BANGKOK (AP) — The head of Thailand’s military government on Tuesday warned people against making a political issue of the vandalism of a plaque marking the country’s 1932 transition to democracy that was ripped and stolen from a public plaza. It was replaced by one celebrating the monarchy.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that protests over the incident would interfere with what he described as his government’s efforts to move the country forward.
Srisuwan Janya, a veteran social activist, was detained by soldiers when he tried to submit a letter to Prayuth asking that the act of vandalism be investigated.
The incident has drawn widespread interest, not only because of the unusual instance of the vandals replacing one plaque with another, but because it resonates with contemporary Thai politics.
Prayuth heads a regime that took power after a 2014 military coup toppled a democratically elected government. His government has used sweeping powers to silence dissent, ban political gatherings and temporarily detain dissidents without trial for what it calls “attitude adjustment.”
The non-partisan Thai Lawyers for Human Rights groups deplored Srisuwan’s detention, saying such actions highlight the fact that Thailand “still lacks the rights and liberties for freedom of expression.”
Prayuth’s government has also promoted political changes, including a new constitution, that would increase the power of the bureaucracy, traditionally associated with the monarchy, at the expense of elected politicians.
The original brass plaque, about 30 centimeters (12 inches) in diameter, celebrated the 1932 coup-makers who changed Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. It is reported to have been installed in 1936.
No one has claimed responsibility for taking it, though right-wing royalists have previously threatened to destroy or remove it.
The plaque was discovered missing and replaced on Friday in Royal Plaza, at the heart of a high security area where many official buildings and military installations are located. It is unclear how the vandals could have gone unnoticed in the flat, open area during the process of prying the old plaque out and installing a new one.
Police have declined to open a case, saying there was no one with standing to make a complaint of theft because the plaque had no known owner.
“I’ve already received reports and ordered security teams and police to investigate,” Prayuth told reporters. “‘I don’t want this to be the topic for now. We have been a democracy for over 80 years now and I confirm that I am also for democracy. It is now up to the people’s hearts on how you would want the country to move forward.”
He added: “Would it be better for us to look ahead at the future? Old subjects are just history.”