Nationalism pervades an official exhibition on the national ensign, but what’s left out is telling
Ahead of of National Flag Day on September 28, the military-led government has mounted a patriotic exhibition at Vajiravudh College in Bangkok celebrating the 101st anniversary of the beloved tri-colour flag introduced by King Rama VI.
A nationalist spirit pervades the show, titled “Thong Trai Rong Thamrong Thai” (“Tri-colour National Flag Sustains Thainess”, in which citizens are urged to cherish the flag as never before.
Vajiravudh College students hold the flag as it’s paraded for the opening of the exhibition “Tri-colour National Flag Sustains Thainess” at the college on Sukhothai Road. Nation/Vorawit Pumpuang
At the opening of the exhibition, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam also prodded citizens to learn about the history and significance of the flag. Among other things, he said, they should know precisely how the flag is to be used correctly on different occasions.
It has only three appropriate uses, Wissanu said – decorating premises, accompanying ceremonies of honour and preceding public announcements.
“The tri-colour flag represents the Thai nation,” he said. “In paying respect to the flag, people demonstrate their respect for and pride in their nation. The flag is important to all Thais’ spirit. Destroying the flag is against the law.”
The show, continuing all through August, is primarily directed at schoolchildren and young people in general. Students of Vajiravudh College, which King Rama VI founded in 1910, serve as guides, moving among the displays as patriotic tunes play.
Its five segments examine in turn the unveiling of the tri-colour by Rama VI, the evolution of the national flag until then, the flag’s importance in Thailand, and its proper uses. The final section is called “Tri-colour Flag Waves for Thais’ Pride”. The flag in the form we know it dates back to the Ayutthaya Period. There was no national flag before then, even in the 1600s while King Narai was on the throne. Siam’s first official flag, used in matters of trade, was completely red, with no embellishments.
As the Rattanakosin era dawned, Phra Phuttayotfa Chulalok had the chakra wheel of Hindu mythology placed at the centre of the flag’s red field to symbolise the Chakri Dynasty he founded as King Rama I.
A student holds the Thong Chang Puak – the White Elephant Flag designed by King Rama IV. Nation/Vorawit Pumpuang
Much better known today is the flag that followed, introduced in 1855 by King Mongkut (Rama IV) – with the chakra replaced on the red background by a royal white elephant. It was felt that a more distinctive ensign was needed in conducting foreign affairs.
That flag is known as Thong Chang Puak, the White Elephant Flag.
Mongkut’s son Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) decreed the first formal law regarding the national flag. The National Flag Act Rattanakosin Era 110 formalised its appearance with the white elephant against a red field. No variants would be tolerated.
The next change to the flag came under King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) just as Siam sent troops off to Europe in the midst of World War I, in 1917. The artistically minded king wanted the flag to appear more “international”, given the global scope of the conflict. He unveiled the five-striped flag – but not the one that still flies today. It was just red and white.
The public was consulted on the design, and a meeting of minds led to the central red bar being replaced with a blue one, representing the monarchy itself.
Thus the alternating stripes of red, blue and white – signifying creed, crown and community – came to subsume representations of the military, even in such martial times. It was a flag that could fly comfortably alongside those of Russia, France, Britain and the United States.
A photo of the Siamese Expeditionary Force carrying the tri-colour flag in triumph in Paris in 1919 after World War I ended is displayed in the show. The Royal Navy Flag designed by King Rama VI is also on view. Nation/Phatarawadee Phataranawik
Wissanu noted that King Rama VI even developed a new shade of blue for the flag. “It’s a mixture of blue and purple,” he said. “Blue is widely recognised as the colour of the monarchy, while purple is the colour associated with King Rama VI’s day of birth.”
The tri-colour was first hoisted on September 28, 1917. Initially there were two common variants. As well as the five-banded version seen everywhere today, another kept the elephant on a red disc, superimposed over the stripes. This one – carried by the Siamese Expeditionary Force when it marched in the Allies’ 1919 victory parade in Paris – is still used by the Royal Thai Navy.
Although the tri-colour has been flying for a century, National Flag Day was only introduced last year, by Cabinet resolution, specifically to commemorate the centennial on September 28.
On that date this year, Prime Ministry Prayut Chan-o-cha will preside at an event at Government House entailing the singing of the national anthem. Patriotism will be on grand display along with the flag, and nationalism will be even puffier than usual as a means of reconciling political foes – and with an election coming in the new year.
Historian Chanida Puaksom of Naresuan University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, who authored “Politics in the History of Thai Flags”, noted how Rama VI “invented, defined and consolidated” the national ensign to reflect nationalism under the monarchy.
She pointed out, though, that the monarchy’s role in national affairs decreased with the Siamese Revolution of 1932, which replaced absolute monarchy with the constitutional, democratic monarchy we have today. The flag came to refer more to the still-evolving nation-state.
But none of this “important” information is mentioned in the exhibition, Chanida commented.
The 2018 national-flag project – the exhibition and Flag Day celebration – “reflects nostalgia, a yearning for the past, especially for the ‘good old days’,” she told The Nation Weekend. “But the belief that the past was better than the present has been linked to biases in memory.
“Today we’re living in conflict, especially on the political front. But in reality we remain divided, and the belief that we’re united is just a fantasy. Hoisting the national flag can’t solve the political conflict and the flag can’t be used as a tool to reunite us.”