Going backwards VI

16 02 2020

We have posted a couple of times on the monarch’s plans for Crown Property 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 Monument.

The massive renovation is to occur along a 1.2-km stretch of the road, ordered by the king and managed by the CPB. As we have posted before, critic Chatri Prakitnonthakan, an expert and author on buildings from the era of the revolution that toppled the absolute monarchy, lamented the attack on the art deco architectural style of the avenue. His view is that the art deco architecture, which symbolized a break from feudal absolutism, is being removed as a sinister effort by royalists to erase relics related to the 1932 revolution.

Rajadamnoen now. Clipped from Wikipedia.

The plan is to transform the buildings to neoclassical style.

Interestingly, this motivation on the part of right-wing reactionaries is not limited to Thailand. In a recent article in The Economist has revealed that property developer-cum-President Donald Trump is also interested in going backwards:

On February 4th the Architectural Record, a trade journal, reported that it had been leaked a draft copy of an executive order the president intends to sign, ordering that new federal buildings should be designed in neoclassical style….

He seems to believe that:

architects designing federal buildings have been too much influenced by “brutalism and deconstructivism” and should return to the era of America’s founding, when the inspiration, both politically and architecturally, came from ancient Athens and Rome.

The Architectural Record stated that the White House’s “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” report on an Executive Order that:

would require rewriting the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, issued in 1962, to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.

Since then, there’s been an outcry:

The response to RECORD’s article was instantaneous. Newspapers from San Francisco to London jumped on the story, social media and websites were flooded with comments, and design critics and editorial boards weighed in—most attacking the proposed EO. The AIA issued a statement, opposing “uniform style mandates and the idea of any official architectural style”—and called on its members to to protest; in the first week, nearly 11,000 architects wrote to the president.

Further, the AIA has

… reached out to the chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees, “strenuously” urging them “to ensure that no funding is appropriated to implement or carry out this new dictate,” arguing, among other objections, that the order could increase the cost of a federal building by as much as two or three times.

When Thailand’s rightist royal seeks to vandalize the past because of royalist bile that has been rising for 80+ years, what happens? Almost nothing. Most of the mass media self-censors and doesn’t even mention the destruction being done. Fear, murders, jailings and assaults, censorship, lese majeste and a military-backed government means that the silence is deafening.





On neo-feudal restorationism

2 02 2020

Pravit Rojanaphruk deserves considerable praise for daring to take up the case of the royalist vandalizing of statues commemorating the 1932 revolution and its leaders.

His latest op-ed “Why Did Statues of a Former PM Have to Go?” is a must-read. While he can’t name names, his view that this latest act of royalist erasure is cause for deep concern: “the removal of two bronze statues of him is something all Thais should be worried about.”

1932: The end of the absolute monarchy announced

On the lack of any explanation for the recent acts of cultural vandalism, he says:

To this day, I never received any straightforward answer from those running those facilities why the statues had to go. On my visits, it seemed to me that the military personnel were under a lot of pressure to remain taciturn, perhaps because the answer may be too complicated for the public to understand.

Phibul

In fact, most Thais have a pretty good understanding of these events. They know that King Vajiralongkorn is seeking to further aggrandize the monarchy. They know that the king has been land grabbing and is now building a huge palace precinct that “requires” the erasing of all other symbols of 1932 and the end of the absolute monarchy.

As Pravit has it, “If statues of someone so influential to modern Thailand could be removed without a trace, modern Thailand as we know it is in deep trouble.”

He observes:

Scholar Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian noted in her book “Thailand’s Durable Premier” that Pibulsongkram’s own goals were most likely to “permanently eliminate the rule of absolute monarchy and its deep-rooted prestige and influence over the people in the country.”

Could this be the reason why, in a climate where concerted attempts are being made to restore and revive the supreme dominance of the monarchy, that Pibulsongkram statues must go?

Yes, that’s it.

And he adds that Plaek Phibulsonggram’s ghost “and the ghosts of his fellow revolutionaries who overthrew absolute monarchy, are still a haunting threat to some. And to the powerful, ghostly threats must be exorcised.”

Probably, but we know that both his father’s and his mother’s families were vehement opponents of the 1932 revolution and that his father loathed Phibul.

Pravit concludes: “In the end, it is not just the memories of Pibulsongkram that are at stake – but that of modern Thai history itself.”

That’s true. But it is also Thailand’s political future that is at stake. Will the royalists overcome democrats and can the palace complete the more than 80 year struggle to undo the 1932 revolution?





Going backwards IV

28 01 2020

The palace-initiated effort to destroy all symbols of the 1932 revolution and the People’s Party has gone up a gear. The campaign is now moving ahead with remarkable speed and determination. Thailand is having its historical memory erased, to be reprogrammed as a royalist fairy tale.

The latest report is from Khaosod. It seems this paper and Prachatai are the only brave newspapers in Thailand, willing to report this tragedy:

Yet another public commemoration of a 1932 revolt that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand was removed without any explanation.

A statue of revolt co-leader Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram at the army-run National Defense College has gone missing when a reporter visited the site on Tuesday….

Royal vandalism (clipped from Khaosod)

It is said that it was Phibun who founded the College, but that does not prevent royal/royalist vandalism. The erasing of Phibun extended even to removing “a wall-size plaque bearing the Field Marshal’s biography…”. The space was painted over.

And you know that the orders for this destruction of some of Thailand’s most significant (non-royal) symbols are being smashed, removed and spirited away when no one wants to talk about it – the fear of the king is all too obvious:

I will not give you the information,” an staff member at the college – founded by Pibulsongkram himself 64 years ago – said when questioned where the statue of its founder went to. The man declined to give his name.

The College’s commanding officers are silent. Meanwhile, Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree and defense ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich both refused to comment.

Expect more of this until someone is brave enough to shout stop.





Going backwards III

28 01 2020

A few days ago, in a post on the removal of symbols of the 1932 revolution and the People’s Party, we promised updates when we saw them. Thanks to Khaosod – despite censorship, one of the only outlets reporting these events – we now have more information on royalist vandalism in Lopburi.

It is worth noting that the Khaosod report states: “The mainstream media were also discouraged from investigating or reporting about the disappearances [of these symbols].”

Statues dedicated to Phahol Pholphayuhasena and Plaek Phibulsonggram at the Army’s artillery base in Lopburi have been “removed” – perhaps destroyed – and, as might be expected in this palace-related vandalism, “were replaced with a huge portrait of the late King Rama IX.”

In addition, the name “Phaholyothin” – Phahol Pholphayuhasena’s birth name – has been removed from the name of the base. It is now just “Artillery Center.”

Clipped from Khaosod

Khaosod reports that “[c]onstruction workers were still removing concrete debris from where the statues once stood when a reporter visited the base on Monday afternoon.

Clipped from Khaosod

Two army officers were interviewed but “gave no explanation for the removals.” Perhpas they refused:

“We can’t tell you,” Lt.Col. Suppichai Paorith, an officer at the base’s civilian affairs division, said when asked about the name change and the missing statues.

His colleague, Col. Korn Ittiwiboon, said the new name is not considered official until an announcement is published in the Royal Government Gazette. An earlier media said the base would be renamed Fort King Bhumibol.

Both men said they have no knowledge of where the two statues might be, though one of the laborers working on the field said the statue depicting Field Marshal Pibul was removed “about a week ago.”

Of course, Army spokespersons are as fearful as everyone else in matters related to the erratic and obsessive-compulsive King Vajiralongkorn and his war on 1932 and the origins of parliamentary and electoral politics.





Isan memory

26 01 2020

As a kind of pushback on the re-feudalization being pushed by military-backed regime and the king’s palace, Prachatai curates an excellent Thai-language discussion of memories of the 1932 revolution and it memorialization in the northeast. Worth a look even if Thai is not your language.





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.





Going backwards II

24 01 2020

In our last post on the destruction of symbols of 1932, PPT commented: What’s next? The Democracy Monument? Changing street names? We think anything is possible under a king who wants more absolutism and mad military monarchists who cravenly lick his boots.

We got the answer within hours. An erasure of architectural style on Rajadamnoen Avenue as another effort to make Bangkok the monarch’s city.

Rajadamnoen now. Clipped from Wikipedia

Khaosod reports that the Crown Property Bureau, on King Vajiralongkorn’s orders, will “tear down buildings along a 1,200-meter stretch of the iconic Ratchadamnoen Avenue and rebuild them under a new architectural style…”. The CPB owns the buildings.

The CPB will “renovate 10 buildings on the avenue in a ‘neoclassical’ style, ditching the art deco look originally implemented in the spirit of a 1932 revolution that overthrew the absolute monarchy.”

Rajadamnoen now. Clipped from Wikipedia

For example, the Deves Insurance building, majority owned by the king, “is currently a six-storey art deco structure” but will be made neoclassical.

Why neoclassical? According to theCPB, “the new look will showcase ‘art, culture, and identity of Thailand’.” In other words, neoclassical is considered the style of the absolutist monarchy even if the Avenue has never had such a style.

As the report notes, “Ratchadamnoen Avenue is perhaps the most politically charged landmark in the capital; its history symbolizing the ebb and flow of the ideological struggles that define the last century of Thai politics.”

The monarchy is now reclaiming control of the properties and their style, and it can be expected that the politics will be removed from the avenue as it is made more firmly a royal avenue.

Royal vandalism. Clipped from Khaosod

After 1932, the revolutionaries “soon set out to fill Ratchadamnoen Avenue with buildings designed under art deco style… [A]rt deco was chosen by the revolutionaries to signify a break with the feudal past.” As historian Chatri Prakitnonthakan notes, “Buildings with this look came to represent democracy. It represents the ushering of the modern era…. It’s democratic architecture.”

The king and his agents, including the monarchist-military regime.

Chatri recognizes that “conservatives are not happy and hate this type of buildings,” and there can be no doubt that the king has been schooled in this conservative mode and his now using his economic and political power to obliterate symbols of 1932 and democracy.

And, of course, the report notes the fear: “In spite of the magnitude of the change coming to one of the most iconic landmarks in the Old City, few people are willing to discuss the issue.”

Officials responsible for maintaining building and construction ran and hid when asked about the CPB’s project. No official dares comment.

Others claimed that “they carry out whatever changes or construction as instructed by the Crown Property Bureau.”

Welcome to neo-absolutist Thailand. Watch for more such moves against symbols of 1932 as the monarch promotes cultural and political crimes.