By Imtiaz Muqbil,
When the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) held its Youth Forum at Bangkok’s famed Thammasat University on April 25, 2013, it gave the historic citadel of education a unique chance to showcase itself for tourist visits. A brochure in the Youth Forum delegate kit clearly advertised the university as a must-see destination. Indeed, that is precisely what it is.
Located in the same area as the renowned Sanam Luang, the university is within walking distance of the famous Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok’s most visited tourist spots. But because it is somewhat hidden in the background on the riverbank, many tourists do not even know it exists.
However, the brochure warmly invites visitors to the campus. It says, “This historical area is a must for all visitors to have a clear picture of an era when the history of Thai politics and Thammasat University occurred simultaneously to mark one of the most critical periods in Thai history.”
According to the Thammasat website, Thailand’s second oldest university was officially inaugurated on June 27, 1934 on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The university’s founder, Prof. Dr. Pridi Banomyong, originally named it the “University of Moral and Political Sciences,” reflecting its primary mission to offer higher education in the disciplines of law and politics to the new citizenry and prepare Thai people for their new democratic system.
Hoping to make higher learning accessible to all, Thammasat began with 7,094 students enrolled in its first academic year, the website says. Since then, it has “evolved into a prestigious international research university offering all levels of academic degrees and producing cutting edge research across a broad spectrum of academic disciplines.”
Many of its more than 300,000 graduates have gone on to make great contributions to the development and progress of Thailand and the world. Notable university alumni include former Prime Ministers, leading politicians and government figures, Bank of Thailand governors, Supreme Court judges, provincial governors, as well as experts in various fields.
Says the website, “Today, Thammasat University still follows its guiding philosophy to uphold academic excellence, services to society, promotion of arts and culture, social equality and social justice under the philosophies of constitutional monarchy and democracy.”
University Rector, Professor Dr. Somkit Lertpaithoon, says in his message: “I want to see Thammasat function as a learning community, an active community of professors, academics, researchers and students who share common passions, values or beliefs and are actively engaged in learning together and from each other. The breadth and depth of a Thammasat education should be able to equip those who seek knowledge with the capacity to sustain themselves and to help develop the nation.
He adds, “Thammasat must play an important role in leading society. In order to achieve such a goal, the university has to produce graduates with both intelligence and integrity. Thammasat graduates must have the courage to stand up for what is right–not to hide from problems and conflicts. This dream will be realized only when all of the Thammasat faculty and staff are happy and feel encouraged to develop themselves to their full potential.”
The University symbol, the Dharmachakra Emblem, is composed of the wheel of Dhamma representing Buddhism and a constitution placed in the center of an ornate tray representing the solid belief in democracy.
The brochure for visitors identifies a number of must-see spots within the University. These are:
1. Bhodhi Court (Lan Pho): Where the great Bhodhi tree was planted, symbolizes the fight for democracy since the protests on Oct. 14, 1973, and Oct. 6, 1976, including the political rally against the 1981 Constitution of Kingdom of Thailand. Such events finally led to Black May in 1992.
2. Pridi Court (Lan Pridi): Established in memory of University founder Dr. Pridi Banomyong, a former leader of Free Thai Movement, who passed away on May 2, 1983 in France.
3. Dome Building: The first building of the University, designed by Mr. Mew Apaiwongse. The roof of the four old buildings was inter-connected. In the middle, a three-storey building was erected with a pointed dome at the center, which may have been inspired by a sharpened pentagonal pencil to represent the acuity of the mind through education.
4. Wang Na Wall: The former royal residence of the Vice King, or Phra Maha Uparat, in the reign of King Rama I. His residence and the Grand Palace were simultaneously constructed in 1782.
5. The General Purpose Building and the Football Ground: During the early days of the University (1938-1945), this area was used as the teaching building and dormitories for pre-university students. The football ground functioned as a political campaign platform and political rally center during the 1973 and 1976 protests.
6. The Ancient Wall – Artillery-Sanamluang Gate: The Ancient Wall, called Aged Wall by Thammasat people, is in fact, the remaining section of the wall of the Vice King’s Residence. When the main auditorium was constructed, the gate was demolished and reconstructed in 1984 to commemorate the university’s 50th anniversary. Nine artillery pieces believed to have belonged to the Vice King’s Residence were also excavated.
7. The Main Auditorium: Field Marshal P. Piboonsongkram, the first rector of Thammasat, laid the foundation stone of the auditorium on June 27, 1954. Construction was completed in 1963. It was the largest and the most modern auditorium in Southeast Asia at that time.
8. The Flame Trees (Yoong Thong Trees): In front of the main auditorium were five flame trees, which His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej planted on Feb. 9, 1963 as the symbol of the university since the university colors of yellow and red are of the same as those of the flame trees.
9. The Faculty of Law: The history of this faculty dates back to the time when the Law school, Ministry of Justice, was established in 1897. When the University of Moral and Political Sciences was inaugurated in 1934, law was classified as the main subject in the Bachelor’s Degree program.
10. The Buddha image: To mark the 50th anniversary of the University in 1984, His Majesty King Bhumibol named the University’s Buddha image Phraphutthatham Thithisatsada, which personifies “the Enlightening Buddha.” This bronze image is in the meditation posture, similar to the figure of Phra Phutta Sihing image, which the Vice King had brought from Chiang Mai.
11. Golden Lioness Shrine: The Chinese-style stone sculpture may have originally belonged to Wang Na. Many legends of supernatural power of this Lioness Deity are told. This shrine is often visited by Thammasat people to pay homage to the Deity and have their wishes granted.
12. Statue of Thai Thinker (Jing Nong): Jing Nong, a name known among Thammasat students, is a bronze statue which Professor Adul Wichiencharoen, the founder of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, asked Khien Yimsiri, a renowned sculptor, to design in 1962. This statue portrays the qualifications of an ideal student: to think critically to gain wisdom, to perform and to move forward unceasingly. Most importantly, the student has to know how to combine their being Thai with international practices.