The roots of democracy remain firmly planted at a Thai university
Thammasat University is located on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, which is plied by cargo ships and pleasure boats. It is a distinguished school, the second-oldest university in Thailand after Chulalongkorn University, and outside the school gate is a popular shopping street. In addition to Thammasat students, you will often see foreign tourists enjoying a stroll around the campus, which blends in with the streetscape.
A statue of the university’s founder, politician and legal scholar Pridi Banomyong, who is also called the father of Thai democracy, looks out from the campus across the river. Pridi’s 80-year-old daughter, Suda, and other relatives, along with university officials and ambassadors from various countries, gathered for a floral tribute on May 11 – Pridi’s birthday – where flowers were offered at the foot of the statue.
According to Nakharin Mektrirat, the university’s vice rector, in the early years after the university was established, Chulalongkorn University accepted only 120 students a year. But Pridi announced that anyone who wished to study would be admitted to Thammasat University, and in its first year, more than 7,000 students enrolled.
Many talented local politicians and public servants who had not yet earned degrees enrolled in the open university. This was in line with the goals of Pridi, who focused his energy as a politician on the development of local autonomy.
The university also produced the first bachelor’s degree granted to a woman in Thailand. “Pridi was beloved as ‘the man who provided opportunity’,” Nakharin said.
Although he was loved by students, outside the university Pridi’s life as a politician was stormy.
He played a central role in the 1932 Siamese Revolution that ended the absolute monarchy and opened the road to democracy.
Pridi subsequently held ministerial posts in the new administration. However, he was criticised for his policy of seeking to nationalise farmland – a plan that he had been forming since his days in France. He was also suspected of being a communist.
During World War II, he came into conflict with Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who approved of the stationing of the Imperial Japanese Army. When Pridi became Prime Minister after the war, King Rama VIII (the elder brother of the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej) was found dead in bed.
Although the truth of the case remains unknown, Pridi, who was said to be republican-minded, was long suspected of being involved in the incident.
This placed Pridi in a precarious position and forced him to go into exile, never to return to Thailand. He lived in exile in China from 1949 to 1970 before living in France. Pridi died in Paris in May 1983. Although he was all but forgotten in his home country after his exile, there are several photographs of Pridi chatting with young students from Thailand at his Paris home.
“With a Buddhist way of thinking, our father accepted the fact that he would never be able to go back home again as his fate. But he strongly hoped that Thailand would become a truly democratic country, and he was always thinking of ways to realise that vision,” Suda said.
After Pridi’s exile, Thammasat University became the flash point of pro-democracy movements many times during the subsequent military regimes in Thailand. The serious clashes between the army and citizens in 1973, 1976, and 1992 all started out as public gatherings in the small central courtyard of the university, before growing into massive demonstrations. Many students were injured or killed during these clashes.
Although Pridi has been reappraised as a liberal politician after his death, Thailand is once again in the midst of political turmoil. What is “true democracy,” and where can it be found? The people of Thailand are still struggling, in search of an answer.
If you go
_ Thammasat University (Tha Prachan Campus) is nestled on the eastern side of Chao Phrya River. It’s a short walk from the Grand Palace and National Museum.