In the two countries most important to me personally, Thailand and the USA, one of the most enigmatic controversies is about disappearing monuments. And in both cases the underlying issue is, “What is our significant history, really?” To be sure, monuments disappear all the time, sometimes long after whatever they were celebrating has been forgotten. This fact, and the hubris that led to the erection of the monument in the first place, was the subject of one of Shelly’s most famous poems, the most memorable stanza of which brags, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” All that was left of those works was a shattered statue.
We will return to the more recent disappearing statues shortly. First, a bit about monuments.
There are various reasons for erecting monumental statuary. Some of the main reasons are: (1) to serve as a venue and stage for a great celebration. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Arch of Titus in Rome are examples. Conquering heroes need suitable backdrops for their victory celebrations and they build those sites impressively because they expect praise of their conquests to be lasting. (2) An even larger number are erected to memorialize persons who are significant to the cultural heritage of a people. At the present time that is what is supposedly being memorialized in the world’s largest bas relief statuary on Stone Mountain, Georgia (USA), and the tallest free-standing one, the Statue of Unity in India. Using heroes as metaphors was also the purpose of the sculptures on Mount Rushmore, South Dakota (which is likely to be the last trace of human habitation on earth when the human race becomes extinct, according to a pundit whose speculation I read on-line, so it must be true). (3) A third category is of people whom later descendants or beneficiaries do not want to be forgotten. Soldier and Sailor memorials and statuary of former kings or celebrities do this.
The Statue of Unity is an immense likeness of Vallabhbhai Patel, a leader of the independence movement of India. The statue is 597 feet high, higher than any other statue, even religious ones. Patel remarkably united the hundreds of principalities in India into the united nation of India. The statue is 2 years old. It is so young that controversy about it is just getting started.
On the other hand controversy is main feature of the huge Stone Mountain bas relief sculpture honoring Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. It is immense and it has more visitors than any other site in Georgia. Controversy is due to what the sculpture stands for. Defenders of the monument say it is a marker of the historical fact that at one time those three men lived, served heroically, and were appreciated by people of the South. Opponents say that, as with all public monuments lauding leaders of the Confederacy during the War Between the States, Stone Mountain Park ignores the basic facts that those men and the war they led were to sustain slavery, and to energize movements to retain racial divisions. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the official opening of the park was delayed several years so it could be held on the very day of the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The park and the sculpture were constructed as the US Civil Rights Movement was beginning to succeed. Stone Mountain was in defiance of that movement. [For more about this aspect of the removal of Confederate statues see an earlier blog essay entitled “Confederate Statues”: www.kendobson.asia/blog/confederate-statues ]
Reasons for removing monuments are as varied as the ones for erecting them. Some are removed to better preserve them, or to make way for something more important (such as an expressway or condominium) as the monument has lost importance, or to dull collective memory about why there used to be these heroes. Since there can be conflicting opinions about just how important those memories are, arguments can arise about why the monuments are being removed. To get at the bottom of that, it is necessary to be clear about why the monuments were put up and who wants them taken down.
Removing or simply moving monuments to heroes of the Confederacy is contentious in this regard. They are historic, say the preservationists. They were put up to validate the fiction that “the Confederacy was a grand idea and the subjection of inferior races was just fine,” say the ones offended by the monuments.
Here in Thailand monument removal is going on right now.
Khaosot-english newspaper carried the latest of several articles by senior staff writer Pravit Rojanaphruk on January 27, 2020 reporting on the removal of two statues of heroes being demoted.
Background: in 1932 a revolution in Siam replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy and elected parliament, called a democracy. The two main leaders of the revolution were Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram and his colleague Phraya Phahol Pholphayuhasena. In the years following, various monuments to this revolution and to its leaders were erected, including the largest, the Democracy Monument, in the middle of the royal boulevard connecting several royal palaces. Democracy Monument has been the rallying point for several political movements including deadly ones in 1973 and 1976.
What happened late last month is that a statue of Field Marshal Pibul who founded the National Defense College was removed from its place of honor on the college campus. It was first reported gone on January 20. Then on the 27th both Field Marshal Pibul’s and Phraya Phahol’s statues were removed from an army camp in Lopburi and the camp was renamed, stripping any mention of the revolutionary leaders. This followed the removal on December 28, 2018 of a monument commemorating the government’s victory over a pro-royalist counter-revolution attempt in 1933.
The first democracy monument to be bulldozed was in Buriram Province on 7 November 2014 right after the military coup removed the last fully-elected parliament and installed an ultra-royalist military government. They said the monument was removed to make way for a highway.
The most controversial removal was also the smallest. In April 2017 a small brass marker disappeared in the night after having been imbedded in the pavement of the Royal Plaza in Bangkok for 80 years marking the spot where the Democracy Revolution began. It was replaced with one praising the monarchy, just after the new King ascended the throne.
Meanwhile, phrases from the official swearing-in ceremony for government officials have been removed that mentioned their duty to the constitution rather than the monarch. Control of royal funds of several kinds has been moved from government to palace officials. A new parliament has been installed with entire blocks simply appointed by the military, and important branches of the military have been put back under the King’s command.
This week the government scurried to deny a rumor spreading on social media that the next to go would be the Democracy Monument itself. A major expansion and improvement of the boulevard “will not touch the Democracy Monument” which sits in the middle of the street, the government spokesperson insisted.
The model of the democratic constitution still resides prominently on its three layers of ceremonial basin atop the Democracy Monument, although the actual constitution has been replaced at least 19 times.
It takes a special kind of blindness not to see how the idea of constitutional democracy is being removed one monument and one step at a time. But there are other ways to dilute the rule of law and hand it over to rulers. Refusing to let courts of justice function impartially is one of them. Fixing it so that elections no longer put the people in office that the majority of citizens want to be their representatives is another.
History is harder to manipulate, but people’s memories are easier to deceive when historical reminders are removed. Start with the oncoming generation. Remove the statues, then shorten mentions of inconvenient events in text books, and pretty soon history is all fixed.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.