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”.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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