|Pimolrat Pisolyabutr as Suriyothai|
To put Queen Suriyothai in a bit of context, throughout much of this period the Kingdom of Siam or Kingdom of Ayutthaya (as it is sometimes called, after its capital city) was the dominant power in Southeast Asia. At its peak, the kings of Ayutthaya ruled over all of what is today Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, parts of southern China, northern Malaysia and a considerable slice of eastern Burma. In Vietnam the Le Dynasty was about to give way to the Mac Dynasty and was in a great deal of turmoil which left the Kingdom of Burma as the primary rival in the region to Ayutthaya. In the early 1500’s the Toungoo Dynasty was starting a period of success and expansion that would create a Burmese empire stretching across Southeast Asia. Conquest was the order of the day and Burma was rapidly becoming the most militarily powerful force in the region. The story of Queen Suriyothai also fits in quite well with other military heroines of Southeast Asia such as Trieu Au and the Trung Sisters of Vietnam who gained fame for leading wars of liberation against the occupying forces of Imperial China. Southeast Asia was somewhat distinct in this way in that there was a tradition of strong female leaders, often fighting alongside of or to avenge their husbands, it did not upset the existing Confucian social structure but was enough to bring about a change in the way strong women figures were viewed in comparison to other regions.
It was early in the reign of King Maha Chakkraphat in 1548 that Siam was attacked by King Tabinshwehti of Burma. This ambitious young monarch had been constantly at war since 1534 and had a long succession of victories behind him when he turned his attention toward Siam. With a large army, veteran commanders and many modern weapons purchased from Portuguese merchants, King Tabinshwehti commanded what was probably the most fearsome armed force of the time and he had little trouble sweeping aside the small Siamese garrisons that guarded the border. Upon learning of the threat, King Maha Chakkraphat ordered his forces to rally at Suphanburi, west of Ayutthaya to organize and prepare to meet the enemy. In the meantime, King Tabinshwehti and his Burmese army moved inexorably forward. The fortified city of Kanchanaburi was found unoccupied and as the Burmese marched east they easily captured the villages of Ban Thuan, Kaphan Tru and Chorakhe Sam Phan.
|Queen Suriyothai in combat|
The two men clashed but, at a critical point, the elephant of King Maha Chakkraphat panicked and bolted from the fray. The Viceroy gave chase with the King an easy target on the back of a frightened, stampeding elephant. Queen Suriyothai spotted the danger and heroically raced to the rescue. Charging her animal in between the two opposing commanders, she warded off the blow that would likely have killed her husband. However, the Burmese spear fell on her instead, cutting her shoulder and chest open. Not long after, the heroic queen died, having sacrificed herself to save the life of her King and husband. The King was able to rally his forces and fight off the Burmese long enough for an orderly withdrawal back to Ayutthaya. He would eventually die still fighting to take Siam back from Burmese control. Queen Suriyothai, however, would go down in history as one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Kingdom of Thailand for her courage, determination and self-sacrifice. Her husband built the first monument in her honor, a stupa and today there is a memorial park near the old capital of Ayutthaya featuring a large statue of the courageous Queen on her war elephant, charging into battle to save the life of the King. Her story and example provided inspiration for generations afterward and no doubt will continue to do so as long as it is told.