With a major update: Re-feudalization and repression

26 01 2020

Somsak Jeamteerasakul has posted another before and after picture of the destruction of symbols of the 1932 revolution and the People’s Party. This time at the Field Marshal P. Phibulsonggram House Learning and History Center in Chiang Rai:

Meanwhile, yet another critical report seems to have been removed from the Khaosod news website.In this case, an opinion piece by Pravit Rojanaphruk titled “Opinion: The Talibanization of Bangkok’s Architectural Heritage” about the erasing of post-1932 architectural style from Rajadamnoen Avenue, has gone.

When one looks for the article at the site, the return is:

It was there.

And it was circulated:

And it was re-posted in Thailand:

Frustratingly, PPT didn’t copy the article before it was taken down. If any reader has a copy, please email us.

The last time this happened it was a news story about the trouble caused by Princess Sirivannavari when she and some rich friends had a holiday in the south and officials closed land and sea to allow her to have fun with “security.” Ordinary Thais lost income and work while taxpayer funds were burned.

As far as we can tell, in neither case has Khaosod explained why the articles have been disappeared. We assume the management and owners came under pressure. But from where? From notions of self censorship? Or from the regime? Or from the palace?

The fear about commenting on anything royal is reinforced. The erasure of memory and history gathers pace.

Update: Thanks to readers, including @barbaricthais and “a republican reader,” we have located the deleted Khaosod op-ed by Pravit. It is clear that the equating of royal vandalism and Talibanization annoyed/scared/worried some. The op-ed is reproduced here, in full, but without the pictures:

What struck me as rather disturbing as I met with people along the Ratchadamnoen Avenue to discuss the upcoming renovation is their sense of fear.

Very few whom I interviewed wanted to be identified. Some even said they did not want to talk at all about what could be the most significant change to the landscape of the historic avenue in 80 years.

The reason is rather straightforward. All of the ten art deco buildings along the avenues are to be replaced with a new “neoclassical” pastiches per instruction from the Crown Property Bureau, who owned the structures since the time when it was still under the oversight of a civilian government that overthrew absolute monarchy in 1932.

In the present time, the agency is a different kind of entity. Following a vote in 2017 by the junta-appointed rubber stamp parliament, the Crown Property ceased to be under the control of state and was placed under the supervision of new monarch, King Vajiralongkorn.

In early 2019, the Crown Property Bureau invited tenants of these art deco buildings along the 1200-meter stretch of the avenue to a meeting, and informed them that a decision has been made to replace the structures with a neoclassical façade.

Words of the meeting were relayed to me by one of the participants, who was apparently at a discomfort of discussing the topic, but I assured him there was nothing to worry; what he told me was perfectly in line with the Crown Property’s very own announcement of the plan on Jan 17.

Not everyone is thrilled by the makeover. Critics like Chatri Prakitnonthakan, an expert and author on buildings from the era of the revolution that toppled the absolute monarchy, told me the new façade will be “fake” because it’s more like applying a veneer on art deco architectural structure which is fundamentally different.

He also suspected a deeper agenda. Chatri said art deco architecture in Thailand symbolized a break from feudal absolutism. He believes there is a sinister attempt by some people to exact revenge on the long-dead revolutionaries by removing any relics related to their memories.

No matter what your political ideology is, Thailand has lost enough architectural heritage when its old capital Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in 1767; the city was also subject to a series of looting and vandalism by both Thais and Chinese merchants in the centuries that followed.

Bangkok is relatively new, anointed as the capital in 1782. Why, then, are we defacing and deconsecrating the few architectural legacies and monuments that we have?

Let us not Talibanize our tangible heritage, our past, our history – lest we end up not knowing who we are, where we came from and surrounded by Disney-like environ.

In the fast-developing megacity of Shanghai, the Chinese managed to preserve many buildings constructed by former colonial powers despite the bitter history. Thais should also learn to cherish material cultures, buildings included, that speak about a crucial portion in our history, instead of trying to deface what we do not like.

Many have given up, resigned to the fate that one of the most historic landmarks in Bangkok’s Old City will be Disneyfied with the shallow neoclassical veneer.

Some even fear that Democracy Monument, the most visible memorial to the birth of parliamentary democracy in 1932, might be either altered or removed altogether eventually. Some have begun taking selfies with the symbolism-filled monument in a half-nervous jest. Just in case.

And if the renovation is truly inevitable, I hope they save at least one art deco building on Ratchadamnoen Avenue: the imposing Royal Hotel at the southeastern end of the avenue.

It was opened in 1943 by none other than the revolution’s co-leader Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, and has since played a role in several key moments of Thai political history. Like when it was a safe haven for protesters in the May 1992 uprising against the military rulers, until soldiers invaded it, beating and forcefully arresting those inside.

I wonder if anyone will launch any campaign to save these historical relics at all. Given the current climate of fear and sensitivity of the issue, I wouldn’t be surprised if many will think more than twice before lending their signature – or even change their mind afterwards.


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5 02 2020
Going backwards V | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] fear has been that the Talibanization of the avenue will eventually mean the destruction of the Democracy […]

16 02 2020
Going backwards VI | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Bureau buildings on Rajadamnoen Avenue and the fears that this royal vandalism amounts to a Talibanization of the avenue. Some worry that it might eventually mean the destruction of the Democracy […]