Thai Labour Museum reopens
- December 7, 2003
Left: Thai Labour Museum on Nikhom Makkasan Road
Right: Kader fire diorama. More on the Kader fire: Melted Bart
Below: Newspapers from past October protests
Above: One of the many dioramas showing labour conditions of the past
| Thai Labour Museum
reopening - November 10, 2003
What's at the Thai Labour Museum
The following is a press release describing the exhibits at the Thai Labour museum
Thai Labour Museum
The Dignity and Pride of Thai Labour
The one-storied building has a history which itself lends weight to the labour museum. Once a railway-police station, the building still retains the iron-barred fitted prison cell, which is now a library. After the police station was moved, the building functioned as the headquarters of the Railway Labour Union for several years. The fact that the union had acted as the spearhead of the labour movement and the struggle against dictatorship made it an obvious target to the powers that be. Every time a coup was staged, this building would be under siege. The still visible damage to a door, done by a soldiers axe, tells its own tale.
Outside, to the west of the building, which is adjacent to the street, stands an unusual statue, a veritable masterpiece by Suraphol Preechawachira and others. The artists who dedicated their work to the masses created the piece, which is entitled Dignity of Labour in the hope of raising workers self-esteem and self-respect. The first ever to be dedicated to the working class, the sculpture takes the form of male and female workers pushing forward with all their might the wheel of history, crushing an army tank along the way. The sculpture symbolises labours spirit and unity in their struggle against oppression.
Visitors first find themselves in a multi-purpose hall which houses a souvenir shop and functions as a meeting room and temporary exhibition space. On the wall facing the entrance hangs a massive traditional painting, depicting the evolution of the Thai working people from the time of serf-slave labour to the present. The current situation of the Thai workers is represented by the blaze that claimed 188 lives of the Kader Toy Factory. It was the worst tragedy in Thai labour history. This particular work of art was executed by Isra Thayathathai and friends belonging to the Seub Thai Group of Artists. Their main concern is to preserve and to make use of traditional art for the benefit of society. The painting serves ideally as both the introduction and conclusion of the essence of the museum.
An old rickshaw dominates the main hall. The vehicle was always referred to as a Rod Jek (Chinese vehicle) a sit was typically drawn by Chinese coolies. The rickshaw had long been the major means of transport for Thai people. The Chinese coolie who pulled the vehicle led a strenuous life. His thighs were swollen with prominent veins and sinews, the result of his efforts to earn enough on which to basically live. Available evidence shows that these people were often badly abused by vehicle owners.
The Thai Labour Museum is sectioned into six theme rooms as follows:
Room No. 1
Corvé Labour Formed the Basis of the Ancient Society
The first room on the left wing of the museum is devoted to illustrating the miserable life of the compulsory workers in former times. On display are old utensils and accounts of the life of serfs and slaves who were the backbone of the feudal system. They were the productive force in every area of activity, from farming, construction of temples, palaces and roads to defending the country against the enemies. The exhibition in this room depicts the transition from a subsistence economy, which is the main feature of feudalism to a commercial economy, which gave rise to paid labour force. A copy of the historic Bowring Treaty which was signed with the British in 1855, and opened the door for international trade is displayed here. Exhibits in one end of the room reveal the story of Chinese coolies who were predecessors of todays wage earners. Bound by serfdom, Thai subjects were not allowed to travel at will, leaving a demand gap for paid labour to be filled by migrant workers from China.
Room No. 2
Thai Labour and Their Role in Modernisation
Here visitors will gain an insight into the Thai workers involvement in the modernisation of the Kingdom during the reign of King Rama V. Interesting displays include an old-fashioned sugarcane-milling machine which recreates the atmosphere of this pioneering industry in the Rattanakosin era. Also on view is a timeworn rubber rolling machine that was used in the Souths first industry.
A replica representing a scene of railway construction, for which a great number of lives were sacrificed, disclosed the dark side of modernisation. The work is by Santi Thongsuk who was awarded Asian Outstanding Artist of the year 1994.
Room No. 3
United We Stand
The plight and problems of Thai labour prior to 1932 Political Reform are mirrored here. A number of documents show that at various times, workers had already attempted to unite in the form of associations. Copy of leaflets distributed by workers demanding fair treatment and a copy of a Labour Newspaper. The first paper that spoke for the working people provides first hand information about the labour movement during the period.
Room No. 4
The Bastion of Democracy
Displays in the first room on the right wing unveil the labour movement after the Political Reform in 1932 up to the coup detat by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. The Bastion of Democracy Medal in the showcase is testimony to Thai workers devotion to democracy since its infancy. The medal was presented to the workers in recognition of their role in protecting the democratic system against the Bavoradej Rebellion in 1933. This room also features a painting by a British PoW depicting the construction of the Death Railway, which took a heavy toll on inmates lives. Next to the painting is a tiny piece of paper, which bears the handwriting of Field Marshal Pibul Songksram, commanding officials to ensure fairness for female workers.
Room No. 5
From the Dark Age to the Golden Age
Photographs and accounts showing the fate of labour leaders under the rule of Field Marshal Sarit occupy an entire wall. At that time, the labour movement was regarded as a threat to economic development and ruination of investment climate. A good few of the labour leaders were either imprisoned or executed under the 17th Revolutionary Decree. Prakob Toolaklam, a former labour leader and now a museum official, is more than willing to recount his eight years and eleven months behind bars, and to tell how other labour leaders experienced similar misfortunes at the hands of the military regime.
Standing in the middle of the room is a chaff removing and rice-milling machine. A poignant example of villagers wisdom. It serves to reminds visitors of the time when the agricultural sector gradually crumbled under the force of industrialisation. Young men and women were driven off their land into the factories leaving their farming tools behind.
The working class, experienced the freedom of expression, emanating from the 14th October 1973 incident, became more vocal in their demand for rights and benefits. A collection of photographs reminds you of the major demonstrations that took place during this democratic period. Cases include the strike of Standard Garments women workers who were beaten by government officers and political gangsters; the strike by the Dusit Thani Hotel workers; the strike by Haras women workers who took over the factory, sold shares to the public and carried out the production of jeans. A pair of denims with the hammer and sickle symbol on the back pocket manufactured by Samakkee Kammakorn Factory is also on view.
Objects and literature representing the cultural uniqueness of the Thai labour movement, such as lyrics describing the hardship of the working class are exhibited in one end of the room. There are also memoirs and momentos which provide recollections of the famous union leaders Arom Pongpangan and Paisan Thawatchainan who played a key role during the blooming democratic period of 1973-1976.
Room No. 6
Thai Labour Today
The museums presentation ends with records on the recent Thai labour movement. Shown here in Room No. 6 are, among others, accounts of the rally for the Social Security Act, the rally for 90-day maternity leave, the life and work of Thanong Phoarn, a union leader who challenged the dictatorial National Peace Keeping Council and mysteriously disappeared in 1991, and the participation of the workers in the fight for democracy in May 1992. In one corner of the room stands a showcase displaying the remains from the burnt down Kader Factory where hundreds of workers died in a fire caused by the greed for profit.
In addition to the six display rooms already mentioned, there are a library and an audio-visual room.
The Prof. Nikom Chandravitoon Library is named after a former director general of the Labour Department and respected scholar. The library offers a good collection of documents, books and research works on Thai labour and is open to the public.
The Thawati Rithidej Audio-visual Room is named after an intellectual labour leader, known as the first hero in the history of Thai labour. A selection of cassette tapes on seminar topics and music, and videotapes is also available.