Today, April 7, marks 250 years since the fall of the old capital of Ayutthaya. As a Thai, it’s a sober time of remembrance. After 417 years, the old capital was irreversibly sacked by Burmese invaders. A visit to Ayutthaya’s old ruins today harrowingly reminds Thais, myself included, of the ravages of war and sends us on a flight of imagining the glories of the old capital with its magnificent temples and palaces.
“Burma wrought awful desolation. They raped, pillaged, and plundered, and led tens of thousands of captives away to Burma,” wrote the late American historian David K. Wyatt in his authoritative book “Thailand: A Short History.” “They put the torch to everything flammable and even hacked at images of the Buddha for the gold with which they were coated…”
Thais have been taught as school children that the Burmese were our merciless enemies and the villains who invaded Ayutthaya twice, finally bringing the kingdom to a violent end on April 7, 1767. Some Thais still wonder how many kilograms of pure gold coating the 105-meter-tall Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, must have been taken from Ayutthaya and melted down.
Sobering as it may be, Thais should also ask themselves this question: 250 years on, are we still prisoners of our past?
To rise above our past, one must try to revisit the past with an open mind. This requires a refusal to cling to merely one version of it. National histories are often written to serve those in power.
Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s “The Chronicle of Our Wars with the Burmese” is a classic tome recounting 44 wars waged between Burma and Siam over a period of 314 years.
On page 353, the Prince, who lived between 1862 to 1943 and is regarded as the father of Thai history, noted in the chronicle – widely read and reprinted to this day – that the invasion which led to the second and final sacking of Ayutthaya was led by a desire on the Burmese side to “easily plunder” its riches, as Ayutthaya was weak at that time. The prince added the familiar passage about melting down the gold which surfaced many important Buddha statues and stealing of buried treasures. About 30,000 people were taken back to Burma as captives of war.
Reading Maung Htin Aung’s “A History of Burma,” you get a different perspective. The noted Burmese history professor, who lived between 1908 and 1978, argued that it was Ayutthaya’s persistent instigations to have the Mon kingdom of lower Burma and the Lanna Kingdom breakaway, that led to repeated wars to subdue Siam and the eventual fall of Ayutthaya.
As for the burning and massacre, Maung Htin Aung insisted no massacre took place, contrary to Thai chronicles. He noted however that many craftsmen, artists, poets musicians, medical doctor, weavers, goldsmiths and astrologers were taken to Burma as captives, leading to a revival of arts and literature there.
However, it’s hard for Thais who have been drilled in their heads by their teacher and read the Thai government’s approved textbooks for most of their educational years to believe otherwise. To us the Burmese must surely be the villain, period. Nationalism can blind one into believing that your people or nation are always right and virtuous, however, as it’s more difficult to swallow a past that isn’t totally sweet.
Mind you, I am not necessarily stating that the Burmese version of what transpired was definitive and correct. We ought to open our mind to contradictory accounts and information, debate and not be prisoners to just one single version of our past.
People are susceptible to wanting to be favorable to its version of history, like rooting for their national team.
A former Chulalongkorn University lecturer noted on his Facebook account how Thais make for the most annoying badminton audiences.
“The audience seems more passionate about their nation than about badminton. They’re completely partial towards home players, and unwilling to praise excellent shots by their opponents… and show no appreciation of skills and grace,” wrote Prach Panchakunathorn, who’s currently a PhD student in philosophy.
“They will shout ‘Thailand! Thailand!’ all the way through, even though it’s a professional tournament, where players primarily represent themselves rather than their nations.”
Two hundred fifty years on, a re-examination of the fall of Ayutthaya, and Thai history in a more impartial way, would perhaps help freed us from one hegemonic version of our past.