Warrior king remains a very modern mystery
Four centuries after King Naresuan the Great died, scholars are still sparring over where exactly the warrior king passed away.
It's not an easy quarrel to settle. King Naresuan spent more time on the battlefield than in a palace. But as the scholars continue their dispute they are searching deeper for insights into his thinking as well as making bolder conjectures on just how far his outward-looking foreign policy stretched.
Besides the debate on where his remains lie, historians are also debating how much of his outlook was shaped in Burma, where he was held captive during his youth, and how much of his perspective he owed to the influences of the ancient capital Thai capital.
It was in Ayutthaya last week, at the commemoration of the 401st anniversary of King Naresuan's death, that Thai historians discussed a novel view about his way of thinking.
The way he led his troops into battle was, well, quite Burmese, some said.
"Unlike other Thai kings, Phra Naresuan's way of thinking was like that of the Burmese kings," Sunait Chutin-taranond, a Chulalongkorn University historian, said at the seminar "Where did King Naresuan die, in Thailand, Burma or Mon?"
Scholars pondered arcane topics like the degree of King Naresuan's fluency in Burmese and his penchant for betel nut, as they discussed his demise in 1605 somewhere en route to Ava, where he was leading his troops to attack the then Burmese capital in what turned out to be his final campaign.
Some historians raised doubts about just how fluent the king's Burmese had actually been. Others suggested he had picked up a taste for betel nut and tea in Ayutthaya, which, historian Thamrongsak Petchlert-anan was swift to point out, were popular in the Thai capital during the king's reign from 1590 to 1605.
Naresuan learned military strategy and political science during his nine years as a captive at the Burmese court at Pegu, according to "A History of Burma" by Maung Htin Aung.
According to Thai and Burmese accounts, Prince Naresuan was sent to live in Pegu in order to ensure his father Somdet Phra Maha Thammarachathirat remained loyal to Burmese King Bayinnaung.
Prince Naresuan returned to Siam when he was 16 and immediately committed his life to non-stop warfare. Nineteen years later he became king and embarked on continuous military campaigns, dying at the age of 50.
A study of King Naresuan's battles indicates that the warrior king looked at politics far beyond the Chao Phya River basin, Sunait said.
"He didn't just defend Ayutthaya: he actively attacked Burma. The king carried war into the Irrawaddy basin in order to maintain the stability of Ayutthaya," the historian said.
King Naresuan launched an attack on Ava to prevent Burma's new king from becoming stronger than the preceding one, he added.
King Naresuan may have believed that a stable Ayutthaya required a weakened Ava and launched his campaign to prevent his western rival from extending its power over the Irrawaddy and Chao Phya basins, Sunait said.
Historians agree that King Naresuan died before he arrived at the Burmese capital, but they disagree on the location.
The "father of Thai history" has King Naresuan dying in Siam, in tambon Thung Kaew, then known as Muang Hang. This is the established view set out in "The Biography of King Naresuan the Great" written in 1950 by Prince Damrongrajanubhap.
According to Prince Damrong, King Naresuan and his younger brother Somdet Phra Ekathotsarot led their troops from Ayutthaya to Muang Chiang Mai, where they collected another 200,000 soldiers. The king then divided the troops into two armies, assigning his brother to lead one to Muang Fang while he headed to Muang Hang.
But while Thai historians say King Naresuan died at Muang Hang, the Shan people beg to differ. According to their popular history, King Naresuan died at the Shan town of Mongton while on his way to help Chao Kham Kai Noi, the Prince of Hsenwi, resist the Burmese.
Naresuan is still remembered by the Shan as the Thai king who helped them win independence for the Shan State in 1600 with his ally the Prince of Hsenwi.
In the Shan version, their independence hinges on a deep friendship. The two Siamese princes and the Prince of Hsenwi forged a close bond while they were fellow hostages at the Burmese court, and King Naresuan died while rushing to the aid of a friend of his youth, they say.
The Thai chronicles are less appealing. They have the warrior king dying of a sudden illness, a toxic disease characterised by skin pustules.
According to the Shan, however, the Thai king and the Shan prince died side by side on the battlefield.
Many Shan believe King Naresuan was cremated and his ashes interred in a stupa in Mongton, in the southern part of the Shan State. Shan soldiers still revere the Thai king as a hero who helped liberate them. Many wear King Naresuan amulets to protect them in their ongoing war with the Burmese junta.
Recent Thai scholarship, however, identifies the town where King Naresuan died as Wieng Haeng in Chiang Mai.
Villagers there even claim the "Royal Ceremonial Felt Hat" believed to have been worn by the king into battle was found in Wieng Haeng and has been kept there as historical evidence.
While some scholars continue to spar about the location of the warrior king's death, others are shifting the debate onto new planes and extending their research beyond his deathbed and his countless battles.
One new story even has the king expanding his foreign policy beyond Southeast Asia. In October 1592 King Naresuan sent a mission to China, offering to send the Siamese navy to help Korea, then a tributary of China, repel the Japanese, this story says. The Chinese, however, turned down the king's offer in February 1593.
The proposal, however, demonstrated King Naresuan's comprehension of international relations and his policy of showing respect for China's dominance in Asia at the time, according to the view of some contemporary historians.