Thai dis­si­dent fights to keep his­tory alive

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Car­ry­ing a bucket of ce­ment and a heavy bronze plaque, Ekachai Hongkang­wan set out across Bangkok’s heav­ily-po­liced Royal Plaza in late June to per­form a solo act of DIY dis­sent. But the 42-year-old was quickly bun­dled into a po­lice van be­fore he could lay down the me­tal disc - an ex­act replica of a mon­u­ment that was mys­te­ri­ously re­moved in April, spark­ing fears of­fi­cials were try­ing to white­wash his­tory. The 38-cm plaque, which had lain undis­turbed for decades, marked the blood­less 1932 Si­amese Rev­o­lu­tion that ended ab­so­lute monar­chy.

But it was sud­denly re­placed with a new plaque es­pous­ing loy­alty to Thai­land’s royal fam­ily, an in­sti­tu­tion whose in­flu­ence has roared back into promi­nence in re­cent decades as democ­racy has fal­tered. The date Ekachai chose for his one man protest was 24 June, the an­niver­sary of that rev­o­lu­tion. “I wanted to dig the new one out but I think (knew) it will be very dif­fi­cult for me,” he told AFP from his house in eastern Bangkok, a wry smile across his face.

The at­tempted restora­tion was a dan­ger­ous and rare act of sub­ver­sion in a coun­try smoth­ered by an arch-roy­al­ist mil­i­tary and where crit­i­cism of the monar­chy is be­ing purged at an un­prece­dented rate. More than 100 peo­ple have been charged with Thai­land’s no­to­ri­ous lese ma­jeste law since the junta’s 2014 coup, threat­ened with up to 15years in jail for each slight to the coun­try’s roy­als.

Un­prece­dented purge

Record-break­ing, decades-long sen­tences have been handed down and many of those ad­vo­cat­ing for re­form of the law or push­ing for greater scru­tiny of the roy­als have gone to ground, fled or been im­pris­oned. Ekachai, a for­mer lot­tery ticket seller, served nearly three years for the of­fence in 2011. His crime was sell­ing Thai trans­la­tions of State Depart­ment ca­bles and in­ter­na­tional press re­ports that were un­flat­ter­ing of the then Crown Prince and now King Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn. Since his re­lease Ekachai stayed away from protest, choos­ing in­stead to set up a small foun­da­tion to help those charged with lese ma­jeste.

But the dis­ap­pear­ance of the plaque reignited his de­fi­ance. “This is a democ­racy sym­bol,” he said, proudly re­triev­ing the replica plaque from the back of his house, which au­thor­i­ties re­turned af­ter he was re­leased with­out charge for his stunt. “They try to make it a hid­den his­tory.” Junta of­fi­cials and po­lice have said they do not know what hap­pened to the orig­i­nal plaque, a po­si­tion that stretches credulity given it lay out­side a palace in a heav­ily po­liced area of the city. CCTV cam­eras were not work­ing when the plaque van­ished and au­thor­i­ties have warned against fur­ther protests or en­quiries over the mys­tery. Thiti­nan Pongsud­hi­rak, a pol­i­tics ex­pert at Chu­la­longkorn Uni­ver­sity, de­scribed the plaque as “a bump on the road of Thai­land’s roy­al­ist nar­ra­tive”. Un­til its re­moval few knew it ex­isted “even those who live in Bangkok”. “But now its con­tro­ver­sial dis­ap­pear­ance has led to a kind of re­birth of the June 1932 po­lit­i­cal change from ab­so­lutism to con­sti­tu­tional rule,” he told AFP.

A his­tory les­son

So far Ekachai has man­aged to avoid be­ing charged over the plaque and he steers clear of any di­rect crit­i­cism of Thai­land’s roy­als. In­stead he fo­cuses on try­ing to re­form the lese ma­jeste law, which makes scru­tiny of the fam­ily im­pos­si­ble and forces me­dia to self-cen­sor. It was dur­ing the last few decades of King Bhu­mi­bol’s 70-year reign that the law was in­creas­ingly wielded, de­spite an ad­dress the late monarch gave in 2005 say­ing he was not above crit­i­cism. Since Bhu­mi­bol’s death in Oc­to­ber lit­tle has changed un­der Va­ji­ra­longkorn, who has yet to at­tain his fa­ther’s wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity. At least eight peo­ple are known to have been charged with lese ma­jeste charges since his suc­ces­sion. One case ex­pected to hit the courts soon in­volves a man charged for lik­ing a sar­cas­tic Face­book post about Bhu­mi­bol’s fa­vorite dog.

“I’m not op­posed to the monar­chy,” Ekachai said, a por­trait of the re­cently de­parted King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej hang­ing be­hind him. “But that doesn’t mean we should be un­able to crit­i­cize them at all,” he said. While Ekachai ad­mits his plaque re­place­ment stunt was never go­ing to suc­ceed, he dis­misses those who say such acts are fu­tile.

Fol­low­ing his de­ten­tion he dis­cov­ered his mil­i­tary in­ter­roga­tor was un­aware that the date he had cho­sen marked the an­niver­sary of the 1932 rev­o­lu­tion. “In school they teach them noth­ing about this, they try to erase it from his­tory,” he said. Break­ing into a chuckle, Ekachai said he was de­lighted to get a chance to give the of­fi­cer a brief les­son.

This pho­to­graph taken on July 12, 2017 shows Thai dis­si­dent Ekachai Hongkang­wan hold­ing a brass replica of the miss­ing plaque com­mem­o­rat­ing the year Thai­land went from be­ing an ab­so­lute monar­chy to a democ­racy in 932, out­side his house in Bangkok.

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