Sun, February ,4 2007

The myth of naresuan

Enjoy the film, but be wary of spin doctors



By Subhatra Bhumiprabhas
The Nation


MC Chatrichalerm Yukol has freely admitted that “The Legend of King Naresuan” – which he directed and co-wrote with historian Sunait Chutintaranond – is a blend of history, plausibility and imagination. Where he found history silent, he turned to invention.

The Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Toyota Thailand Foundation hosted an academic debate recently to try and sort out the fact from the fantasy.

No one could fault the necessity of the discussion. Teachers have been taking students to see the film and the Army brass has praised it as a boost for nationalism. The movie premiered on January 18 – Army Day.

It is, acknowledged historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, another extension of the “great man theory”, which has often emerged since Siam was threatened by colonial powers in King Chulalongkorn’s days.

In Naresuan’s case, he said, the more time passes, the more the legend grows. Ayutthaya’s ruler of just 15 years now claims a huge share of history texts because he reclaimed the kingdom’s sovereignty from the Burmese.

It was Rama V – Chulalongkorn – who initiated “The Royal Chronicle: Poems and Paintings” in 1887, which first bolstered Naresuan’s image, Charnvit said, and that image has been further burnished several times since.

King Chulalongkorn asked members of his family and aristocrats to write poems inspired by the Ayutthaya records. Imagination held sway as 376 poems were produced – some deemed masterpieces – and then artists came up with 92 large paintings based on them.


The public saw the artwork at the Royal Funeral Ground.

In 1910 Naresuan’s story was brought to life in plays written by King Rama VI, and from these, in 1931, King Rama VII ordered Phraya Anusart Jittakorn to create murals for the vihara at Wat Suwandararam in Ayutthaya.

The largest mural, above the entrance, depicts Naresuan’s famous elephant battle with Burmese Crown Prince Phra Maha-Uparacha.

In others, Prince Naresuan engages in cockfighting – a fanciful scene never known to have happened – and as the king declares Siam’s independence.

The murals have been reproduced over and over – including in school textbooks – and in 1932 gave Prince Damrong Rachanubharp the basis for his “Biography of King Naresuan the Great”.

The Father of Thai History, as he is known, wrote the book while in exile in Penang following Siam’s lurch to constitutional democracy.

“The story of King Naresuan in the book was the same as it was told in the murals,” said Charnvit.

Prince Damrong, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV), was a self-taught historian and influential intellectual.

He also wrote “Our Wars with the Burmese: Thai-Burmese Conflict 1539-1767” and “Journey through Burma in 1936: A View of the Culture, History and Institutions”.

Prince Damrong’s biography was distributed at Rama VIII’s funeral in 1950 and became the foundation of later official writings about Ayutthaya and Naresuan.

But the story of Naresuan as retold by the murals and in Prince Damrong’s biography evolved as part of the process of building the nation state, Charnvit said.

Today the story includes that of his elder sister, Princess Suphankalaya, who was taken with him to Hanthawaddy as a royal captive.

In the new film, the princess sacrifices herself to be a consort of Burma’s King Bayingnaung in exchange for Naresuan’s release.

It’s a dramatic scene, Sunait says, but the Princess appears nowhere in the Ayutthaya chronicles, nor in any of the records of Naresuan being taken into captivity.

Naresuan first appears in the Ayutthaya Chronicle that Luang Prasert Aksorn-niti wrote when he became the ruler of Phitsanulok in 1572.

Retellings of the tale – in different versions – are found in the Burmese chronicles and documents written by contemporary Western visitors to Siam.

Not all are flattering views, as seen in the boxed excerpt.


'Militant and severe'

The following is an excerpt from "A Short History of the King of Siam", written in 1638 by Dutch merchant Jeramias Van Vliet, who came to Ayutthaya 28 years after Naresuan died.


Phra Naret [Naresuan] gained that great victory when he was about 20 years old. He was held in esteem and honour by everyone. This prince was a war-loving leader and gladly followed up the victory over the Peguan, restoring the Siamese kingdom to its former freedom and reputation.

Phra Naret Rachathirat was called “Raja Api” [Fire King] by the Malays and the “Black King” by the Siamese. His reign was the most militant and severe of any that was ever known in Siam. Many stories and living eyewitnesses report that in the 20 years of his rule he killed and had killed by law more than 80,000 people, excluding those who were victims of war.

Sometimes at night and at odd hours he would go with a small parahu and row up and down the river. He also went at odd hours with a small company along the streets to hear which rumours were about and to learn whether something would be advantageous or disadvantageous to him.

He was the first to make the mandarins come creeping before the king and lie continually with their faces downward, a practice which is still in existence today.

However, he did not want this humility from strangers or foreigners. He was fond of foreigners, especially the Dutch. Whenever he held audience for foreign envoys, he did not want them to alter their national customs and follow the slavishness of the Siamese.