The monument is at the centre of one of the busiest transport hubs in Bangkok. Many people who pass it have no idea of it’s origin, being more interested in either avoiding the traffic jams or going to the many restaurants and attractions which are situated around it. However, in 1941 when it was built, this area was almost on the edge of the city of Bangkok, reached by tree lined two lane roads.
Why was it built?
The original purpose of the monument was to commemorate the Franco – Thai War which lasted from November 1940 to January 1941. The Thai government led by Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram realised the the colonial French government controlling French Indo-China, Vietnam and Laos were in a weak military position as France itself had fallen to the Germans and the Japanese military had forced the Vichy French to allow their military to be stationed in these colonies.
During the reign of King RamaVI, Phibun (his nickname was “Plaek” – in Thai it means “strange” because at birth his ears were at odd angles) had been sent to Saint Cyr- the French Military Academy – and learned “liberté, égalité, fraternité – but also that this did not spread to the natives of France’s colonies. He was personally subject to racism whilst a student in France, which focused him on revenge for the Thai losses of their possessions (during the reign of King Rama V) to the French in present day Cambodia and Laos, and to the British in present day Malaysia.
The Thai government see their chance
The Thais were determined to try and regain at least some of the territory lost to the French in Laos and Cambodia from 1888 to 1907, and thought this a good time to try.
It was built at a problem time for Asia. The Japanese were the new super power in the region and the Thais had cordial relations with them, secretly offering not to intervene in any hostilities in their plans for the subsequent invasion of South East Asia, which, although a year off, were already well advanced, and they needed Thai cooperation.
In November 1940 border clashes started, escalating to air raids by both sides and then in January two Thai armies marched into Laos and Cambodia, quickly occupying the former but having a harder time in Cambodia even though the French were outnumbered and possessed less military equipment.
Japanese mediation was not for free
Phibun gave a secret verbal promise, reconfirmed in October 1941, to support the Japanese if they should attack Malaya.
What Phibun wants – he gets!
Phibun ordered the construction of the monument to commemorate this victory to Corrado Feroci, the Italian head of Silpakorn University, but was constantly interrupted in his work by Phibun who wanted a type of obelisk reminiscent of Egyptian Victory Monuments, many of which are found in foreign capital cities – especially Paris. The obelisk eventually became a portrayal of five erect bayonets clustered together. Feroci called the finished design a “victory of embarrassment”.
A short lived, and now forgotten, victory
Possibly Feroci was being unkind, but at the end of WW2 the Thais had to give the territories back to France, so it was a short lived victory. The monument is now not to Victory but to Remembrance, commemorated on a date unconnected with battles or war, but to commemorate the founding of the Veterans Association, organised to look after the affairs of military, police, civil servants and civilians who serve and served to protect the country, and their families and dependents.
So when when you see this monument, although it retains it’s original name it is now the centre of the nation’s thoughts for the countless thousands who suffered and died to protect the nation in all conflicts.
A Ghost for you
The Thais are very superstitious. Here is a video of one of the many type of ghost inhabiting the imagination of the people, in this case a huge Hungry Ghost at the Victory Monument.