Opinion: Thailand must not celebrate June 24th as a revolution but as a flawed coup and a learning experience

“I had no desire to change from one king to many – which is a democratic system but only its outer husk.” Pridi Panomyong wrote in 1933, “I am focused on the important point: ‘improve the well-being of the people’.”

Protests are in the air.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have stoked global attention and fury, unleashing a historic reckoning between America and its deeply rooted legacy of slavery and racism.

The energy of protest itself – separate from BLM – has also permeated Thailand. It has taken the form of activism for Wanchaleerm Satsaksit, who went missing in Phnom Penh on June 4, allegedly a victim of Thai state abduction.

It is taking the form of renewed activism for the hundreds of victims of forced disappearance over years of Thai military rule.  

And today, it will take the form of Thai political activists commemorating the June 24th revolution of 1932, which ended almost 800 years of absolute monarchy in then-Siam.

As America reckons with black emancipation, and Thailand commemorates June 24th, it seems an apt moment to think about revolution.

Or rather, the role of historical memory in revolution.

I will be the first to point out the limits of comparison between American and Thai politics. Comparisons often obscure the continuity and novelty of time-specific and locale-specific anxieties and motivations.

But there is something to be gained, I believe, from re-thinking Thailand’s June 24th in the context of America’s Juneteenth, especially with regards to articulating present revolution as the fulfilment of founding ideals.

Reading the politics of the present into the contingent actions of the past, I argue, can confound more than it reveals. As we recover June 24th, 1932 in the Thai memory to drive further political demands, it is critical to remember the diversity of what Khana Ratsadorn stood for, and how certain ideals could never be realized from within the structure of the 1932 ‘revolution’.

History can keep us honest, if we are careful about how we use it. Remembering 1932 should help the Thai left re-center its political goals, rather than merely signal performative opposition to a status quo that was encoded in the revolution itself.

Re-reading revolution

Juneteenth, or June 19th, commemorates black freedom. Slavery was officially outlawed in the United States under President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Proclamation wasn’t enforced in some confederate states like Texas, where there were few union troops. It wasn’t until June 19th, 1865 – two full years later – when Union army general Gordon Granger rode into Texas that slavery ended across the nation.

Situated as we are in the midst of the BLM movement, this Juneteenth has taken on immense significance.

“Juneteenth isn’t the “other” Independence Day [July 4th]. It is the independence day,” reads a recent viral post on Instagram. Pre-dating Juneteenth, the New York Times’ Pulitzer-prize winning 1619 project begins with the memorable lines: “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. For generations, black Americans have fought to make them true.”

The emancipatory ideals of Juneteenth in 2020, are very different from those of July 4th, or even the founding ideals of the American Declaration of Independence. The dismantling of systemic racism is not the same as the exceedingly limited assertion of ‘the equality of man’ by America’s forefathers.

As we look to recover our own ‘founding ideals’ on June 24th, what differences might be worth highlighting from our present demands in order to re-center Thailand’s current revolutionary currents?

June 24th: anatomy of a revolution

In 1927, Pridi Panomyong and six of his friends gathered in Paris to form the People’s Party or Khana Ratsadorn, with the aim of replacing monarchic rule with rule by law and constitution. “The People’s Party sees that…it must establish government by assembly, so that many minds can debate and contribute,” Pridi announced on June 24th, 1932.

But within two days of the revolution, Pridi and other members of the People’s Party apologized formally to the King for the announcement, and its contents were suppressed. By that December, the provisional constitution was replaced. By 1934, the Press Act came into effect, which forbade the publication of any material deemed detrimental to public order and ‘morals.’ By 1938, Thailand’s first military dictatorship began, under Plaek Phibunsongkhram.

1932 inaugurated a practice that would stifle Thai politics – the involvement of the military in political revolution. Central to the Khana Ratsadorn’s makeup was that it was comprised of people who, in Pridi’s own words, “were born in the old society” and held the kind of power they intended to uproot. Plaek Phibunsongkram was a core member of Khana Ratsadorn, alongside other military figures like Phya Bahol and Phya Song Suratej, and they drove both the initial insurrection and the crackdown against the ensuing Royalist Boworadet Rebellion.

Their support was important, especially as Pridi could not claim to have popular support for his ‘revolution.’ In fact, most people didn’t even know it was happening. As the Bangkok Daily Mail reported on June 24th, “there was not the slightest excitement…mail collections and deliveries were as usual.”

Of course, prominent Thai historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit point out that this ‘calm’ did not extend to the elite, where a game of “musical chairs” was furiously underway. But this only underscores the point that the changes of 1932 were part of an elite compact, where military voices were prominent. This ‘elite compact’ would repeat itself in events as recent as the PDRC-Prayudh alliance.

Based on this reading, 1932 was not the year of Thailand’s first successful revolution – it was the year of Thailand’s first successful coup d’état.

The promise of Khana Ratsadorn

What Pridi did anticipate – and what is missing from present calls for democracy – is a distinct plan for economic redistribution.

Much of the discontent that drove the events of 1932 were related to the power and privileges of the elite in the economic sphere. “Farming on the backs of the people” was a phrase coined long before Pridi, with widespread usage among the rural poor.

Pridi’s economic plan of 1933 intended to “guarantee remunerative work to everyone” by nationalizing all land and making farmers the employees of the state. The economy would be divided up into government-managed cooperatives, which would remedy the economic uncertainty of the agrarian economy. In place of the social insurance provided by feudal landlords, everyone would receive insurance from the government.

Pridi was heavily influenced by the Marxist-Leninist currents of 1920s Paris, and his plan bore a striking resemblance to Stalinist collectivization.

Historians point out that Pridi’s plan was not so much a plan as it was an expression of revolutionary aspiration. Through the Soviet experience, he and the rest of the world would learn that a state-managed economy was not the path to emancipation.

But what he anticipated was that there is a strong economic basis to the Thai elite’s stranglehold on politics. Calls to abolish – or even reform – the structure of the Thai political system had to be supported by an economic program of redistribution. Nothing can be significantly changed in politics if monopoly capital serves and is protected by elite institutions.

Such an insight is missed in today’s demands for democratic politics. But as economic inequality widens, it remains more important than ever.

The future of revolution

In 2016, Barack Obama declared: “Juneteenth is a time to recommit ourselves to the work that remains undone. We remember that even in the darkest hours, there is cause to hope for tomorrow’s fight.”

Remembering June 24th helps Thailand recommit to the work it also has left to do, in seeking a freer, fairer country.

There are ideals worth recovering, like demands for economic justice, a concern for land rights and redistribution.

But most of the ideals that animate ‘tomorrow’s fight’ are distinctly modern in their origin, and the practices that will inaugurate them stem from a recent history that was the direct result of 1932’s legacy: specifically, the military chokehold that has strangled our politics.

Remembering June 24th is important. But the promise of 1932 is not the promise we want fulfilled. Like BLM, like the Haitian revolution, we must forge our own ideals, based on the contingent, urgent demands of the present.

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