932 coup had been mainly driven by the fact that the newly foreign educated militsary could not even apply for high positions within the government as they were reserved for members of the Royal Family – after 1932 they were reserved for the military and it’s acolytes.
Facts and Figures
The dimensions of the monument are related to the 1932 coup:
The radius of the monument’s base is 24 metres – the coup took place on the 24th June. The obalisk in the centre is three metres high, which references the third month of the traditional Thai calendar – June – the Thai New Year, Songkran is in April. – The six doors in the rotunda represent Phubun Songkram’s party policies of independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.
Previously unloved but now useful
In it’s early years the monument was an unloved symbol of the power of the military disguised as democrats, but it has now become a rallying point for political demonstrations the latest being of both pro and anti Thaksin Shinawatra (an ex Prime Minister) supporters, events which had led to the deaths of many. Unfortunately in a nation which has had 17 constitutions since 1932, the monument is likely to see more political activity in the future.