【by Sanam Ratsadon: An Archive of Common(er) Feelings, Dec. 2021】
Sanam translates to “the field.” According to the Royal Institute Dictionary (2013), the meaning of sanam includes: “yard, space, open space, play area, e.g., He sits on the edge of the yard. Children run in the yard. A place for playing or playing sports such as a football field, a golf course, a bullfighting field.” Its origins in common use pre-date the founding of Bangkok in 1782 [2325 B.E.].
Examples from the official dictionary include sports field, children’s playing field, airport, battlefield, but of most interest is the famous example of Sanam Luang. Lesser known use of the term cited in the Royal Institute Dictionary is an examination place for Buddhist Dharma or Pali certification. In general, sanamluang’s meaning is a large open field, but its particular place is Sanam Luang—the famous field centrally located in Bangkok near the Chaopraya River in front of the Royal Palace and Thammasat University. The space was excavated from swampy open fields during the reign of King Rama I (circa 1782); its origin is traced to Thung Pra Main, which translates to “Field of Holy Crematorium” and was used for royal cremation ceremonies. Before that space was Thung Phra Main, the lands were ploughed and crops were harvested; then the land was dried out into a flat open space used for various festivals, markets, a main meeting place. In 1855, King Rama IV issued a royal order changing the name to Thung Sanam Luang, reasoning that royal burials were so infrequent. Those who continue to use the older name publicly risked fines and penalties enforced by both royal and metropolitan police (Songsiri, 2018; Editorial Desk, 2004).
In Bangkok social-cultural history, Sanam Luang in the post-WWII period was used as a public space open for everyone to enjoy, use, own, and express. One Saturday afternoon, on August 27, 1955 at Sanam Luang, Mr. Thongyu Putpat, Thonburi Provincial Council and member of the House of Representatives delivered the first “Hyde Park” speech criticizing the Ministry of Education’s basic textbooks (Srisuwan, 2020). During that period, then Field Marshal Phibun Songkram implemented the modernization of Thailand through various western-inspired practices, monuments, and initially condoned free speech allowing the “Hyde Park-style Speakers’ Corner” held at Sanam Luang (Ockey 2002: 108-109). The Field Marshal sought to use public forums to both engage in democracy and, in Machiavellian strategy, to discredit his political rivals like Police Chief Phao Siyanon, who planned, but did not carry out a coup d’etat (primarily against his successor General Sarit Thanarat). That Saturday afternoon, tens of thousands of listeners came, leading to one of the first contemporary mass protests against the fledgling military-led government, and subsequent canceling of the Speakers’ Corner (Ockey, 2002).
From the 1970s to the 2000s, Sanam Luang was also used as a space for weekend flea markets and used book stalls, its huge expansive space was also used for kite flying, football and other sporting games, picnics, and the area that people met because a majority of public buses and transport all led to this location. But Sanam Luang also became a space imbued with a people’s melancholic history: the 1970s student, farmers, and workers-coalition protests for agendas like land reform, anti-Japanese economic imperialism, labor organizing, and democratic constitutionalism, all leading up to the mass uprising of 14 October 1973 (Kongkiriti, 2005). The field was also used for the royal cremation for those killed during the 14 October 1973 uprising, 1970s protests against the CIA and US bases in Thailand, feminist anti-beauty pageants, as well as the difficult-to-remember 6 October 1976 massacre (Thumrongtanyawong, 1974; Kasetsiri and Petchlertanan, 1998). After a long hiatus in the 1980s, Sanam Luang again became a spatial battleground between pro-democracy demonstrators and military-police state governments during the following: Black May 1992, the Assembly of the Poor in the 1990s to 2000s, 14 October 1973 commemorations for the “Day of Democracy” in 2003, initial Yellow Shirt royalist protests in 2007, and subsequently the Red Shirt protests of April-May 2010, and newer youth generation Thalufah protests (Missingham, 2002; Organizing Committee, 2003; Human Rights Watch, 2011). The last royal cremation was for King Rama IX in 2017. Sanam Luang continues to be a contested space. In 2010 Bangkok Metropolitan enclosed a high iron gate, first claiming landscaping for APEC meetings, then completely enclosing the space indefinitely. Since, the government has used the Thai Public Assembly Act (2015) requiring permission to limit its use (Chinnapong, 2021).
Both in Thai and English, sanam / field can be used figuratively, as in to change the “field of meaning.” In a Thai sense, to play with the word sanam encapsulates its historical origins and evocations of the most iconic field Sanam Luang, and examines its uses, memories and traumas: sanam, when combined with ratsadon, becomes a word that literally translates to “the common people’s field.” Ratsadon suggests plebian, ordinary commoner, and citizen. The collective Sanam Ratsadon: The Commoner’s Archive of Feelings (https://sanamratsadon.org/) began in the midst of Thailand’s political crisis in authoritarianism, Covid-19, and the netizen’s sense that dissident culture needed to be open-access, archived, and accessible in English translation. Sanam Ratsadon borrowed from Raymond William’s structure of feeling to thematically archive plebian longings to change the meaning of “mother” in August. King Rama IX reigned from 1950 to 2016, one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs. As such, his birthday became the nation’s father’s day and August 12th, the previous queen’s birthday, became mother’s day. Yet collectively, it is ordinary mothers who have struggled against dictatorship, rejecting state violence, remembering their sons and daughters who were killed. These mothers remind us that to be a mother also means to participate in protest, performance, and freedom of expression for the sake of the next generation. On the 10th of December 2021, the collective sought to change ideas about the “constitution day.” The constitution was often misrepresented to suggest that it needed to be bestowed by a monarch, or misunderstood as an entirely foreign concept to be rejected. Rather, constitutionalism is a modern articulation of democracy, safeguarded by a people’s desire to use law to ensure justice, equality, and fairness to all. In other words, the collective uses temporal sensibilities and selects key national holidays to tell alternative stories and document cultural dissent.
When our democratic histories are made to disappear, and collective memories confined to oblivion, Thailand’s digital autonomous archives deny that the neo-authoritarian fascism owns Thailand’s culture, history, and traditions… We aspire, we dream, we document and translate—we change the sanam / field(s) of meaning.
Sanam Ratsadon: An Archive of Common(er) Feelings, Thailand, https://sanamratsadon.org/
Chinnapong, Pornpan. “Fencing the Royal Ground Versus Its Vital Role as a Civic Space (in Thai).” Journal of Architectural / Planing Research and Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 2021, pp. 171-194.
Editorial Desk. “King Rama Iv Named Sanam Luang and Sanam Chai [in Thai].” Silapa Watthanatham, 2004, https://www.silpa-mag.com/history/article_6514.
Human Rights Watch. “Descent into Chaos: Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown.” Human Rights Watch, 2011.
Missingham, Bruce. “The Village of the Poor Confronts the State: A Geography of Protest in the Assembly of the Poor.” Urban Studies, vol. 39, no. 9, 2002, pp. 1647-1663.
Ockey, James. “Civil Society and Street Politics in Historical Perspective.” Reforming Thai Politics, edited by Duncan McCargo, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies 2002.
Organizing Committee for October 14 Day of Democracy / kanna kumakan jad gan 14 tulawan prachatipatai. Activities Celebrating the Anniversary of 30 Years October 14, October 14, Day of Democracy / Kitjakum Gnanchalong Kropraub 30 Pi 14 Tula, 14 Tula Wun Prachatipatai. Parliament, 2003. Parliament.
Kasetsiri, Charnvit and Thamrongsak Petchlertanan. From the 14th to the 6th of October/ Jak Sipsi Theung Hok Tula. 1st ed., Foundation for Social and Human Sciences Textbooks / Munnithi Klongkan Tamra Sangkomsat Lae Manutsat Phim thi Rongphim Mahawitthayalai Thammasat, 1998.
Kongkirati, Prajak. And Then the Movements Were Apparent: The Students’ and Peoples’ Cultural Politics before October 14 / Laelaew Kwamkleunwai Kau Prakod: Kanmeungwatthanatham Kaung Nakseuksa Lae Prachachon Kaun 14 Tula. Thammasat UP, 2005.
Royal Institute Dictionary. https://dictionary.orst.go.th. Accessed 22 January 2022.
Sombat Thumrongtanyawong. “Royal Funeral of the Heroes: Cremation Tower at Sanam Luang Royal Grounds October 13-15, 1974 / Pracha Than Phloeng Sop Wirachon Na Meru Thong Sanam Luang.” Surusapa Ladphrao Pub., 1974.
Songsiri, Walailak. “Sanam Chai – Thung Phra Main – Thung Sanam Luang.” Lek-Praipai Viriyahpant Foundation, https://lek-prapai.org/home/view.php?id=5327. Accessed 20 January 2022.
Srisuwan, Artyasit. “Once Upon a Time When Sanam Luang Still Belonged to the People [in Thai].” The Matter, https://thematter.co/thinkers/sanam-luang-in-history/124112, 2020.