Much of the drama that followed Thailand’s transition from monarchy to democracy has unfolded on this quiet riverside campus. Thammasat University was established in 1934, two years after the bloodless coup that deposed the absolute monarchy. Its remit was to instruct students in law and political economy, considered to be the intellectual necessities for an educated democracy.
The university was founded by Dr Pridi Phanomyong, whose statue stands in Pridi Court at the centre of the campus. Pridi was the leader of the civilian People’s Party that successfully advocated a constitutional monarchy during the 1920s and ’30s. He went on to serve in various ministries, organised the Seri Thai movement (a Thai resistance campaign against the Japanese during WWII) and was ultimately forced into exile when the postwar government was seized by a military dictatorship in 1947.
Pridi was unable to counter the dismantling of democratic reforms, but the university he established continued his crusade. Thammasat was the hotbed of pro-democracy activism during the student uprising era of the 1970s. On 14 October 1973, an estimated 10,000 protesters convened on the parade grounds beside the university’s Memorial Building demanding the government reinstate the constitution. From the university the protest grew and moved to the Democracy Monument, where the military and police opened fire on the crowd, killing 77 and wounding 857. The massacre prompted the king to revoke his support of the military rulers and for a brief period a civilian government was reinstated. On 6 October 1976, Thammasat itself was the scene of a bloody massacre, when at least 46 students were shot dead while rallying against the return from exile of former dictator Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. Near the southern entrance to the university is the Bodhi Court, where a sign beneath the Bodhi tree explains more about the democracy movement that germinated at Thammasat.