The impact was instant: the moment protest leaders stepped aside from the plaque, members of the press swarmed the tiny, gold-colored disk so freshly covered in concrete. “Here on September 20 at dawn,” the plaque read, “the People proclaim that the country belongs to the people.”
The language and placement mirrored a plaque that had recently disappeared, one announcing the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The inscription on the missing plaque had read: “Here on 24 June 1932 at dawn, the People’s Party proclaimed a constitution for the country’s advancement.”
Once the image of the engraved three-fingered democracy symbol was blasted out onto the internet, it went viral. The defiantly designed disk sat at the grand Royal Plaza, the site of King Chulalongkorn’s project of modernizing the monarchy and westernizing the country. But the plaque existed far beyond the Royal Plaza.
As the newly minted icon for the protest, it came to adorn people’s Facebook profile pictures, was rendered into multicolored forms for people’s Instagram feeds, was disseminated via Line and Twitter.
So when the physical plaque at the Royal Plaza disappeared, its disappearance was somehow expected and not altogether total. The three-fingered inscription was already inscribed into the vast media universe, another internet badge of netizen support for the protests.
Yet within days, protestors began installing new physical plaques across the country – the Chiang Mai rally on September 25th was the first to lay down their own gold disk. The hope, according to protestors, was that plaques like the one they laid down would be put in place all over the country.
The protestors’ insistence on restoring the plaques to the ground begs the question: what is about the physicality of a symbol that is so important?
The Case for Physical Symbols
This became a key question of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) protests at Oxford, which centered on the removal of the statue of colonizer Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College. “Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has just been about statues,” wrote Oxford professor and philosopher Amia Srinivasan. Other commentators worried that by focusing on the physical statue, the complexity of the debate on decolonization would be hopelessly simplified into a “yes-no statue debate.”
Yet, the urge to look beyond ‘just statues’ – or, in the Thai case, to look beyond ‘just plaques’ – diminishes the material consequences of the symbolic. When British and American troops entered Iraq in 2003, they destroyed a statue of Saddam Hussein – a scene that would become one of the most iconic broadcasts of the Iraq war. This was the new fall of the Berlin Wall, the new collapse of the Iron Curtain.
But plaques aren’t like statues. Rather than celebrate some known historical figure, they can commemorate past events or even inaugurate future ones. The power of the plaque is that it can celebrate ideas without associating them with a single person or set of people. In that way, the plaque is the most democratic form of them all.
The 1932 plaque was reportedly removed the night before blessings were given to the military-drafted constitution in 2017. The plaque’s removal was not broadcast, but its meaning was clear: The old order had returned, and it was time for dissenters to capitulate. As Jonathan Head wrote, “whoever removed the little brass plaque…[was] adjusting the symbolic balance in Royal Plaza.”
In turn, the placement of these pro-democracy plaques functioned as a claim over what has become an intensely contested physical space. Where the country’s most elite revolutionaries once placed their plaque, today’s Thammasat and Chulalongkorn university students – dressed in symbolic T-shirts, clad in the farmer’s cloth, before a crowd of commoners that would never have been allowed in this space – have made it their own.
Even beyond the Royal Plaza, creating tangible replicas of the plaque still feels like a singularly revolutionary act – if just to see “the country belongs to the people” inscribed in metal.
Physical plaques, and their spatial placement, matter in a special, irreplaceable way.
Symbolism & Supernaturalism in Thai Protest Culture
Physical symbols have always been important in Thai protest culture.
In 2010, many were shocked to see the Red Shirts literally spilling blood before the Thai government house, meant as a powerful curse against the military-backed Abhisit government. In an equally stunning move in 2008, yellow-shirted Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy protestors placed bloodied sanitary napkins around the statue of King Chulalongkorn in the Royal Plaza, to ward off saboteurs trying to bring down the monarchy. The materiality of the offerings was instrumental to their supernatural power.
Yet, protest rituals are not always tied to religious or folkloric supernaturalism.
Youth-led protests draw on different sources of inspiration for their symbolism: rather than the blood sacrifices of the UDD or PAD, they look to the cute, innocent hamster Hamtaro that our generation grew up with, or Harry Potter-themed symbols as a nod to certain political figures we had always referred to as “You Know Who.” The symbolism is no less powerful, the challenge to the status quo no less serious.
The plaque is the latest piece of protest iconography, drawing inspiration from Khana Ratsadon, and promising a revolution of the same magnitude.
The Plaque and its Future Meanings
The pro-democracy plaque’s recent disappearance from the Royal Plaza won’t diminish the movement’s momentum – if anything, it will fuel protestors’ fire. But the people who removed it were well aware that physical symbols, and where they are placed, do matter.
Replicating the pro-democracy plaque elsewhere, as in Chiang Mai, still has meaning. Every single pro-democracy plaque produced is another threshold crossed, another landmark created of this historic moment where young protestors decided to challenge the highest power in the land.
But the empty concrete on the Royal Plaza should be a reminder to protestors that their work isn’t complete. No matter how much the government accommodates protestors now, the work isn’t done until the Plaza truly belongs to the people.