A small piece of history, but a big fallout

A small piece of history, but a big fallout

Who owns the 1932 Revolution memorial plaque? The question posed by deputy national police chief Pol Gen Srivara Ransibrahmanakul is indeed intriguing. Is it another way of asking: Who owns national history? Or who gets to dictate what a nation will remember?

Pol Gen Srivara posed the question after the grandson of a member of the Khana Ratsadon that staged the revolution 85 years ago, replacing the absolute monarchy with a constitutional one, filed a complaint asking police to find the plaque which was removed from the Royal Plaza and replaced with a new one last week.

At a practical level, it seems the deputy national police chief was wondering if a relative of one of the revolutionists would qualify as an "owner" of the lost plaque and thus be the "damaged party" who could force the authorities into action lawfully.

If viewed from a more philosophical perspective, however, Pol Gen Srivara could be asking who has ownership of the past and, by extension, control of the present and hopefully the future.

The implication is in his next remark. He asked if the Royal Plaza belongs to anyone who placed the plaque there to mark the spot where the Khana Ratsadon announced an end to the country's centuries-old absolute monarchy and ushered in "democracy" in 1932.

He also said the area, adorned with the equestrian statue of King Rama V against the background of the majestic Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall where many state ceremonies have been held, is not a place where anyone can embed their "personal" belongings.

From his line of questioning, it seems Pol Gen Srivara believed no-one could own the lost plaque or the historic revolution it was used to commemorate.

He also seems to consider the revolution a one-off incident, having occurred at some point in the past and ending somewhere in history, totally truncated from the time we are living in at present.

More importantly, he regards the memorial plaque as a "personal" item apparently of the revolutionists -- all long gone -- who embedded it into the Royal Plaza which is state property without authority.

There are quite a few problems with this rationale.

First and foremost, the 1932 Revolution is not a historical accident. It's indeed a landmark incident that has shaped the modern Thai state and its identity. It's part of national history, one that has led us to where we are today whether anybody likes it or not.

Pol Gen Srivara is correct to assume that no single individual can own the memorial plaque. The reason is simple: The plaque belongs to the state and it's the state's duty to protect it.

As state officers, the police are duty-bound to find out what happened to the plaque and try to reclaim it.

As for the assumption that the plaque was after all an unauthorised mark driven into public property by force, Pol Gen Srivara may have forgotten that at dawn on June 24, 1932 as was inscribed on the brass plaque, the Khana Ratsadon successfully toppled the absolute monarchy and introduced the country's first constitution, arguably an attempt to replace absolutism with the rule of law.

Pol Gen Srivara cannot ignore the fact that the Khana Ratsadon had wrested control of state power. The revolutionists might not own the Royal Plaza but they did possess the right to mark it with a memorial plaque if they saw fit.

In fact, it's not too different from how the military regime at present has the right to build a 14-billion-baht promenade along the Chao Phraya River or erect the Rajabhakti Park on state land.

But these are examples of simple logic that anyone would understand. What is more fascinating about Pol Gen Srivara's message, however, is if the top officer is enacting a viewpoint that state authorities may have about the 1932 Revolution or an idea of democracy that the revolutionists brought into being.

In refusing to accept the plaque as state property, are authorities also denying a place in history for the 1932 Revolution? If the plaque, which may be the most tangible evidence of the historic regime change cannot be found, will authorities be able to rewrite this drastic episode from the past and make it so that it's more suitable to what they want the present to be and the future to become?

It's quite astonishing that a seemingly simple case of a missing memorial plaque has unleashed such complicated feelings toward our own past. What is clear from the growing political cacophony, however, is the small piece of brass could have the power to tip the political balance in a big way.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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