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King Naresuan's Victory in Elephant Duel: A Tale of Two Monuments.

On 25 January 1959 (2502 Buddhist Era), the military dictatorship ruling Thailand held the opening ceremony for a monument and a large community complex in the province of Suphanburi, commemorating the late-sixteenth-century Siamese king Naresuan the Great's victory in an elephant duel over the Burmese crown prince (uparaja) of the Toungoo dynasty. The young king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, led the proceedings. The monument depicts King Naresuan mounted on his war elephant, both of them represented at about twice their normal size and mounted on a massive pedestal. The entire memorial complex included a new Buddhist stupa built over the ruins of what is claimed to be the original stupa that King Naresuan ordered built as a monument to commemorate his victory; a new wat (Buddhist temple and monastery); and a primary and secondary school. Also, because of the isolated location of this site, new roads were built to connect the complex to the nearby city of Suphanburi and to Bangkok, with another road heading south to Kanchanaburi and Nakhon Pathom provinces. These roads would provide the means for Thai citizens to make day trips to visit the King Naresuan Elephant Duel Monument to pay their respects and to worship.

The restoration of the stupa and the building of the monument brought to fruition the dream conceived in 1914 by the former Thai minister of interior and half-brother of King Chulalorngkorn (Rama V r. 1868-1910), Prince Damrong Rajanubhap (1862-1943), known as the 'father of Thai historical studies'. It was in 1914 that Prince Damrong accompanied King Vajiravudh (Rama VI r. 1910-25) to the ruins of a stupa (1) that he identified as the original stupa that King Naresuan had ordered to be built to commemorate his victory (Damrong 2012, pp. 138-46; Damrong 2008, p. 128). The visit was for a royal consecration ceremony, which involved offerings to local spirits and gods (devata) (Damrong [1950] 2012, pp. 150-54). The delay of forty-five years in completing the project was due at first to a lack of financing because of the poor state of Thailand's treasury, followed by political factors as the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932, which resulted in the monarchy being both diminished in power and favour. Behind these financial and political obstacles was a further obstacle--doubts over the authenticity of the stupa that Prince Damrong had identified and King Rama VI had consecrated. Several years after the construction of the monument in Suphanburi, a challenge arose from claims that the real commemorative stupa was located in Kanchanaburi province, some eighty-five kilometres southwest. A prolonged and bitter debate arose between claimants for Suphanburi (2) and claimants for Kanchanaburi (3) over the authenticity of the two stupas and the location of the elephant duel. In the end this led to the building of a second monument in Kanchanaburi in 1999.


The article has three main objectives: (1) to present to the international academic community the story of the controversy over the authenticity of the two stupas and the building of two modern monuments, noting the political-religious factors used in legitimizing the stupas and the building of the two monuments; (2) to demonstrate a correlation between periods of open and closed debate on the subject in relation to the type of government ruling Thailand--whether absolute monarchy, military dictatorship or democratically elected; (3) to examine how the style of both the modern monuments reflects the political ideology of the Thai ruling class and the sentiments of Thai society.

Sources and Methods

I consider three different types of documentation on this controversy: (1) indigenous chronicles and early European reports; (2) primary source debate texts: arguments based directly on textual analysis and fieldwork--archaeology, geography, geology etc.--all of which are generally from before the 1990s; (3) secondary source debate literature: arguments which use the above two sources to compile data in order to report and comment on the controversy. This documentation generally dates to after the building of the King Naresuan monument in Kanchanaburi in 1999. Additionally, the information panels at the monument sites are included here. I relied primarily on these secondary sources, although I was able to find several primary works. These primary and secondary sources are all in the Thai language, and I found no international publications covering this topic; however, there are several information panels at both the Suphanburi and Kanchanaburi monuments recounting the dispute. In regards to political events in Thailand, I relied mostly on international publications. Studies on monuments and memorials are all from international publications.

Objective one is carried out mainly through a simple narrative with comparative methods used for organizing the argumentation in the primary and secondary literature. It is not the intent of the article to determine the authentic stupa, the true site or to argue for or against one of the sides; nevertheless, some commentary on the controversy is necessary. Carrying out objective two consisted of comparing publication and presentation dates of anti-Suphanburi arguments--arguments contrary to the military, state bureaucracy and network monarchy status quo--against the political situation in Thailand at the time. Finally, for objective three I relied primarily on the framework and commentary on monuments laid out in Reinhart Koselleck's book chapter "War Memorials: Identity Formations of the Survivors" (2002).

The major limitation of this article concerns sacrificing detail to conform to length. I have through necessity condensed the account of this controversy, particularly the details of the various arguments. I have also condensed the modern political history of Thailand, though to a lesser extent. Despite this, I am confident that the article contains pertinent and sufficient information selected without bias to accomplish its objectives. In fact, presenting more detail would only strengthen the conclusions of the article.

Historical Background

After the fall of the Siamese city of Phitsanulok in 1564 to the Burmese Empire, the young Prince Naresuan was taken to the Burmese capital of Pegu and raised with the extended royal family of King Bayinnaung. In 1569 Bayinnaung took the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya, thus bringing all of Siam under the rule of Pegu. By 1571, Naresuan, at about sixteen years old, had been sent back to Ayutthaya, where his father was now king. Back in Ayutthaya, Naresuan became crown prince of Siam, though still under Pegu rule. Soon after the death of King Bayinnaung, Naresuan, though still only the crown prince, rebelled against Pegu, declared Siam's independence, and embarked on a campaign to liberate Siam from Burmese control. Naresuan, as crown prince and then as king from 1590, succeeded in liberating Siam and restoring its tributaries by conducting a series of both defensive and offensive military campaigns for a period of just over twenty years, ending only with his death in 1605. The exemplary military career of King Naresuan is celebrated in Thai history, but the event celebrated as the sum of his career, and as the greatest military exploit of any Thai king, is Naresuan's victory in an elephant duel over the Burmese crown prince at the battle of Nong Sarai on 18 January 1593 (see Baker and Pasuk 2017, pp. 111-16; Damrong 2001, pp. 128-35 and [1950] 2012, pp. 81-87; Wyatt 2006, pp. 81-195; King Naresuan's life story, or just the elephant duel, is retold in nearly all the Thai references listed in the bibliography). In Thai sources, the year of the battle is consistently listed as 2135 Buddhist Era or 1592 CE, the one-year difference resulting from miscalculations in converting from the Thai lunar calendar to the international solar calendar.

The Tale of a Victory Monument Stupa

Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Siam (4) put itself on a path of modernization and Westernization (Koompong 2013, pp. 29, 32). A major project was to make the Kingdom of Siam into a centralized modern nation. Prince Damrong figured prominently in the creation of both the ideology and history of this Siamese nation. He had a keen interest in Thai history and in King Naresuan in particular, which led him to write a book-length biography on him (see Damrong [1950] 2012). The biography was published in 1950 after Damrong's death, and in that version the appendix contains Prince Damrong's account of his search for the elephant-duel commemorative stupa supposedly commissioned by King Naresuan. It seems that 300 years after the battle, and after the destruction of Siamese documents in the 1767 Burmese sack of Ayutthaya, no one had specific knowledge of where the elephant duel took place or, importantly, that a monument in the form of a stupa had been built. Prince Damrong, relying on Thai chronicles reconstructed after Siam repelled the Burmese and founded a new dynasty in the late eighteenth century, was sure an elephant-duel stupa existed. He wrote in the biography appendix that King Naresuan was inspired to build the stupa by the story of the second-century BCE Sri Lankan Buddhist King Dutthagamani and his victory over the Tamil Hindu king whom he killed in an elephant duel. Dutthagamani had a massive stupa built to hold the corpse of the defeated king and to commemorate his victory.

The most obvious place to start a search for the stupa based on chronicles and tradition would have been in the province of Kanchanaburi, and so Prince Damrong instructed the governor (phraya) of Kanchanaburi to make a personal inspection of the likely area. The governor reported to have turned up nothing. Somewhat later, Prince Damrong sent out the governor of Suphanburi province, which neighbours Kanchanaburi to the north. The ruins of a stupa were found in 1913 in the vicinity of the city of Suphanburi to the west of Ayutthaya. Prince Damrong concluded that this was indeed the original elephant-duel stupa of King Naresuan. In 1914, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) visited the site and Thai Buddhist rituals were performed, including Damrong reciting a mantra-poem in which he recalled the deeds of Naresuan in the elephant battle and called on the devas and spirits to bear witness. The fact that King Rama VI made a royal tour specifically to consecrate the stupa, and that religious rites were performed, legitimized and sanctified the stupa as the authentic elephant-duel stupa. At the time, it was decided that a new large stupa would be built over the existing ruins along with a monument of King Naresuan on his elephant. However, funds could not be raised at that time because of the poor financial state of Siam, and so this grand plan had to wait.

These events took place during the period of absolute monarchy, and although rumblings of revolution were in the air, the monarchy was still in firm control, and so history remained under the control of the palace and state bureaucracies. This situation changed in 1932 when civil and military elites overthrew the monarchy and instituted a constitutional monarchy. However, this system of government was short-lived because Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (hereafter Phibun) staged a coup d'etat, after which he ruled as prime minister in essentially a military dictatorship during two periods: 1938-44 and 1948-57. Building a Thai national identity was a priority under Phibun, but he also promoted himself as the strong leader the Thai nation needed (Reynolds 1991, pp. 111-12) in a regime that was militarist and anti-monarchy (Dubus and Revise 2002, p. 11). Phibun limited the role of the king and the place of royalism. Perhaps the most striking move was to ban the young King Bhumibol Adulyadej from touring outside the capital (Baker and Pasuk 2005, p. 147). In an earlier era, Phibun would have simply made himself king and established a new dynasty (Thak 2007, p. x)--barred from making himself king, "constitutionalism was soon replaced by militarism and a cult of personality in Phibun's period" (Chai-Anan 1991, p. 74). Directly linked to this was the notion of military valour and warrior heroism, best expressed in the figure of King Naresuan and the later King Taksin (Reynolds 1991, pp. 26-27).

Although the planned reconstructed stupa and monument to King Naresuan remained on the shelf during this period, monument building did go on. However, after the 1932 revolution and in the two periods of the Phibun dictatorship, the style of monuments copied the heroic realism of the period (Reynolds 1991, p. 10). This included the monument commissioned by King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) to commemorate King Putthayodfa (Rama I) and the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Chakri dynasty, where the Rama I statue is in the heroic realism style (Koompong 2013, p. 141). The monuments built during the Phibun periods have fascist overtones, as Phibun admired and styled himself after European fascism (Dubus and Revise 2002, p. 17; Koompong 2013, pp. 175, 178, 195; Keyes 2015, p. 3).

I found no challenge to the authenticity of the stupa in Suphanburi during this time. Notably though, the Fine Arts Department in 1935 registered the Suphanburi stupa as a national antiquity, stating that the stupa is the "elephant duel chedi, of Ayutthaya era, at the place of King Naresuan's elephant duel" (Worawut 2010, p. 28).

Politics and the Tale of Two Stupas and Two Monuments

Continually struggling to maintain power, Phibun sought ways to legitimize himself. One classic way is through religion, in this case Theravada Buddhism and the sangha, (5) and thus the "[Phibun] government became a public patron of Buddhism" (Baker and Pasuk 2005, p. 147). But this was not effective because Buddhist citizens do not appear to support a politician's--or in this case a military dictator's--appeals to their Buddhism on account of the belief that these leaders lack the merit (bun) accumulated through many past lives that a Buddhist king does. A Buddhist king is a Cakravatin (a righteous universal ruler) who becomes devaraja (god-king) (Baker and Pasuk 2017, pp. 101-11; Strathern 2019, pp. 49-77)--how can a civilian leader or military dictator gain legitimacy over the divine nature of the king (Thak 2007, p. xii)? As a military dictator who lacked sufficient karmic merit in the first place and who actively suppressed the monarchy (who are precisely the persons possessing karmic merit in the Thai Buddhist cultural context), Phibun's efforts to woo the sangha and impress his Buddhist citizens were doomed from the start.

In 1950 the Thai army revived plans to build a new stupa over the existing ruins of the old stupa and a monument to King Naresuan, with the significant addition of creating an entire village community (DSCHQ 2003, p. 94). In 1952 the government of Phibun Songkram approved the project (Yawdmanu 2010, pp. 159-60). The willingness to allow the King Naresuan complex to be built. I suggest, signalled that Phibun realized the need for some form of royal legitimization. However, unwilling to cede any power to the contemporary living king, he sought that legitimization from a long dead one.

In 1957, Phibun was overthrown in a coup d'etat carried out by his army chief, General Sarit Thanarat (or Dhanarajata). Sarit fully recognized the lack of legitimacy in the military governments and commenced a revival of the royalist nationalism of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI)--Nation, Religion, and King--and removed politics from civil society and placed it in the government bureaucracies (Chai-Anan 1991, p. 74; Dubus and Revise 2002, p. 100; Thak 2007, pp. ix, xvi). Now Sarit and his clique began to make statements such as "King and Nation are one and indivisible", "Army of the King", and "government headed by the King" (Baker and Pasuk 2005, p. 175). The military positioned itself as the nation because it protects the nation, it protects the monarchy, and as for Sarit and company, "the Thai armed forces have always seen the nation in terms of preservation of the throne" (Thak 2007, p. xvi). Sarit realized and was willing to accept that the key to legitimization of military rule lay in taking the traditional role of warrior-soldier in subordination to the king. It is noteworthy that John Keegan holds this role of servant and defender of the king, shown in the quotes above, as natural for military men: "Soldiers who have gone to the battlefield as the sovereign's surrogates and risked their lives in the name of the king instinctively recoil from the demand that they shed blood in the name of 'the people', a figment which can never be brought to represent the hero in any form" (2004, p. 314). Thus, if the military man cannot become king himself, then naturally the soldier subordinates himself to the legitimate king. And it is then the king, and Thai Buddhism through the king, that legitimates the military dictator as prime minister. Thus, after Sarit took power, the monumental project to King Naresuan was not only meant to honour King Naresuan but was also a centrepiece for rehabilitating the Thai monarchy.

Now, with this revived ideology, the grand plan for creating a whole community moved forward. The new hollow stupa covering the ruins of the original stupa would allow visitors to see the original stupa, and around the walls of the new stupa's interior would be a mini-museum with information, dioramas and other such exhibitions. The monument to King Naresuan seated on the neck of his elephant (the nobleman's combat position), at roughly 1.5 times life-size, weapon in hand at the ready, would stand in front of the stupa. In addition, a temple-monastery complex and an elementary and high school were built, along with two new roads to facilitate travel to the site. As mentioned above, the monument and stupa were meant to be a tourist pilgrimage site that could be completed as an easy day trip from Bangkok. During the construction, military and government officials performed several important Buddhist-animist religious ceremonies--once in 1952, in April and September 1955, and at the laying of the headstone ceremony in 1956 (Worawut 2010, p. 21). Each of these ceremonies further served to legitimize the site, augmenting the first consecration by King Rama VI and Prince Damrong. King Bhumibol led the opening ceremony on 25 January 1959, again leading Buddhist-animist rituals (DSCHQ 2003, p. 94; Kraiphop 2011, p. 115).

The Suphanburi site stands, as all monuments do, as a material representation of the political (and religious) agenda of those who built it. The state-sponsored religious ceremonies, the royal consecration and the opening ceremony enhanced the significance of the monument site in the public mind (Flemming 2017, pp. 1043-44) and directly aided in rehabilitating the monarchy. In 1959, the year the Suphanburi King Naresuan complex was opened, "the king's role as ceremonial head of the armed forces intensified as troops now had to partake in an annual ceremony in which they drank holy water in front of the king or his image" and the king gained more real-world powers. He was given control over an infantry regiment and an infantry division (Chambers 2013, p. 164). In addition, military officers would now receive their swords and commissions from the king (Thak 2007, p. xviii). Note that we see manifestations of Keegan's statement that soldiers naturally find meaning in following a king or sovereign rather than following or protecting the people, which Thak confirms in the Thai case, stating that this submission to a king and deference to authoritarian rule is traditional and indigenous, with democracy being an alien principle (2007, p. 5).

After Sarit's death in 1963 he was replaced by new military dictators, and full state support of Suphanburi continued. I found no reported challenges to the authenticity of either the site or stupa during this entire time. Then, in the late 1960s, Village Headman (kamnan) Chup Buyachoawonsa, who was a boy scout (luk suea, literally "tiger cub") during the time when Prince Damrong ordered the governor of Kanchanaburi to search for the stupa, claimed that the governor never conducted a search because it would be physically tiresome to do so, and, thus, the governor's negative report to Prince Damrong was fabricated (Yawdmanu 2010, p. 165).

The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a period of problems with political and personal identity crises, especially among the young (Chai-Anan 1991, pp. 74-75). Thailand experienced a tripling in the number of universities and an eightfold increase in the number of university students in the decade between 1961 and 1972 (Dubus and Revise 2002, pp. 108, 176-77). The military government, facing increased criticism, presented a new constitution in 1968. However, this constitution would be revoked by the same military government that instituted it (Baker and Pasuk 2005, p. 186). By 1973, protests against the government were reaching a breaking point, and indeed in October 1973, after several bloody clashes, the military government was overthrown, inaugurating a three-year period of democratic rule from October 1973 to October 1976. As if on cue, real sustained criticism of the Suphanburi stupa and site began in 1972 when a group of people of differing careers--publishers, writers, researchers, and locals of Kanchanaburi province--organized and presented evidence arguing that Kanchanaburi is the site of the elephant duel and original stupa (Yawdmanu 2010, p. 163; Sujen 2015, p. 149; DSCHQ 2003, p. 96). This continued into early 1973 and then through to 1976. Village Headman Chup (see above) also invited members of the royal court, researchers, Buddhist monks and others to examine the evidence he had been collecting since 1964 (Yawdmanu 2010, p. 165). In 1973, Piset Jiajantrapong wrote an article, "Documents to Consider", in which he argued that no commemorative or funeral stupa had been built (Sujen 2015, p. 151). This argument was unique, as all others take the story of the commemorative stupa as fact, and many on both sides reacted negatively to this no-stupa thesis.

In 1973, the Fine Arts Department, responding to requests, established a committee of experts in all related fields from archaeology to geography in order to thoroughly examine the evidence. The department issued a declaration in 1975 that the elephant duel took place in Suphanburi and that the stupa found there is the elephant-duel commemorative stupa commissioned by King Naresuan. Further, the stupa found in Kanchanaburi was part of a Buddhist temple complex dating from the late Ayutthaya period, around a hundred years or more after King Naresuan (Yawdmanu 2010, pp. 161-63; Sujen 2015, p. 149; DSCHQ 2003, p. 96). Continuing into 1976, the debate appeared in newspapers and journals and aired on radio and television shows.

Details of this debate are extensive, but, briefly, both main factions--Suphanburi and Kanchanaburi--argue over the same main points: interpretation of chronicles and foreign reports; the stylistic era of the stupas; army marching distances; human and animal (elephants and horses) remains and military equipment found at the sites indicating a battle took place; local history of the site; the infallibility or unspoken fallibility of Prince Damrong; renaming of districts; and, notably, the presence of soldier and animal ghosts. The pro-Kanchanaburi faction appears to present stronger evidence, such as the ruined Suphanburi stupa appearing to be from the Dvaravati civilization era (a good seven hundred years before Naresuan), better marching distance calculations, and abundant physical remains of a battle.

A notable pro-Suphanburi book written by royalists included among the authors someone who actually attended the consecration ceremony in 1914, as a boy scout, along with King Rama VI and Prince Damrong. The opening pages of the book include glowing praise of King Rama VI and Damrong. It is hardly surprising that the report fully supports the Suphanburi site. The authors declare in a classic appeal to authority that Damrong is the "father of Thai history" and that King Rama VI validated the site, so it must be correct (Worawut 2010, p. 49). The authors go as far as to say that doubting the authenticity of the Suphanburi stupa is dishonourable and tantamount to lese-majeste, a crime punishable in Thailand by a fine and imprisonment (Worawut 2010, p. 49).

The no-stupa hypothesis appears to have been generally passed over, but it is a compelling argument. I found an updated version of Piset's original 1973 article published in Art & Culture (Sinlapawatanatham) in 1982, which details the argument (1982, pp. 14-19). In the 1982 article, Piset refers to the heated debates during the mid-1970s and lays out his reasoning: (1) Among Thais there was a common memory of the elephant duel, but no one seemed to know of this stupa; for example, the governors of provinces had no idea that such a stupa existed, let alone that it might be located in one of their provinces, until Damrong informed them; (2) Building a standalone stupa as a commemoration had not been found in Thai culture or history. Either an entirely new temple complex or a new stupa within an existing temple is built, and a stupa is constructed for the purpose of gaining merit rather than for commemoration; (3) No Thai chronicle written before the second fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 mentions building a stupa. The destruction of documents during the 1767 sack of Ayutthaya was extensive; thus, after the founding of the Chakri dynasty and of Bangkok in 1782, all documents ranging from chronicles to literature had to be reconstructed. Piset points out the importance of the Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicles at the time, especially the Mahavamsa, and that reconstructed Ayutthaya chronicles clearly show both the copying of style and content from Sri Lankan texts. Most importantly for the stupa case is that the Mahavamsa contains the celebrated story of the righteous Buddhist King Dutthagamani that Prince Damrong mentions in his story of finding the stupa. Thus for Piset, the story of King Naresuan building a stupa is a fiction based on the story of King Dutthagamani.

During this period, the role of the monarchy (or network monarchy) appears neutral throughout. I know of no pronouncements or opinions from the palace supporting one side or the other. However, in 1972, Princess Sirindhorn and Princess Chulabhorn visited the Kanchanaburi site and stupa (Worawut 2010, p. 47). Later, in December 1973, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, along with the above two princesses, also visited the site (Worawut 2010, pp. 49-50). This lends legitimacy to the Kanchanaburi site without explicitly supporting it or denying the legitimacy of Suphanburi.

In October 1976 the military again seized power in a bloody coup, instituting another period of suppression of free speech (Dubus and Revise 2002, p. 110) and thus a cessation of the debate over the authentic site and stupa. This military government would itself be replaced by a coup d'etat staged by progressive military leaders led by General Prem Tinsulanond, who became prime minister in March 1980 and held power until 1988. Thais experienced a soft dictatorship or semi-democratic period known as "Premocracy" under which civil debate was permitted and new forms of loyalty outside the state began to emerge in civil society (Chai-Anan 1991, p. 75). The parliamentary system functioned to a large degree, and the military's attempts to monopolize power were substantially checked (Dubus and Revise 2002, p. 187). That the atmosphere in Thailand had shifted towards more openness and inclusiveness at this time is reflected in the fact that in 1984 the Thai military declared the war against communist insurgents over (Chai-Anan, Kusuma and Suchit 1990, p. 12).

During this period, as noted above, in 1982 the popular journal Art & Culture helped to reopen the stupa controversy by reprinting Piset Jiajandrapong's updated article (titled "Elephant Duel Stupa, Really True?" pp. 14-19) and several new articles all pointing out flaws in the Suphanburi position and another rejecting the claim that a stupa was built by King Naresuan (1982, pp. 6-19). Srisak Walliphokom, writing in the same Art & Culture issue (1982, pp. 12-13), addresses Prince Damrong's claim about another ancient stupa in "Elephant Stupa: Lord Father Ram Khamhaeng at Thak". King Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai is said to have won an elephant duel in the thirteenth century. In the area near Sukhothai stands an ancient stupa that Prince Damrong claimed was the memorial stupa to King Ram Khamhaeng's elephant duel. Srisak points out that there is no mention anywhere of such a stupa being built and that there is absolutely no evidence this stupa is linked in any way to King Ram Khamhaeng, let alone that it has anything to do with his elephant duel. Srisak calls the story a myth, but qualifies that statement by saying that all people have myths and thus Damrong creating a myth is really not so egregious. In Piset's 1982 reprinted version of his 1973 article, he also mentions Ram Khamhaeng and Damrong's declaration of the ancient stupa as a victory monument to Ram Khamhaeng's elephant duel. As with Srisak, Piset finds this claim baseless (Piset 1982, p. 19).

A book celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of King Naresuan declaring Thai independence from the Burmese Toungoo Empire came out in 1984. In it, the authors cover the stupa controversy, but they follow the Suphanburi line (Somchai 1984, pp. 426-49). This book falls into the growing genre of the time covering "popular history with a patriotic or monarchist agenda" (Kershaw 2001, p. 140).

The year 1986 saw Kanchanaburi locals of all stripes militating for the authenticity of their stupa. This was followed two years later by the Fine Arts Department publishing a book, "Archaeology in Thailand", in which it is argued that while there is little to no evidence of a battle having taken place at the site of the Suphanburi stupa, the Kanchanaburi stupa is of the Dvaravati cultural era. It may be remembered by the reader that in 1975 the same Fine Arts Department concluded that the Kanchanaburi stupa was late Ayutthaya--a change of era resulting in eight hundred or more years in difference.

Yet another military coup d'etat was staged on 23 February 1991--with the resulting violent crisis lasting through May 1992--and ending with democratic governance returning in September of 1992. This coup left the military's reputation in tatters. Through the mid-1990s the military not only lost support among all levels of society but it also lost real seats in government and thus real power (Baker and Pasuk 2005, pp. 245-46). The late 1990s saw a much more liberal Thai society, and the new 1997 constitution is popularly called the 'people's constitution'. Democracy seemed to have firmly established itself, and the stupa controversy went into full swing.

In 1994, Tepmonthri Limpapayom put forward one more theory as to the real stupa and its location. He claimed that the huge stupa at Wat Pukao Tong near Ayutthaya is the stupa (Worawut 2010, p. 105; Sujen 2015, pp. 149-51). Though still pushed by a few writers, this claim is widely dismissed. A single remark written by a German doctor about eighty years after the original events forms the basis for the argument. This claim is not central to this article and I will not discuss it further. I will note though that it does appear in a period of open debate under a democratic government.

During the 1990s it appears that the pro-Kanchanaburi faction was less about trying to prove Kanchanaburi was the site of the elephant duel and stupa and more about campaigning for a King Naresuan monument to be built there as well. True to Thai cultural norms, a compromise was worked out. The year 1999 marked the four hundredth anniversary of King Naresuan launching a major military campaign to attack Burma and its capital city. Naresuan marched his army to Burma by way of the Three Pagoda Pass, which necessitated passing through Kanchanaburi. The decision was made to build a monument to King Naresuan to mark this event, and thus to not directly confront the claims of Prince Damrong. The new monument site was opened in February 2003, a few years after the four hundredth anniversary, with Crown Prince Maha-Vajiralongkorn (now the king of Thailand) as master of ceremonies (Sujen 2015, p. 152, Worawut 2010, p. 69). Certainly of no coincidence, the site chosen for the monument is about a hundred metres from where the small stupa claimed to mark King Naresuan's victory in the elephant duel stands. The monument depicts King Naresuan seated in the howdah in direct imitation of one of the mural paintings of King Naresuan's career in Wat Suwan Dararam, Ayutthaya (Sujen 2015, p. 152). The Kanchanaburi site also lacks the construction of a community; no temple complex or school was built. Because the monument was opened forty-four years after the Suphanburi monument and lies only twenty kilometres from the city of Kanchanaburi, good roads already ran nearby, though it remains a rural site. Despite the fact that the monument and site commemorate King Naresuan marching through the area, a small museum containing military equipment, paintings, and artefacts such as bones found at the site demonstrate that the area had been a battlefield. The museum includes information panels addressing the stupa controversy and telling the story of the elephant duel. Signs pointing out the direction along the various routes to the monument typically read in English "Don Chedi Monument", but a true translation of the Thai would read "Elephant-Duel Don Chedi" (yuddha-hatthi don chedi). Some official signs do say "Monument to His Majesty King Naresuan the Great" (phra boromarup somdet phra Naresuan maharat); however, there is no subtlety in most road signs or at the monument itself in expressing the contention of large elements in Thai society at large and of Kanchanaburi locals that this site is definitively the true site of the elephant duel.

A final note on Kanchanaburi addresses the adamant claims of locals that this is the true elephant-duel site. In researching another mostly unrelated project, I came across information pertinent to this article. Richard Ruth"s book In the Buddha's Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, published in 2012, recounts the training that began in 1967 of Thai soldiers who would later be deployed to Vietnam; that training took place in Kanchanaburi province. Ruth briefly recounts King Naresuan's victory in the battle and in the elephant duel stating that it took place in Kanchanaburi. Ruth then writes that "[t]he Thai soldiers preparing to fight in South Vietnam relished their proximity to the site of Naresuan's victory" (2012, p. 43). He also recounts soldiers worshipping at a Buddhist ordination hall that Naresuan was supposed to have visited when he was fighting in the area, and they dreamed of Naresuan while training in Kanchanaburi and in combat in South Vietnam (Ruth 2012, p. 43).

Politics and the Meaning of Two Monuments

The two King Naresuan monuments are massive bronze statues mounted on massive stone pedestals. While there was controversy over the true site of the elephant duel and authentic stupa, there was never an argument as to how to represent King Naresuan or Thai kings in general. The proponents of Kanchanaburi never argued for a change of style or of symbolic meaning; they argued only for primacy of the site. Both monuments represent a celebration or triumph--not a remembrance, reconciliation or healing (Gough 2008, p. 3). The two monuments each have the same meaning.

Following Koselleck--in his book chapter "War Memorials"--monuments such as Phibun's Democracy Monument (1939), the Constitutional Defence Monument (1936) and the Victory Monument (1941; see above) fit fairly neatly into the second category of the threefold periodization of monuments originally laid by Koselleck, that Kattago summarizes as: (1) pre--World War I monuments to heroic leaders; (2) post--World War 1 but pre--World War II memorials that commemorate ordinary soldiers who died in the war and which demonstrate the democratization of the modern state; (3) post--World War II memorials that are negative, seeing the cause of the war as lacking in justification for all the deaths (2009, pp. 149-50). These Phibun-era monuments celebrate the 1932 revolution, the 1933 suppression of the royalist rebellion, and the military 'victory' over Vichy France in Cambodia. They do commemorate all soldiers and the people (and Phibun), though acting as memorials to fallen soldiers only secondarily. Neither of the two King Naresuan monuments (1959 and 2003) fit the post--World War II type that emerged in the West and which act as negative or counter-monuments reflecting feelings of overwhelming loss without a higher supporting cause. The two monuments of King Naresuan mounted on his war elephant in fact reflect the pre--World War I monuments that commemorate heroes who died for the nation and to commemorate triumphant victory. Given that King Naresuan did not die in battle, the monuments commemorate his heroic personal victory for the nation-kingdom. The monuments are not to King Naresuan as a symbol of the Kingdom of Siam but rather to King Naresuan himself, and by extension other individual Thai monarchs past and present. The monuments are a "manifest demonstration of the right of a ruler--past or present--to authority" and a self-aggrandizement for military and political leaders (Niven 2008, p. 39). Thus, the significance of the consecration of the first King Naresuan monument and stupa in 1959 cannot be underestimated as a material statement of returning Thailand to a system of government where monarchy wields real power and the military (and military rule) is fully legitimated by it. The Suphanburi site--with its school, stupa, temple and kingly monument--fully revives the pre-1932-revolution ideological trinity of nation, religion and monarchy. In fact, despite the size of the stupa, the monument to King Naresuan dominates the site and "serves to underpin the authority of the victorious leaders or nations" (Niven 2008, p. 39). Monuments and memorials "establish an intuitive pattern of political education" (Koselleck 2002, p. 301), so true for the Suphanburi site with its monument to King Naresuan and his war elephant, new stupa-cum-walk-in-museum, primary and secondary school and Buddhist temple, and equally true for the Kanchanaburi monument. Post--World War I memorials function to create a religion civile and help to establish democratic legitimacy, as seen in part with monuments built during Phibun's rule (Koselleck 2002, p. 314), but as with stylistically pre--World War I monuments, the King Naresuan monuments help to maintain the hierarchical tradition and maintain the idea of the king as head of state, if not outright ruler. It can be argued that both King Naresuan monuments work against democratization in any real form, including that of a constitutional monarchy, while working to establish what Kasian Tejapira calls "a stable and enduring non-democracy with the king as head of state" that amounts to "electoral-authoritarianism" (2019, pp. 3-4).

Further, Koselleck explains the transition of memorials from monarchical to those of the people, stating that the demand for war memorials gained acceptance since the French Revolution, and tellingly he quotes a poem from 1830, one stanza of which reads "Memorials for the people, not just royal might" (2002, pp. 316-17). This was true to an extent in Thailand after the 1932 revolution, and during the Phibun dictatorships as mentioned above; and so, how telling a statement the King Naresuan monuments make, these 'modern' monuments show and represent pre-modem hierarchical society, they are just royal might. Koselleck, in explaining the modernization of memorials, notes that the class distinction that had prominent aristocratic heroes with inferior representations of soldiers changed in democratized societies, with this class distinction being lessened or lost (2002, p. 291). Again, in the King Naresuan monuments the king's aristocratic status is fully intact; the representations of soldiers are confined to bas-relief panels on the sides of the pedestals, and they thus remain inferior to the aristocrat hero. And, further, the monuments are "the ultimate solidification in the 'discourse of big words': 'heroism', 'gallantry', 'glory', 'victory', though only occasionally peace" (Gough 2008, p. 7). Equally, with their massive size and a hero on a war elephant, these monuments reject the negative or counter-monuments of the post--World War II period that aim for reflection or debate on or protest against the "hero on a horse" (Gough 2008, p. 15).

The monuments also manifest the ideology and mission of the Thai military. Paul Chambers (2013, pp. 75-78) gives five ideologies manifesting in five political eras in Thailand: (1) pre-1932 revolution "royal-centric military ideology"; (2) 1932-38 "democracy-centered military ideology"; (3) 1938-44 "military-centered ideology"; (4) 1944-47 "civilian supremacy"; and (5) 1947-91 "New Philosophy": Nation, Religion (Buddhism), King.This fifth and last ideology essentially replicates the first pre-1932 ethos promoted by the Thai monarchy and especially Rama VI (r. 1910-25). This breakdown of Thai military ideology by political era manifests explicitly in the monuments during these periods. The Suphanburi King Naresuan monument was conceived and built during the fifth period, which in essence is again a period of royal-centric military ideology, and so the natural monument to build expressing that ideology is a massive monument to Thailand's great warrior king celebrating his greatest military exploit. One can argue that this ideology is also a pre-modern ideology, and so it blends perfectly with the expression of the pre-modern evident in both the Suphanburi and Kanchanaburi King Naresuan monuments. The Kanchanaburi monument, built after Chamber's fifth era, as noted above, maintains all these pre-modern elements, and so does not break with the ideology. The democratization of Thailand after 1992 resulted in this ideology being expressed at a site supported by the 'society at large", but not to any essential change to that ideology.

Discussion: Politics, Old Stupas and Modern Monuments

The correlation between open debate and civilian democratic/semi-democratic government and closed debate and military government appears strong. I found no mention of Prince Damrong's declaration of the stupa in Suphanburi as the elephant-duel stupa being contested during the absolute monarchy, the early constitutional monarchy, or the military dictatorships of Phibun and Sarit. Reverberations began in the late 1960s, but it was not until 1972-73 that opposition to the Suphanburi site exploded at a time when the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn was weakening and Thai civil society strengthening. The vigorous debate continued until 1976 when the military again took power in a bloody coup. Thai secondary sources do not report any further activity until the mid-1980s, but the 1982 Arts & Culture issue I found shows that early into the Prem Tinnasulanonda period a degree of freedom of expression was permitted. The 1990s move to democracy saw the debate continue and the proposal of a third site for the elephant duel and stupa. And finally, just a few years after the approval of the 1997 People's Constitution, a monument to King Naresuan was formally proposed and subsequently built in Kanchanaburi. With the growth of the Internet, many Thai citizens created websites and posted on the controversy. The debate continues today; however, with the military coup d'etat of May 2014 and subsequent military dictatorship, the push to place the monarchy at the pinnacle of Thai society recommenced with renewed vigour with, among other things, the military building enormous freestanding statues to the seven great Thai kings (Rajabhakti Park) on Royal Thai Army land in Hua Hin. Naresuan is of course one of the kings, and in the plethora of publications on Naresuan and these great kings, all of the coverage about King Naresuan state that the elephant duel took place in Suphanburi.

A notable feature of this controversy lies not in what divided the two sides but in what both held in common. In Thai culture and society, kingship and the king are held in high regard, and this is reflected in the controversy over the elephant duel. Thai society at large did contest the claim by a now-deceased member of the royal family as to the location of the elephant duel; however, there has never been any argument over the importance of the elephant duel, the necessity to build a monument, of King Naresuan's accomplishments, or of the grandeur of Thai kingship. Each side, Suphanburi and Kanchanaburi, wants to claim that seminal event, those accomplishments and that charisma for its own and express it in the larger-than-life monuments.

The debate over the authenticity of these stupas appears to have been part of a broad trend in Thai society throughout this period. Peter A. Jackson (1991, p. 208), writing on the Triphoum (Three Realms), a reputedly fourteenth-century compendium on everything from kingship to cosmology, presents the use of the Triphoum by factions in Thai society that closely parallel the controversy over the elephant-duel stupa. Both factions favoured demythologizing the text; however, conservative bureaucratic elites championed a traditional and conservative interpretation, while reformists put forward a progressive socio-economic one. These reformist interpretations began in the 1970s and gained strength in the 1980s. This debate over the Triphoum mirrors that of King Naresuan's elephant-duel stupa. Jackson says the debate between the conservatives and reformists shows indirect criticism of the state because reformist arguments reject conservative foundations for the state. In a similar pattern, neither conservatives nor reformists rejected the story of King Naresuan's victory in the elephant duel, the building of a stupa or the need to build a monument (keeping in mind the few exceptions), but by contesting the site of the duel and the stupa--and where to build a monument--society at large challenged the foundations of the conservative authority.


This article primarily covered three topics centred on the remembrance of a military victory: (1) the controversy over the authenticity of two commemorative stupas; (2) open and closed debate on this controversy, dependent on the type of government in power; and (3) two modern monuments to the military victory and their political message. These three topics all express the political culture of Thailand and specifically how that political culture relates to Thai military history. The selection of the Suphanburi stupa and the subsequent controversy over the two stupas was never simply an academic debate. Control over Thai history and the ultimate status of the monarchy anchored the debate.

In a very real sense, the Thai military, state bureaucracies and the network monarchy boxed themselves into a corner by rejecting any appearance of fallibility. Ostensible errors made in constructing Thai history by a prominent royal, and in fact the 'father of Thai history', became un-correctable. In periods of military dictatorship, even questioning the official history was simply not permitted. Yet, at the same time, the importance of King Naresuan and his victory in the elephant duel, and by extension the monarchy in general, is almost never questioned by Thai society at large. What is questioned is who has the right over that singular military event in Thai history, the greatness of King Naresuan, and thus over the history of Thailand. The democratization that took place in the 1990s concerned rights over history rather than any real diminution of Naresuan or Thai kingship in relation to citizens' rights. Nevertheless, and regardless of intent, criticism of the Suphanburi site and other royally sanctioned monuments did undermine royal authority and infallibility. But in Thai culture, the monarchy is central, and so while vocal elements of society at large militated for historical accuracy, royal supremacy remains a fact. Thus, the controversy over the authenticity of the two stupas and their location, the suppression of dissent by the military dictatorships, and the building of two competing commemorative monuments are perfect representations of how modern Thai culture deals with its military heroes, military history, and indeed problematic interpretations of the past more generally.

Matthew Kosuta is an Assistant Professor at the College of Religious Studies in Mahidol University, Salaya, Nakhon Pathom 73170, Thailand; email:


(1.) In Thai, "stupa" is rarely used, "chedi" (from Pali: chetiya) being the common term instead.

(2.) The claimants for Suphanburi comprise the Thai military, state bureaucracies and the 'network monarchy' (for an explanation of the interplay among these three constituents, see McCargo 2005, pp. 499-519).

(3.) The claimants for Kanchanaburi comprise Kanchanaburi locals and elements of Thai society at large, which included members of the previous three constituents.

(4.) The name Siam was not changed to Thailand until 1939.

(5.) The sangha refers to Buddhist monks as a whole.


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DOI: 10.1355/sj34-3d
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Author:Kosuta, Matthew
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
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Date:Nov 1, 2019
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