What the River Kwai Meant to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 42-44:

Behind the confident statements issued by Thai and US leaders throughout the first half of 1967, the battle readiness of the regiment was uncertain. American military personnel who had come to train the Thai [Queen’s Cobra] regiment were unimpressed by the volunteers’ level of preparedness. From early June, in the ten weeks that remained before embarkation, the American advisers guided the Thai unit through field exercises and training missions in Lopburi, Chonburi, and Kanchanaburi. The Americans had designed “an intense training” program that “drilled the Thai [troops] in the exact tactics and methods of operation employed by the Viet Cong.” They hoped that this crash course would help the Thais counter the guerrilla warfare methods being used by the Vietnamese guerrillas. All of the American instructors came from experienced combat units in South Vietnam and were eager to impart the lessons they had acquired. They attempted to simulate the conditions that the Thais would face in South Vietnam, but despite the physical similarities between Thailand’s and South Vietnam’s landscapes, the Americans found it difficult to impose a sense of urgency or even realism on the regiment that had hitherto been regarded as a domestic symbol. In Kanchanaburi the Americans led the Thai troops in field training exercises that crisscrossed the jungles along the Khwae (or Kwai) River, not far from the site of the bridge built by forced labor for the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Death Railway” during World War II. The fictionalized retelling of the bridge’s construction, as presented in Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel and its 1957 film adaptation, was on the minds of the Americans as they trained the Thai troops. The hint of cinematic make-believe suggested by the Khwae River location may have contributed to the growing unease among the American instructors. It was as if their appreciation of the book and film undermined their own attempts at simulating realism in the jungles there. The Americans’ effort to impose realistic conditions on the exercises were compromised by the feeling that they had been dropped into a movie set on which a familiar, unrealistic film had been made. While the Thai troops were certainly aware of the cinematic resonance that the Khwae River setting elicited, the region offered them another set of specifically Thai symbols born from a different semifictional source: Thailand’s nationalist history.

The area used in the training exercises was not far from several sites important to the historical imagination shared by most Thai soldiers in this era. Kanchanaburi’s location below the Three Pagoda Pass put it on a major route traditionally used by the Burmese and Siamese armies while invading and raiding each other’s kingdoms. In the nationalist version of Thailand’s history prevalent in 1967, a retelling of events that was particularly popular with members of the Thai military, the Burmese of old were always portrayed as the Thai people’s archenemy. The natural corridor created by the mountains to the west and the Chaophraya floodplain to the east was the site of several celebrated (and historically embellished) clashes between these occasionally bitter rival kingdoms.

The battle of Nong Sarai was certainly on the minds of the Thai volunteer soldiers as they trained for their South Vietnam mission. It had occurred during a phase of Ayutthaya‘s history when the kingdom’s Thai rulers were struggling to retain their sovereignty after several decades of Burmese military occupation. At this site in January 1593, King Naresuan the Great, the most revered figure in this nationalist history, won Siam’s greatest military victory. With his forces pressed to the breaking point, Naresuan was said to have called out the Burmese crown prince to challenge him to a duel on war elephants. After a few minutes of fierce combat, Naresuan got the better of his Burmese rival and killed him with a well-aimed slash of his sword. The Burmese forces panicked and fled south-southwest toward Burma. Naresuan’s army pursued them through Kanchanaburi, decimating their scattered lines.

The Thai soldiers preparing to fight in South Vietnam relished their proximity to the site of Naresuan’s victory. Joseph Callaway described his Thai trainees talking about a centuries-old victory over the Burmese “as though it took place only a few years before.” They cherished the historical memory of the warrior king and asked his spirit to bless their upcoming adventure. The men prayed in an ubosot (Buddhist ordination hall) said to have been visited by Naresuan while he was fighting in the area. Many recalled dreaming of Naresuan while training in Kanchanaburi and fighting in South Vietnam….

In the midst of this atmosphere of competing cultural and historical symbolism, the Thai troops added one realistic detail to their training procedure that may have trumped even the Americans’ passion for realism. The Thai troops carried live ammunition along with the simulated rounds used in their training because they felt they required protection against the dangerous forces that inhabited the Thailand-Burma frontier, everything from cobras and tigers to opium smugglers. Although the American trainers felt that the Thais did not fully comprehend the danger posed by the Viet Cong guerrillas, they were flabbergasted to discover how anxious this apparently sleepy western province made the volunteers.

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1 Comment

Filed under Burma, nationalism, Thailand, U.S., Vietnam, war

One response to “What the River Kwai Meant to Thais

  1. Fascinating! That really sounds like an excellent book.

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