As a young student and researcher who has witnessed political and social change, I am struck by how such changes affect memory. Here, I am specifically interested in the impact of disappearing cultural materials linked to the Thai democratic revolution of 1932. These include the People’s Party Plaque, the Constitution Protection Monument Guard, and a number of other public memory sites. Some have survived but in a modified form. For example, military camps named after revolutionary leaders have been rechristened with the names of prominent royals.
This, I think, is how autocrats manipulate the present and future. They build new memories to make us forget who we used to be.
Memory as a tool
When we hear the word “memory”, we may think that it is a reference to mental processes. That is true, in part. Memory is related to our minds, but this is just one aspect of memory studies. When you remember something, it is as if you have captured a piece of broken glass that reflects past sociocultural settings, subjective feelings, and sensory perceptions. Memory studies, in this sense, is an interdisciplinary approach that wants to inductively reconstruct the past to understand the present (and the future).
Another misunderstanding is that memory is about individual memory. This is also partly true. When individuals witness the same event or live in the same setting, their memories are shared. With the passage of time, such shared memories can become culture artefacts that survive across space and time.
My model of cultural memory
In daily life, humans practice and produce culture. We are memory carriers. After a particular event, we build memorial estates to mark the event’s significance. The estate becomes a site of memory meaning. We signify meanings and embed them socially. After we have a memorial place, it conveys, triggers, and reminds us that this place has a story. The cycle continues over time. Meanings get reinterpreted in different social contexts, but the essence of the story is preserved as cultural memory.
Memories are in our brain but things remembered can also be forgotten. It is a biological matter. When shared memories are forgotten, it is harder for individual memories to survive, however. If you do not have anything to remind you about an event, you may forget it. Thus, to retain shared memories for the long term, we need ‘sites of memory.’ These are containers for past memories and meanings - literature, archives, memorials, artwork, even souvenirs.
The sites of memory that have been removed and modified in Thailand served this purpose recalling the traumatic experiences that were required for Thai people to obtain their freedom. Such sites helped us to remember who we are and how far we have come. Now, however, the significance of the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy has been lost.
Assmann’s Cultural Memory Model
A material object can create a sense of remembrance by serving as a mnemonic trigger and, may sometimes, be forgotten passively over time. These days, however, dictators often destroy cultural objects to induce involuntary forgetting (active forgetting). This is the type we are witnessing in Thailand.
Why does the disappearance of these objects matter?
Stories can be forgotten. When we cannot recall them, we lose cultural heritage. The significance once attached to sites of memory is lost in the process. This can include symbolic representations and sociocultural narratives of the past in visual and physical forms. Although memories can still be transmitted orally, those who forget and are unable to reconstruct an event leave the next generation without sites of memory.
In memory studies, we consider how feelings, narratives, and a sense of the past is created. We also consider how present perceptions affect our understanding of the past. Shared memories have value, and not just historical value but also cultural power. Our ancestors preserved some memories for us with sites of memory. If they are lost, we might not recall how we got here. We might not know how to fight against dictatorship. Worse, we might not know who we really are. Are we good citizens that follow state orders? Are we people who devote ourselves to elite Thai tradition? Are we just pawns of the government?
A poster from Prachatai depicting the many significant sites of memory that have mysteriously disappeared implies that the state is undermining the democratic legacy of the 1932 revolution.
How powerful can memory be?
Memory is not powerful in the short-term but grows stronger over time. But with respect to the legacy of the People’s Party uprising of 1932, the cultural memories of the younger generation are fairly limited.
Some time back, I wrote an essay on why Thai people always drag royal narratives into their arguments. The phenomenon is the result of trans-generational memory. Royal narratives and culture survive and are still being practiced in society. It distorts the way we see the monarch. Our cultural heritage is associated with elite culture. We are endlessly told of our obligation to benevolent royals through literature, art, and state pronouncements. It creates a particular mindset and memory for society.
It is strong enough to constitute a new ideology. It also implants a new set of collective memories which blend with the individual memories of people everywhere.
Remember what I said about memories being like a piece of glass?
If members of the younger generation have no understanding of national identity, if they cannot remember the story of those who fought for their freedom in the past, they will look through the glass and see what the state want them to see. They will wait for someone to give them new memories, a different ideology, a different perspective.
That glass may still reflect some past events, but they will no longer be recognisable. Without object reminders, worldviews and the memories shaping awareness have been changed.
The erasing and forgetting is underway
The above scenario may seem far fetched but our collective memories of the 1932 revolution are already starting to fade away. The sites of memory, the objects embodying memory, are gone and the next generation will remain oblivious to the events they once recalled.
They will perhaps remember instead an authoritarian narrative. In the future, the memories imposed by ultra royalists and totalitarians may cause the next generation of people to perceive the Siamese Revolution, the fight for democracy, in a totally different light.
They may no longer be able to remember that Thailand used to be more democratic and progressive.Democratic champions will be represented as antagonists. Or perhaps their fights will not be told at all. We can only study what remains. If nothing remains, we are screwed. The lack of memories will direct our future. This is why absolutists destroy the past - to pivot our future.
Memories can be forgotten. However, the state’s approach is not a natural process of forgetting; it is active and coerces forgetting to erase the culture of democracy. People in the past did not fight for democracy to be forgotten by authoritarianism, did they?
Bandhukavi Palakawongsa na Ayudhya or “Keng” is currently in the International Programme at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. He is interested in understanding human complexities, social controversies and paradoxes, using the tools of applied and new-emerging branches of humanities like cultural studies, sociocultural studies, memory studies, and health humanities.