Wednesday, March 7, 2007

King Naresuan: Fact of Fiction?

The star of Siam's history

By Todd Crowell

HUA HIN, Thailand - Every nation needs heroes. Italy has Giuseppe Garibaldi, the United States has George Washington - and Thailand has King Naresuan. The story of King Naresuan, who defended Siam against Burma in the early 17th century, has been told many times, in books, oral histories, poems, murals and statuary, and now on film.


I would say that most of the movie is made-up. There is very little fact in it. There is a lot of evidence to dispute the historical accuracy of the movie, especially in terms of costumes, the roles of men and women, social relations, animal husbandry, lifestyle, war tactics, etc.

King Mongkut himself said that any history written about Ayutthaya during the Chakri dynasty was mostly fantasy, because the Burmese had destroyed everything. Prince Damrong tried to piece together the history, but most of what he wrote is disputable. Unfortunately, a lot of the Thai nationalist propaganda that was written in the thirties, forties, and fifties to justify the integrity of Thai nationhood and military dictatorship is considered history today, and much of that military sponsored propaganda/history is used to justify the right-wing views in the film.

There was a very large foreign community that lived in Ayutthaya during that time. There were many eye witness accounts.

And all those accounts seem to agree that King Naresuan was a brutal mass murderer who capriciously killed thousands of Thais.

He was like Stalin. If nobody would go to the front to fight, he would slaughter his own men.

Also, the notion that the king was swashbuckling around on his horse and roaming freely with the masses is a total fabrication.

If the king went out in public, everybody was warned to stay inside or turn away and get down on their hands and knees in a kow tow(a krab in Thai), just like you see on royalist propaganda TV today. But back then, it was worse, because if you didn't crawl on the floor like a dog you were either beaten or killed.

Here is a description of King Naresuan going out in the streets:

His guard marched in two ranks. He followed on an elephant and was quite naked; just a small piece of cloth that covered his genital parts...He directed the elephant with the aid of two golden crooks which he held in his hands...His brother followed him on another elephant, his hand held together above his head and bowed low...Around them walked all the trumpeters, horn players and drummers...There were four large parasols, symbols of royal rank. Everything took place in absolute silence and we met no one on the streets...The people were warned when he would leave the palace and by which roads he would proceed. At that moment not a soul was to be seen in the streets, not even a dog. You could not even hear them bark, for they would have killed the dog and its master in the cruellest fashion in the world.

If you have seen the movies, you would know that this eyewitness account has no relation to anything in the films.

By the way, elite Thais didn't start to wear clothes until the reign of King Mongkut, and only because the missionaries shamed them into doing it. The masses didn't start wearing clothes until much later. If you read accounts of foreigners visiting kings during the early Rattanakosin period, they would be greeted by kings sitting in their loin clothes (or panungs) with no shirts on and their big bellies hanging out. It is funny to see images of kings of the early Bangkok period, because most of them look handsome and svelte, but all the witnesses in their written accounts describe them as fat (except King Mongkut).

Back to King Naresuan.

There is a story of a little girl who was serving the queen. She stole a piece of gold. King Naresuan had she and her friends fried up in a huge frying pan. While they were dying, he fed them their own flesh.

Eyewitness Jacques de Courte reported:

They had one their eyes removed; then the skin from their hands was detached and their nails were torn out. After a certain time, a piece of flesh was cut from their backs and stuffed in their mouths. So that they should suffer slowly, they were roasted over a low fire, each in her own pan, until they died.

King Naresuan also used to have people locked up in cages with wild animals and watched them fight it out as a spectator sport.

Some may say that these historical accounts are fabrications. Sure, why not have doubts? But when you start to read accounts from many sources that describe this type of torture by many kings of Ayutthaya, then you see the big picture.

Thais are brainwashed to believe that Thai kings were these happy go lucky Dhammaraj Buddha type characters who loved peace, love and understanding, and that there duty was to make sure the Thai people were happy.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Thais kings, for the most part, have always been two things: Politically astute and murdering thugs--at least through the early Rattanakosin period. They always served their own interests first, because if they didn't, they would be wiped out by their political enemies.

It shouldn't be shocking that military dictatorships in the modern era took on the same characteristics as these Ayutthaya kings of yore.


Anonymous said...

Delete if you think wise:

You think that self-serving kings died out when? I was talking to my Thai wife who stated her firm belief that the current HMK has been improving the Thais standard of living for 60 years. I commented simply that he didnt seem to have done a very good job. She said he is a great scientist and has many patents. I asked her what all the university educated professional scientists in Thailand were doing when all this was happening.

The ability of the Thai to believe what they choose to believe and ignore inconvenient facts is legendary, but I would dearly love to see Fonzi's comments in whatever Thai newspaper might have the courage to be objective for just one time.

The Thai self-image is a remarkable thing. Sadly it is a pretend thing. An inability to distinguish between fact and fantasy, or real-world and legend is called psychosis.

Fonzi said...

I agree with what you say.

I'm not going to delete anything unless it is abusive, totally irrelevent or spam.

I think there are many remarkable Thais kings.

They had to be. They had no choice or they would be murdered by a different faction.

I applaud them for their political skills.

Thais kings have always had to be self-serving one way or the other or they would die.

It is the nature of the Thai political beast.

My problem with Thai history is exactly what you pointed out: Thais are more in love with the legend than the reality.

Why be ashamed of the reality?

I say bring on all the reality.

It is a lot more interesting than pretending that King Naresuan's time was part Braveheart, part Ten Commandments, and part Lord of the Rings.

anon said...

Please provide citations for the historical accounts.

Fonzi said...

Siam and the West:1500-1700

Dirk Van Der Cruysse

Pg. 26 and 31 for the quotes.

Jeremias Van Vliet for a description of King Naresuan's ruthlessness in his History of the Kings of Siam.

For contemporaries look up Mendes Pinto for his Peregrinations.

Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce

by Anthony Reid

anon said...