Wednesday, November 14, 2012

King Naresuan and the Wild Tiger Corps

Statue of King Naresuan at Naresuan University, Pitsanulok, Thailand. 
One of Thailand's most famous national heroes is King Naresuan. Naresuan was the king of the Ayutthaya kingdom who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, drove the Burmese who occupied a large part Siam (Thailand) out of the kingdom and basically crushed their empire, returning Siam to its full glory. In essence, he is much like America's first president and military commander George Washington and the American Revolutionary War guerrilla leader "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion rolled into one.

In the year 1600, the Ayutthaya kingdom (Siam) had been at war against the Burmese for over three decades. Most of the kingdom had been invaded and occupied by the Burmese in 1567. However, that changed in 1583 when Naresuan, who was then the king of Sukothai (a kingdom that consisted of what is now northern Thailand), led a war of independence from Burma. After driving Burmese forces out of Ayutthaya proper several times (which culminated in a historical duel with his childhood nemesis, the Burmese prince Mingyi Swa, on the backs of elephants), he followed up with an invasion of Burma and its Mon allies in modern-day Cambodia.

As part of his campaign against the Burmese, Naresuan created the Wild Tiger Corps (กองเสือป่า) to harass and observe the enemy armies. They were an early example of a guerrilla army.

Naresuan wanted all of his men in the corps to be experts in Muay Thai kickboxing, weapons, and jungle warfare. During the 16th century, Siam and its neighbors were constantly at war with each other and it was not hard to find men who were good at martial arts. Many young men in Siam learned Muay Thai and swordfighting from a very young age. Some became elite martial artists thanks to training in sword and pole fighting at the nationally-renowned Phudaisawan Sword Training Center in Bangkok. These were exactly the men who would come in useful for King Naresuan. Most importantly of all, men in the Wild Tiger Corps were men who had lost their homes and families since the beginning of the Burmese invasion in 1563 and had a burning desire to see their country become a strong, independent nation once again.

Mural at Wat Suvandaram in Ayutthaya depicting Siamese and Burmese forces in battle.
During this period of time, the Wild Tiger Corps were a thorn in the side of the Burmese. Scouts from the corps lurked in the jungles, observed, and reported Burmese troop positions, strengths, and numbers to the Siamese commanders. They also launched ambushes on enemy soldiers, putting their jungle fighting and Muay Thai skills to good use. They were instrumental in the ultimate Siamese victory over the Burmese.

In 1911, the Wild Tiger Corps would be resurrected in name by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) on the day he ascended to the throne. However, unlike their namesake, this corps wasn't exactly a guerrilla army. This one was a paramilitary corps created by the King to provide military training to those civil servants who were exempt from national military service a chance to receive training. The Wild Tigers, which were based on the pre-World War I volunteer service in the UK, were initially created as a ceremonial guard. However, over time their ranks and duties grew. In the event of war, the Wild Tigers would act as both a police force and army reserve and observe the enemy's positions. In addition, they also acted as bodyguards to the King and were expected to be fiercely nationalistic. All mid-to high level civil servants were required to join the Wild Tiger Corps. Throughout the course of 1911, the Wild Tigers became just as powerful as the army itself and some of its officers became high-ranking army officers and right-hand advisers to the King!

The King could often be seen socializing with and lecturing the Wild Tigers. He invested a lot of time creating this organization and they had his implicit trust.

A year later, the Wild Tigers were disbanded by the King after the failed Palace Revolt, which was carried out by a group of army officers. However, the youth wing of the Wild Tigers, the Tiger Cubs, would set the foundations for the Thai Boy Scouts, which still exists today.

Over the centuries, the legend of King Naresuan has never been forgotten by the Thai people. Nor has the legend of the famous guerrilla army he created. Their stories have been told and retold in the Thai imagination  for four hundred years and in recent years, have been introduced to Westerners thanks to the series of King Naresuan movies!

If you're interested in learning a little more about King Naresuan or the Wild Tiger Corps (both the 17th and 20th century versions), here are some sites for you: (Very good blog post about King Naresuan and the Battle of Nong Sarai.) (Wikipedia entry on King Naresuan.) (Webpage about King Rama VI's Wild Tiger Scouts.)

Image copyrights:
King Naresuan picture: Mixvasuvadh
Wat Suvandaram picture: Toutou


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