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Thai leaders employ ancient hero to boost their cause

June 13, 2014 1:49 pm

Thai leaders employ ancient hero to boost their cause

By Michael Peel in Bangkok

Thailand famously banned the Hollywood movie The King and I for its allegedly offensive and distorted picture of the country’s monarchy. Now the new military junta in Bangkok is delivering its riposte: 35,000 free seats to see the sword-wielding biopic of an earlier royal ruler promoted as a nationalist hero for these troubled post-coup times.

Just as the gentle Oscar-winning 1956 musical starring Deborah Kerr as a British governess in the 19th-century court of King Mongkut drew criticism from inside and outside Thailand over its accuracy, so The Legend of King Naresuan Part V’s tale of triumph over the Burmese also relies on a contested version of history.

The official glorification of the film fuels the increasingly patriotic atmosphere conjured by Thailand’s rulers of three weeks, as they seek to crush dissent in the fractured country and bind people to a traditionalist vision of nation, king and religion.

“We need Thais to understand sacrifices made by monarchs in the past, the sacrifice of Thais and the unity of Thais in the past,” Col Winthai Suvaree, an army spokesman who also plays the king’s brother in the latest film, told reporters this week. “So Thais today will have love and harmony after many years of political divisions.”

The junta’s push behind the biopic of the ancient King of Siam includes a special showing for military officers on Saturday at Bangkok’s swish Siam Paragon mall, due to be attended by General Udomdet Sitabutr, right hand man to coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The links between the army and the film are already strong: King Naresuan has been played throughout the series by Wanchana Sawatdee, a cavalry officer plucked from the barracks for the role.

The movies, depicting the king as a heroic defender of the realm during his 1590 to 1605 rule, have been lavished with state funding and are already a popular hit. One teacher who has seen the latest episode described being in tears at scenes of Burmese forces killing Thais, adding half-seriously that she would never visit Myanmar as a result.

Only a minority of critics pause over the veracity of events depicted in films that even their director, MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, has admitted are a “blend of history, plausibility and imagination”. There are scant reliable written records of the period, with doubts cast over whether famous events such as a cockfight between the king and the Burmese crown prince even happened.

King Naresuan has been celebrated during previous times of crisis in Thailand, including after the 1767 Burmese sacking of the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya and then again during the 1960s battles with communists, noted a sceptical 2007 analysis of the monarch by a writer using the pseudonym “Little Elephant”. The author’s hidden identity is a wise precaution in an environment where draconian lèse-majesté laws threatening 15 years in prison have been extended so that they now cover past kings as well as the living monarch.

Critics see the films as more than mere escapism, forming part of a culture of patriotic and even jingoistic propaganda that is undermining the Thai education system and in particular its ability to teach critical thinking. The junta has already said it wants to change the curriculum to give even more weight to the values of “being Thai, national pride and upholding the institution of the monarchy. One student recalls how she learned nothing negative about the country’s past until one of her university lecturers observed that history tended to be written by the winners.

“That was the first time I learned something about the possible truth,” she recalls. “We were always told we should feel grateful to our ancestors, including the nobles, because they faced difficult times to protect the nation.”

Despite relatively high spending on education, Thailand ranked only 50th out of 65 countries surveyed in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2012 Pisa reading, maths and science test – well below its much poorer neighbour, Vietnam. Asked what the best way to reform the education ministry was, one despairing academic told the FT: “Dynamite”.

 

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KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (www.moatreport.com), a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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