The year 2007 has seen the release of another Thai historical epic, this time focussing on the Siamese ruler, Somdet Phra Naresuan Maharaja (King Naresuan), acclaimed as the liberator of Siam from Burmese domination in the 16th century. While the life of this “warrior king” remains somewhat mysterious (see The Nation), the choice of subject matter is clearly another shot in the cinematic war that some Thais are waging against Burma. Other recent films glorifying Siam in the period of confrontation with Burma are:
- Bang Rajan (2000)
- Suriyothai (2001)
- Khun Suek (2003)
All such films raise questions about historical authenticity. It seems to me that the weaponry and armour do not reflect what was used at these times – but I might be wrong… I am happy for any sources and information on this topic.
The more interesting question is – why are films about battles between the Burmese and Thai so popular in Thailand?
During the periods described in these films, there was also much armed conflict among the different Siamese principalities and, on many occasions, Siam itself launched campaigns against Cambodia or Laos. Interestingly, a film on Thao Suranaree (or Khunying Mo), who defended the Siamese against Lao invaders, seems to be largely forgotten – I cannot find any traces of it anymore.
Today it seems that nothing stirs the national soul more than fighting against the perpetually evil Burmese. Interestingly, these films have all been made at a time when, on the political level, Thailand has come to terms with its western neighbour. Is it just on the popular level that enemy-bashing is still in full swing?
While it is understandable that martial monuments to Alaungphaya and Bayingnaung have been erected to stir patriotism among the Burmese and to distract from hardships under the regime, the motives of the Thai film producers, who are supposedly working in a pluralistic society, are far less clear to me.
In King Naresuan, Than Mui (Chatrichalerm Yukol) picks the only historical moment in which Thailand was victorious over the Burmese. This is quite bold considering that there are now more Burmese living in Thailand than ever before. Could their sentiments be turned sour by this movie?
There is much more to say – I would welcome a discussion among New Mandala readers on Thai-Burmese relations and these cinematic volleys.
Louis T. Wollweber graduated from the University of Hamburg in 2002 with an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology and Thai Studies. He currently works in London.