Symbol of a checkered past
Published: 18th July, 2017
The Democracy Monument stands as a potent reminder of modern Thai political history, from the embrace of a constitution to repeated military dictatorships and the hundreds of demonstrators who have spilled their blood in support of democracy.
Ironically, the Democracy Monument was built at the behest of Thailand’s first military dictator, Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram. In a move that forever changed the face of Bangkok’s old quarter, he simultaneously ordered the road widened, trees cut down, shophouses demolished and residents relocated.
The site’s placement at the heart of Ratchadamnoen, the “royal avenue” built under King Chulalongkorn four decades earlier, was and continues to be significant. The site also marks Kilometre Zero, the official centre of Thailand’s road system.
Known as Anusawari Prachathipatai in Thai, the monument was built in 1939 supposedly to honour the constitution adopted after a coup overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932. However a set of reliefs crafted by Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci at the base appear to promote a nationalist devotion to the military, and the four towering wing-like pillars represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces. At the centre sits a depiction of the ‘32 constitution, the first of 20 that Thailand’s ever-fragile governments have gone through since.
The site has often been a focal point for major political demonstrations and many Thais now view it as a symbol of the sacrifices made by pro-democracy activists. Dozens were killed in a crackdown in 1973 when some 500,000 people rallied against a military government; the 14 October Memorial located just down the road was later erected to honour those who died. Thai military and police also killed scores of demonstrators near the monument in 1976, 1992 and 2010.
Thousands occupied the area again in 2013-14 to protest the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra government, which they accused of corruption. After months of protests that resulted in a handful of deaths and badly damaged the local economy, the military launched its 12th successful coup on 22 May 2014, plunging the kingdom into another prolonged period of military dictatorship. Since then, activists have occasionally broken a law banning political demonstrations to hold small pro-democracy protests at Democracy Monument.
The monument stands at the centre of a traffic circle along one of Bangkok’s busiest roads—chances are you’ll see it just by virtue of navigating the sightseeing circuit and a special visit does not need to be planned. Those desiring to peep the details will have to venture across multiple lanes of heavy traffic. Nearby attractions include the King Prajadhipok Museum, Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, Wat Ratchanatdaram and Wat Saket.
Democracy Monument is located a little under a kilometre east of Khao San Road. Phanfah Leelard Bridge Pier on the San Saeb canal boat line is a short walk to the north.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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