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The Historical Foundations of Thailand's Retreating Style, or How They Became the Best Defensive Fighters In the World

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Below is a string of readings, mostly organized around the history of Siamese and Southeast Asian culture, discussing the possible historical foundations of a distinctly defensive orientation to Thailand's Muay Thai. They do not compose a single argument, but rather are read as extensive notes, with each post working somewhat additively & independently.


When a Frenchman Fought the King's Champion 1788

I've always been fascinated with the historical account of two French brothers fighting a Siamese champion in 1788. It is not only the oldest account of Siamese/Thai fighters facing off against a Westerner, it almost surreally acts out a fundamental misunderstanding between Thai and Western cultures which plays out to this day. Teleporting across more than 200 years it somehow explains the profound misunderstanding of how Thailand traditionally sees fights, and even helps explain the new "entertainment Muay Thai" type of promotional model of fighting, designed to help Westerners win fights in Thailand and abroad, by finally getting Thais to stop going backwards. First the account:





The French fighter finds it incomprehensible why the Siamese champion is fighting in an evasive manner, especially when honor is so much at stake. The occasion is so humiliating that his younger brother jumps in and shoves the Siamese fighter so he cannot retreat. He is trying to force him to "stand his ground" in what surely was Eurocentrically imagined to be a "manly" and proper way of conducting a fight. I am reminded of when MAX Muay Thai (the first big promotion of "Entertainment Muay Thai") opened in Pattaya and Thai fighters were given instructions that "If you go back you will lose" when fighting the Westerners the promotion had in mind. This was actually written in Thai in the early days of the promotion in the handout they gave to fighters; there was no corresponding message in the English rules. In terms of commerce the argument was that this was to make fights more exciting to the average viewer, and this is certainly the kind of product they created. Lower skill level, often smaller Thais facing off against Western fighters under circumstances which favored the Western fighters, and produced many Western wins. Thai fighters who in their art had become excellent retreat and counter fighters - mostly due to the traditional scoring bias that rewards counter fighting, and a fight culture which reads the retreating, defending fighter as in the lead (quite in contrast with how Westerners can read retreating fighters) - were being stripped of perhaps their greatest weapon, space-taking counter fighting, to level or even tilt the playing field the other way. And indeed it took Thai fighters on the promotion perhaps more than a year or two to adjust to this fundamental change. No matter how many times they were told "Don't go backwards!" in these early years they still instinctively retreated when they had the lead. Reading the account from the 18th century, and the infuriated response of the French brothers hauntingly echoes forward into today's Entertainment Muay Thai shows. There must be something essentially Thai/Siamese about the retreating fighter for this cultural contrast and misunderstanding to have endured for more than two centuries.

I've always argued that the answer to this is found within Buddhism itself, and how it regards the hotter emotions such as aggression, anger, fury, etc. Buddhism sees these peak emotions as a loss of control, whereas Westerners (and other Asian Cultures) may read them as peak experiences of self-expression, willing & desire. The Buddhistic appraisal of aggression and anger is an upside-down world to other cultural values of angered affects, and this played out in the form of traditional Muay Thai itself, giving shape & tremendous skill to the Thai fighter in a broad sense. (Traditional Muay Thai does have its own ritualistic contrast of defensive arts vs aggression in the customary contrast of Muay Femeu & Muay Khao pairing, but the ideological importance of that conflict is something not to dive into here, it's enough to understand that the overall bias towards reading the defensive, retreating fighter as the one who is in control, both of himself and his opponent, is a bias which has produced perhaps the best defensive fighters in the world.) For a long time I have used this Buddhistic explanation of the affects as a satisfying answer. But I was taken by surprise when reading about the history of Southeast Asian culture to discover that there are likely older, materialist explanations for the favoring of retreat in battle, aspects that likely blended well with Buddhism's prescriptives about the hotter emotions.

What follows does not assert that there are no property, boundary-driven identity concepts in Thai culture, or in warfare. In fact Thai & likely Siam culture was diverse and historically quilted. Territoriality & fluidity are likely best seen in tension. There definitely has been territoriality and in a modern Nation State it can certainly be pronounced. Instead what follows draws out a particular history of a differing kind of economic martial logic in Southeast Asia & Siam, one that can lead to Western confusion.

Wealth was Labor, Land Was Cheap (opposite of Europe)

territory & identity

I'll be citing from Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680: The Lands Below the Winds, by Anthony Reid, which proposes a commercially driven trade-culture that perhaps developed over thousands of years, linking and extracting from the two great cultural powers of China and India. Many in the West, including for a long time myself, think of Thailand (and Siam) somewhat in isolation, a distinct and almost unicorn culture (and in some ways it is), but the Ayutthaya Empire was a maritime, commercial trade empire, one of dozens that rose up and lasted for centuries at a time, over the millennia. Anthony Reid's book attempts to describe the culture of this region in more comprehensive terms, especially in the time of its greatest commercial power.


In the map above you can see Ayutthaya positioned along this trade route (on a river route to rich Northern Siam trade resources, and connected to the sea by that river); but the Southeast Asian culture Reid is describing covers the entire trade basin, stretching down to Java and Sumatra, over to Vietnam and the Philippines, and up into the north below Chiang Mai. Thought to be much like Europe's incredible rich Mediterranean basin which connected Northern Africa, the Levant & Middle East, and Europe, this Southeast Asian basin of trade produced a flowering of culture, positioned between China and India. Reid's descriptions are of this basin culture.

The first thing to note is that, broadly speaking, individual houses were made of perishable materials. The only buildings that were made of stone were palaces or temples. Transitory human habitation organized itself around symbolized permanence in the stone-built temple. Just in terms of architecture and practice we already see a contrast with Western values (at least how they came to be). The wide-spread perish-ability of personal housing made it such that rebuilding a house, or moving a house if damaged was relatively as easy as repairing it. Already one can be tempted into seeing the wood & thatch transience of human life in a Buddhistic sense, compared to the stone truths of religion (or royalty). Houses literally were built to be discarded in the event of raid or war, or nature's damage, which seeds a difference in how one regards one's personal space, and where identity is located. If we account for the idea that one's abode expresses one's personal center we can see that perishable, moveable housing presents a different conception of "self". But, this does not mean that housing was without meaning. In fact observers noted that the SEA perishable house was highly ordered. It presented a cosmos in miniature. This high-low hierarchy of holiness is expressed in Muay Thai scoring to this day (as well as pervading the culture). Houses were often raised off the ground to survive flooding. The ground was where waste and animals were kept. The family wealth of rice & ritual objects were kept in the rafters.


Most important though, in this context of perishable housing, is how territory itself was perceived. Anthropologists of the world over make a very large distinction between cultures that develop in two ways (there are of course complexities and variations in this). There are cultures where land is widely available (cheap) and the thing that is scarce is the labor to work it (expensive). And there are cultures where land is scarce (expensive) and the labor is plentiful (cheap). As Reid describes the SEA culture of this era it is definitely of the former. If you would like to watch a very good lecture explaining the deep cultural ramifications of whether it's land or labor which is scare I highly recommend anthropologist David Graeber's Debt, Service, and the Origins of Capitalism (1 hr, 17 min)

Again, very broadly speaking, there are two economic flows at this time: city state/empire mercantile powers which are centers of maritime trade, and those that develop out of a plenitude of land and the scarcity of labor. The 600 year Srivijaya maritime empire (tweet link below) is a good example of a mercantile sea trade power. The Siamese Ayutthaya trade empire arose after the Srivijaya fall.


For our purposes, thinking about how territory, identity and battle was conceived at this point the focus is on this fundamental economic dyad. A plethora of land, a shortage of labor to work enough of it to build wealth. Ayutthaya was a maritime trade power, drawing influences and wealth from all over the world, but it was surrounded by land that needed to be worked. And just north of Ayutthaya was even more fertile land. There is one basic answer to this question of labor...slavery. And in fact all over the SEA trade culture of labor scarcity the raiding of villages and cities for slaves was the primary engine of wealth development. Warfare was much less battle over territorial lines (over well-defined and defended spacial identities) as it was for the capture of slaves. All over SEA the impermanence of housing, the portability of wealth (precious metals, rice), and the scarcity of labor and the plenitude of land produced the core reality that retreat was far more effective than standing one's ground. In fact militarily battle was understood in a much more fluid, spatial way. Fortifications could be over taken, and if lost could themselves provide enemy anchors which would be hard to unseat. Instead battles were considered like waves of raiding. The enemy would come, capture, plunder and leave. For Western observers this mode of warfare was not esteemed, in fact it defied basic Western concepts of martial strength (produced by cultures where land is scarce and labor plentiful, the exact opposite of SEA's economic reality).


You can see the possible, deeper origin behind Western conceptions of fighting (fortified, territory-oriented) and their confusion over SEA fighting (fluid, retreat-oriented), as exemplified in the 1788 fight between a Siamese champion and a Frenchman. These are two different martial logics. In fact in SEA there was an intersection between martial logic and commerce expressed in the architecture itself. Below is the lesson-learned example of Dutch traders building a stone storehouse for their goods, which they then fortified into a small castle from which they could not be uprooted. In the fluid world of raiding warfare and slave-taking wealth stacking stones was a significant martial danger, and in fact forbidden, or taken as an outright threat in some principalities.


One can see that these are very different worlds produced by different economic (materialist) foundations, a different sense of what warfare and battle is. I'm going to leave aside the other half of this equation, making only a note here, which is that:

these are maritime trading powers, and that water itself was a medium of culture whose properties manifested in tendencies opposite to those traditionally attributed to land. There is a historian's adage: "Land divides, water unites". Land encourages drawn lines, and the battle over those lines. Sea culture is much more spatially fluid, less visually distinct and demarcated. What is not included in that adage is that land (when land is scarce) is much more divided/territorial, but land (when land is plentiful) can also be fluid and less demarcated, when it is labor that is scarce. Maritime trade navies, mercenary warriors, sea-battles (and fighting styles that involve piracy and on-water fighting), because watery, produce a very different fluidity to the notion of power, authority and wealth. There is much less of a sense of "high ground" which would be citadeled and defended, and instead a more tactical topography of techniques. And water produces wealth through connection (exchange), not through isolation. Martial wateriness exists in the context of exchange & the lasting of connections.

The fluidity of land based raiding, slave-taking warfare over perishable housing that encouraged retreat was mirrored by the spatial fluidity of maritime power and trade-lanes. In a sense the land can have a kind of maritime fluidity as well.

Some Battles Not Very Bloody

There is a very significant dimension of warfare in the context of slave-wealth, which is that you do not want a bloody, kill-everybody rout. Once you get to a point of dominance in a battle you are just killing off-your own wealth when you kill an enemy. The purpose of the raid is to capture, not kill. I'm not going to say that this is conclusive, but it certainly evokes the wide-spread Western confusion on why there are so very few knockouts in Thailand's traditional Muay Thai. Legends of the sport in the Golden Age might have 100s of fights but only a handful of knockouts. (Even Muay Boran knock-out-or-nothing, rope-bound fighting, an older form of sport Muay Thai, may have more been fights of attrition, much as the bound boxing fighting of Greeks & Romans.) The aim of much of contemporary Western fighting - the decapitation of the opponent - is missing. I talk a little about this cultural difference in this article: The Cowardice of the Knockout - Hellenic Greek Concepts of The Beauty of Boxing. In the larger sense, in SEA warfare was not about killing your enemy. It was about capturing and controlling them. This is to this day a foundation of Thailand's Muay Thai scoring (though this ethic is being challenged and changed by the new Entertainment models):


The idea that you would be only "shedding your own blood" if you killed an enemy is quite alien to some of the Western concepts of warfare, because of the fundamental land vs labor equation. In SEA the fluidity of raiding battles, the value of retreat, the desire to control and not maim your enemy ended up producing a very important "symbolic" or signifying dimension to fighting, one in which a winning side demonstrates, (through skill & even magical superiority) that by cosmic forces they were destined to win. In fact, much as in Ancient Greece in the West (in the Iliad for instance), at times the battle was symbolically waged between charismatic leaders.


Above, King Narsuan's elephant duel, and the battle between Achilles & Hector in Greek literature bear resemblance (the story of Nai Khanomtom, the purported father of Muay Thai is another example of symbolic warfare, but in this case as a captured slave), as they both idealize champion vs champion symbolic fighting, the results of which express the destiny or favor of cosmic forces. One can see how the mythologizing of great combat heroes of a culture (aside from debates of historical accuracy) plays into the ritualistic practice of sport fighting itself. Westerners (and those other cultures) can become quite frustrated with for instance the 5th round dance-offs in Thailand's Muay Thai - and there definitely are many factors involved, including the role of gambling - but when the 5th round is seen in the much wider 1,000 year heritage of combat itself, where the killing of an opponent is not the aim, and wherein symbolized superiority becomes quite important, it makes much more sense that once dominance is established the fight is over. To put it in a very short form, bending back to the first observations about perishable housing: one is not life-and-death defending a homestead, willing to die for this territorial x without which you are nothing; one is engaged in a warfare of dominance on a fluid battlefield, within which retreat - with transportable wealth - might make very good tactical sense. And with this sense comes cultural value. The acceding to symbolic loss is much more readable in the context of SEA warfare.


Much has been made of the fact that contemporary Muay Thai fighters fight very often, and from a young age. This frequency, some say, explains why dance-offs happen in 5th rounds in Thailand, fighters saving themselves for another fight which can be in 21 days. And there is much sense to this. But the roots to this persistent fighting/symbolic dominance likely go back to a veritable culture of constant warfare, endless skirmishes, but also one in which the death of the enemy is not the aim. A very high level of skill was developed across of lifetime through repetition and a culture of contest. Muay Thai is perhaps the most brutal of combat sports, with incredible moments of violence and very technical skill, but it is likely couched in a history that regarded battle itself quite differently than the West, a Southeast Asian perpetuity of fighting.


Thailand of course is a very different place than Siam trading principalities of the 16th century, and its Muay Thai certainly has adopted many aggressive tendencies and tactics in its dialogue with the West and other cultures. Siam/Thailand has been a nexus of trade and international martial influence for a very long time, but there is a very important regard in which Thailand's Muay Thai is essentially Thai. It expresses something that feels deeply seated, manifesting both its Buddhistic culture, but also the foundations of the land itself. There is a significant measure in which the very high art of retreat and counter defensive styles which are coded into its scoring and passionate appreciation (including the narrative structure of gambling interest) speaks to a very logic of warfare that is not that of the West (or of the more globalized world). Its capture and control methods of combat borne out of near constant fighting going back hundreds if not thousands of years are essentially Thai, even though they produce confusion in many who come from a different logic of warfare developed out of different material conditions (land vs labor). If we change the very logic of Thailand's Muay Thai to fit a non-Buddhistic, kill-over-capture ethic for commercial reasons there is some sense in which we are radically changing, and even erasing Muay Thai itself, its very grace and meaning, and with it what it has to say about combat.

I suspect that in some manner the absolute and real violence of Thailand's Muay Thai, its heightened brutality through elite skill display that many outside of the culture are drawn to actually comes from its capture-not-kill, agonistic (yet Buddhistic) cultural roots, in which retreat and counter fighting is prized. Many confuse that violence with aggression and the aim to end the other, and do not see its watery, transitory foundations.


Edit in: I went back and read the original source for some of the most "not very bloody" accounts of Siamese battle, to get more context for them. Here is that source material, The Ship of Sulaiman, an Iranian report of the court of Ayutthaya in the last 17th century:



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Putting This In Perspective

For me this study of possible deeper thematic roots of Thailand's Muay Thai starts with the historical record of the 1788 fight vs a Frenchman. The context of the fight was that it was set in order to improve Siam's standing internationally, its reputation. This is only two decades after the fall of the Siam capital of Ayutthaya to the North, and six years after the founding of modern day Bangkok as the new capital, closer to the sea. Rama I was the first king of the new Chaktri dynasty. Siam's reputation needed to be reestablished. It is notable that a symbolic boxing fight, a sport fight, would be the means of doing so (not all that different than the ideologies at play in today's farang vs Thai sport match-ups).


source: Peter Vail's Modern Muay Thai mythology

The report is from the The Dynastic Chronicles, so I believe this is from the Siamese point of view. The Siamese's fighter is portrayed favorably. His retreat is not ill-regarded. It is a moment of great public face, and one imagines the behavior of both French brothers is seen as humiliated and disgraced. It never occurs to the Siamese report that, against probably a much larger man (who was seen as trying to break his opponent's collarbone), one should stand one's ground in some sort of stand-and-bang glory. Instead the retreating, defensive fighting is seen as exemplary, one would imagine. And the loss of control by the aggressor as shameful and punished. These are themes we still see today when Westerners face Thais in traditional Muay Thai (though this is being up-ended in Entertainment Muay Thai).

I think it important to see that the Anthony Reid book takes a very wide view. Perhaps a 10,000 foot view, towards the Southeast Asian culture during this time of trade, and it could not be the case that these themes he brings out are definitive of Siamese practices. From this we can extract themes of warfare liquidity, come out of the raid and plunder combat, the material abundance of land & the scarcity of labor as shared broadly across Southeast Asia, but this isn't to say that there were not also fortified martial territories which would complexify the picture. Ayutthaya itself was quite fortified, surrounded by a moat made from the river bend. A painting of the city from the 17th century:


Siege concepts were a significant part of warfare and in fact the fall of Ayutthaya was the result of a 14 month siege by the Burmese. As early as the 14th century there is report of a portion of the moat wall of Chiang Mai being knocked down by what may have been a proto-cannon, told in Chronicles of Ayutthaya. Lengthy sieges of fortified towns & cities were common in the North. Temples may have been the most fortified local architecture during some periods of history. Warfare was not of a completely liquid territorial logic. It was mixed, and any land fortification, port or river mouth or straight could become a center point of control. The "Bang" in Bangkok indicates a river bend which was seen as a favorable defensive positioning, a kind of Nature's moat. Topography shapes combat. It is rather to introduce this 10,000 foot view of slave capture and water-trade liquidity into the picture of the development of Muay Thai combat logic, and to see that there are themes of "capture over kill" and "retreat over stand your ground" that likely ran through the wider culture of the region. And that martial logics are better seen also in the context of economic material means, as well as within the values of Buddhism which has shaped the culture for centuries.

I've written a sketch of some of the possible water-y influences on the Ayutthaya Kingdom in this series of posts, if you want to read it into just how cosmopolitan Ayutthaya was as a sea-faring empire:


I introduce the notions of watery, fluid combat because in many ways the dynamics of Southeast Asia go against some Western conceptions (and combat ethics) inherited from different material conditions. Bringing out these dynamics in some ways involves over-emphasizing them, so they they are more clear in bold-relief. If there is a more watery, less spatially centered, capture martial logic perhaps the game of Go presents an analogical example. Thought to be the oldest board game, originating in China, one can see that its spatial logic tends towards the corners and the edges, when compared to something like chess which favors the center of the board and features concepts of fortification. In the tweeted video below you can see this Go patterning:

It's tempting, without a detailed, fleshed-out historical record available to us to see continuity between the martial logic of localized capture in the game of Go and the willingness of Thai Muay Thai fighters to go to the ropes (or even sometimes the corners) to battle out their exchanges. Is there a deeper land vs labor, slave economy material logic behind these differences? Perhaps. If you play the video above it could very well be graphing out positions taken by a femeur fighter in Muay Thai. It is enough to perhaps use the game of Go (with its very different ruleset and topography) to suggest that the traditional Thai stadium Muay Thai is a different sort of game than some forms of combat sport fighting. And in that difference nurtured a particularly high level of skill development toward an excellence in defensive fighting. Thais learned to get really good at doing certain kinds of things because of how sport fighting is viewed and valued in the culture, and some of those values likely go back a very long way in history.

provisional note: In thinking about the wateriness, or liquidity of martial territory and victory aims I'm also interested in how water itself may have played a role in skill development. There is some, very brief historical evidence that Siamese fighters were adept at "fighting on water, in a report back to China about the kingdom of Xian (Siam?). A switching, ambidextrous style would actually be much more favorable on unstable platforms like fighting on boats, as a single step can rebalance you. Some of the oldest forms of Muay Thai show a switching, ambidextrous base.


Of course, we speak of Thailand (and Siam), and Muay Thai as if it were a singular thing, when in fact it is full of varieties and sometimes great differences. Just looking at the Kingdoms of the Region in the 13th century, and then again in the 16th (below) shows realms of culture that lasted for centuries. In terms of liquidity a northern Kingdom like Lan Na might share very little with the Southeast Asian cultures of trade commerce that Anthony Reid details. And the prolific Anchor Empire with its vast palace complexes might have a differing territorial logic than regions closer to the sea. But each may have had the same liquidity brought by land vs labor slave economies which would produce the same "capture not kill" battle aims. Perhaps Northern and Khorat styles may reflect some of those inherited dispositions.



On the other hand the Muay Thai of the Southern peninsula developed in very close proximity to the very "Asian Mediterranean Sea" dynamics that Reid articulates, for over 1,000 years caught in the confluence of India-Persian trade (and Chinese trade), an essential piece in maritime empires, it likely absorbed much of the martial liquidity of the trade basin. It was through this Southern peninsula connection that a majority of Buddhist influence came, and no doubt many martial practices.

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Background reading to give a sense of the full scope of slave taking in Siam, the article below examines the historical evidence that in Chiang Mai in the 19th century by some estimates 3/4 of the population was slave, most of them taken through warfare. Because of this extensive raiding culture, and small scale kidnapping throughout Siam perhaps Muay Thai as a martial art needs to be evaluated as a developed necessary means of provincial village autonomy and self preservation, as well as a Kingdom military power. In this context the ordination of young men/boys in temples, and the teaching of Muay Thai in temples takes on a dimension of protection. This essay paints an extremely agonistic picture of life.

"Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Northern Thailand: Archival Anecdotes and Village Voices" (Katherine A Bowie, 1996) PDF attached 


screen cap

















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Further reading, "Southeast Asian Slavery and Slave - Gathering Warfare as a Vector for Cultural Transmission: The Case of Burma and Thailand" by Bryce Beemer, which describes Siam vs Burmese slave taking warfare and works to show how slave taking became an avenue of cultural transmission, tracing how Ayutthaya slaves brought both Chinese and Indian arts/technology to the Burmese.

screen caps:



and (if artisans and skilled craftsman of every sort were taken in slave capture, and seeded those arts in the new country, one must presume that skilled fighters as well were prized, and that the Siamese art of fighting also became an influence (and may have been influenced) by transmissions such as these):



and (the special care for artisan captures, one suspects, would also be mirrored for any highly skilled fighter. The 18th century story of Nai Khanom Tom, who was captured and beat 10 Burmese fighters in a contest before a Burmese King and rewarded, considered a father of Muay Thai, may actually be a story of Muay Thai transmission, as he was said to be granted a change in social status, said to be "free" but perhaps more likely the social status of ahmu-dan, in the possession of the King (exempt from state taxes and levies on labor), and given wives/wife indicating some integrative position within the Burmese culture (the mythography of the event based on only 8 verses of a Burmese chronicle) as martial arts were likely valued.





note, in the above it is the majoritarian view of precolonial Thai slavery, that it was embedded in a much wider client/patron social hierarchy, and was not nearly as brutal as the Atlantic slave trade in the Americas. Katherine Bowie's article (cited in the thread above this one, takes a contrarian view to most anthropological takes, bringing evidence that warfare slaves were very harshly treated and suffered trauma from dislocation. She critiques what she sees as a general erasure of captured slave suffering in Southeast Asia in the literature.


and, on the transmission of the Ramayana dance to Burma. Between 30,000 and 100,000 slaves are thought to have been taken in the fall of Ayutthaya.


and the Ramayana dance performance may itself have been transmitted through Ayutthaya slave warfare captures from the Khmer Empire several centuries prior:



It's very hard to imagine that the fighting art of Muay Boran (Muay Thai) and its occasions was not significantly shaped by these very large population and artisan migrations between regions of Southeast Asia.

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  • 1 month later...

Scott's book on Southeast Asia, though from an anti-Statist, or State-critical perspective, provides a very good sense of the systematic aspects of just why States (and likely much smaller statelets, rural elites, and other competing centers of power) became such warfare, slave-taking states. It was very difficult to maintain acquired manpower. They regularly experienced manpower drain. These centuries upon centuries of warfare, slave-capture cultures of agonism is the bed in which Siamese Muay Thai grew.

Firstly he points out that mandala Kingdoms themselves overlapped, so peoples were constantly shifting in their penumbra:


Here he describes the perpetual struggle for slave-taking manpower in SEA, something that points the eye away from just the occasional large Kingdom, siege-centered, more bloody battles, and likely annual "Dry Season" (War Season), localized strife. This was an agonistic landscape.

screen caps from The Art of Not Being Governed:








The enduring question, at least for me, is whether this agonism was in fact annual, if there were local political strifes that were more or less continuous because this manpower economic logic pervaded. This question would endure because of the obvious lacuna in the historical record, as it is large Kingdoms that have written their histories. 


An alternate dimension of this very integrative aspect of Kingdom manpower churn is that Kingdoms had to create very strong yet supple identities that could persist over time, something I think which typified the unique quality of Siam and then Thailand:


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James Scott on the "path of war" devastation of large scale Siam war expeditions. It wasn't necessarily the battles which produced hardship, it was the paths of armies, and "booty capitalism" which could enslave:



AND, (note the first reference to smaller, more frequent campaigns, not yet speaking of more nested, localized combat)



small vassal state banditry mentioned (p 150)


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Scott finally takes up the dynamics of regular slave raiding. He is in particular interested in the littoral-edge between the valley and hills, but his logic seems quite probable within valleys and plains as well, between small polities, protection spheres, rural elites, a general agnoism of Dry Season warfare and capture. 

screencaps at length





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"Warfare and Depopulation of the Trans-Mekong Basin and the Revival of Siam’s Economy"Puangthong R. Pawakapan

This thread holds notes and screen caps from the above article, detailing the repopulation (enslavement) efforts in the Northeast of Siam:

Important for conceptualizing the way in which warfare (and even village festival ring fighting) may have shaped Muay Thai is understanding the agonistic milieu of village life itself. Farmers were conscripted in seasonal warfare campaigns, to capture slaves who themselves would become farmers and warriors. At a fundamental level to be a farmer was to be a (conscripted) warrior, as part of enslaving (and incorporating) the "other". This became accelerated and systematized after the defeat of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, as Siam looked to recover the great loss of labor wealth (which may have topped 100,000 Siamese captured). For 100 years the Northeast developed muang along these newly, increasingly systematized lines. Martial pressures involved fighting within these regular capture campaigns, but also, one would imagine, in the ability to fight off or escape capture as well. (My thesis is that "Muay Thai" grew not only out of this agonistic culture of capture, but also in parallel, as a betting ring sport in the perennial festivals of provincial life, organized around these martial campaigns. It developed its own aesthetic (and set of techniques) in the context of this kind of warfare.

Attached here are screencaps found in the Twitter thread:










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Just speaking very broadly on much of the added material in this thread, one can see that there is a continuous enslavement martial pressure at all border-regions of Siam. There is not only the famous threat of invasion from Burma to the Northwest (not a land-capture invasion, an enslavement invasion which ultimately would result in the fall of Ayutthaya, and the establishment of Bangkok as the Capital), the martial enslavement of the Hill Tribes to the North, and the systematic martial enslavement of the trans-Mekong region to the Northeast, likely operated on a very generalized culture of constant agonism, where in farmer and warrior were joined as one. This likely went well beyond the large scale state-like clashes that are found in histories, but made up a matrix of martial agonism, including the threat of enslavement and/or the incorporation of the enslaved (as wealth).

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The Warfare of the Rural

The above article is found in the book Warring Societies in Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia. The picture of an agonistic rural culture under a pressure of slave-taking (capture, rather than defeat) is an important step in imagining the kinds of martial pressure which may have helped developing the fighting style of the Siamese, especially as it may have developed aspects of Muay Thai (Boran). It is my thesis that Muay Thai itself likely developed as a ring betting sport rite/custom, among rural settlements and villages and in parallel to Kingdom martial centers, and less as a direct translation of large scale Kingdom battle. Yet, however you you assess a projected history, understanding the actual warfare being conducted by the large majority of Siamese beyond the narrow window of Kingdom historical record is an important piece of the developmental puzzle.

Michael Charney, an editor of Warring Societies, wrote an important article in this direction (link-posted in full at the bottom of this page). He points out just how thin the details are that we have of even large scale Kingdom conflicts, but more significantly, because nearly all our historical record is composed of the royal point of view, these records distort our even-sketched-out picture of what warfare and conflict was like. Here is a screencap of his introductory thoughts.


If Muay Thai or a generalized Siamese fighting style was born from warfare and conflict the great preponderance of that conflict and its nature is hidden from us by the simple fact that it was not written about and little of it made it to murals. And that's because most of the population of Siam was rural. The thumb on the scale of history is that of Kingdom centers which compose almost all our received history. His article attempts to see through that filter, just a bit, using a window in the record after the fall of the Burmese palace to the British, but before the British had taken colonial control of Burma. This is a glimpse into the kinds of warfare that may have been prevalent outside of a royal perspective - a warfare type that may have reached back for centuries, in kind. This is only to say that the palace perspective, though essential and foundational in history, is only part of Siamese warfare culture, and history maybe be enriched by the wider view. Painted panels, by an indigenous Burmese eye, depict raid fighting, from which Charney extracts significant features which he feels could speak to the non-standing army conflicts that make up "rural folk" and their warrior culture. This is the late 19th century. (Analogies between Burma and Siam also should be understood as also limited.)

His four aspects are: raiding for resources (here cattle), the presence of firearms (as well as the ubiquity of sword, the burning of villages, and the killing/torture of non-combatants. The panels:






I draw a few more aspects out from these panels. For one, I'm not quite sure that's a depiction of the killing/torture of a non-combatant. Perhaps there are written descriptions that confirm that it was, but Charney doesn't reference them. Instead it looks like the staying of the killing or attack of a woman, and what may be branding her (as a possible slave?), and not torture. This would give all the figures in that panel a great deal more meaning, and would make the illustration itself have more purposeful content (all the figures are doing different things). I can't rule out his reading, but under this interpretation it would be showing capture and enslavement. One man is putting his hand out. Other aspects of interest is that the burning of village also depicts the fleeing of the village (with possessions packed). This would be in agreement with Anthony Reid's descriptions of Southeast Asia warfare much further up in this thread: that a great deal of warfare involved fleeing and hiding, and that houses were built of wood making them much more transitory than how we today think of homes or territory. One was always ready to give ground, or simply leave, with one's possessions on one's back. Also of note, the attackers are all tatttooed, the attacked not. I'm not quite sure what this means sociologically, but at least in this Burmese setting, it seems significant. The ubiquity of sword (though its lack in the fleeing villagers) is important. It is my hypothesis that all farmers would be armed and skilled with blades, if only because of the nature of farming itself. Muay Thai's hand-to-hand, weaponless nature would suggest that it did not grow directly out of organized warfare itself, at least on this one point (one reason why I suspect it has its own, ring sport heredity). He also draws focus to the presence of firearms (in his article he brings forth that these are fairly crude match-lock firearms). It's difficult to know if this would reflect the state of armed conflict in Siam, but its worth noting. He also talks about the use of bamboo and hedging to form defensive perimeters around a settlement or property, and the tactic of asymmetrical ambush. note: Charney also in his article focuses on the head-taking in Burmese warfare (something even Indian mercenaries for the British which problematically adopted). Charney is often at tension with Anthony Reid and others who carry the thesis that Southeast Asian warfare tended to be less bloody than European expectations. It's helpful to note that Charney wants to de-emphasize the highland vs lowland dichotomy in his study of Burma, but that along this sociological in Siam, the head hunting practice seems to be divided. It seems it was a practice of highlanders and hill tribes in the North, Northwest of Siam (if I recall).

Positioning Muay Thai (Boran) Through its Origins


Suriyenthrathibodi - King of Ayutthaya (1703-1709)

There are larger picture contexts brought out in Charney's article that also have bearing on the stories we build of Muay Thai (Boran) antecedence. The demographic make up of Kingdom armies themselves, and how they fought is of central importance. One of the questions of today's Muay Thai is the struggle over its origins in ideological terms. You can see this play out in the tug-of-war around the figure of Nai Khanomtom, who had been presented to Westerners as a father of Muay Thai, the story of his mesmerizing defeat of Burmese fighters before the Burmese King emblematic of Muay Thai superiority. The (Thai) tension with this picture is that Nai Khanomtom was a commoner. This would put the root of Muay Thai shaded toward common culture. Thailand throughout its political history has shifted between emphasizing its royal or more common roots (for instance the rise of fighters like a convicted murderer like Suk, who broke with the matinee image of the Bangkok fighter in the 1940s was thought to be been in part an attempt to move away from royal priority by the Phibunsongkhram dictatorship.)


Suk "The Giant Ghost" Prasarthinpimai - the menacing, fierce-some fighter of the late 1940s

For this reason, and perhaps many others, International Muay Thai Day (Feb 6th) was recently created in distinction from Nai Khanomtom Day (March 17th). International Muay Thai Day celebrates the "Tiger King" HM Suriyenthrathibodi who was recorded as an active practitioner of ring Muay Thai (the oldest historical record of it in Siam, I believe) in the first decade of the 1700s. (This of note gives us at least 325+ years of ring fighting in Siam.) It was written that he cloaked his royalty and went out to fight beyond the palace among more common people, testing his skills in the ring, interestingly enacting the very royal vs commoner divide in the history, coming out the victor through skill alone). The creation of the celebrated origin of Muay Thai further back in time before the defeat of Ayutthaya also anchors it within the historical glory of Siam (rather than after its Burmese capture), is an important shift in presentation. Today this tension between Kingdom origins and commoner origins can be seen in modern bifurcations in Muay Thai: the Muay Thai of the capital (stadium Muay Thai) and the Muay Thai of the provinces (festival Muay Thai), in which cosmopolitan fighting always holds the aesthetic priority.

Salient in Charney's presentation, and we find evidence of this in other treatments of Siamese history, is that the standing armies of Burmese Kings were made up regiments of foreigners. Many enslaved, many mercenary. Regiments of foreign musketeers or cavalry preponderantly made up the specialized standing army of Burma, an army which was then supplemented with rural warriors (who were not specially trained) and who made up the majority of forces. Charney's point is that the Burmese armies, when they marched in large scale, mostly fought like "rural warriors" because it was made up mostly of (untrained) folk whose knowledge of fighting was grown within themselves and their lives. You see evidence of this specialization of trained foreign forces in Ayutthaya history as well, perhaps no more starkly in King Narai of Ayutthaya holding a personal guard of 200 Indo-Persian warriors in the 1670s. Some of this preference is that specialized local forces could not be trusted (the ever present possibility of a coup), foreign regiments were perhaps dependable and better to be closer to the palace. And surely there was specialized hand-to-hand, weaponless fighting within the palace, as even attested to by the Tiger King's own prowess in ring Muay Muay (Boran). But if there is a centuries-long heritage of Muay Thai (Boran) born out of the marital pressures of Siam, a large degree of it probably would have been found in rural life and smaller contested polities as these made up the constant and pervasive patterns over a large preponderance of the population. That rural population was levied, conscripted, or enslaved at various points to perform militarily, but was not folded into specialized training. It fought as it knew, out of its own history, which likely involved local polities of levy and seasonal cycles of raid and enslavement. To generalize over-broadly: every Siamese rural farmer knew how to defend themselves (and attack), because they had to.

The likely picture of any fighting style's martial evolution through conflict is that it was one of dialogue between Kingdom forces and their large scale events, and wide-scale rural warfare (with festival, entertainment, rite ring fighting developing parallel to that context). The specialization of the palace would hone and concretize combat, to be sure, but one of the most salient aspects of standing or at least at-ready Kingdom forces is that they were international. At one point the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was described as being able to fight with 1,000,000 men (quite an exaggeration, to be sure), but its standing army was filled with regiments of foreign fighters, mercenaries and captured Malay, Japanese, Portuguese, Persian, etc. The King's military arm of the historical dialogue was cosmopolitan. One imagines that the other side of this dialogue reaches into provincial, rural, polity Siam, far beyond the King's direct, continuous reach for many centuries, but also that the dialogue may have developed in the sub-urban encampments around the Ayutthaya place itself, in the various quarters (Portuguese, Japanese, Siamese, etc), which formed a littorial band of mixed-martial fighting, in betting rings. It was not just when rural warrior folk were levied for seasonal battles, but also in the halo of the palace itself, where ring fighting surely went on (attested to as early as the first of the 1700s, when the King went out in disguise to test his skills in the betting ring of the people). This picture makes a complex braid of history when thinking about the likely martial pressures that may have informed Muay Thai (Boran)'s development. Everything from international mercenary forces, highly skilled palace Arjan, betting rings in outlying "suburbs" of the palace, and the rural histories of centuries of warfare and slave-taking, themselves conditioned by local chieftain power struggles, structuring alliances, protections and raids in halos of authority, a rural warrior culture which may have had its own festival driven, seasonal rites of ring fighting (as they presently do). And, one is not to leave out the role of the Siamese Wat, and its own halos of regional authority (and Wat magical practices -- outlawed in the 1902 religious reforms -- which feature in the history of Siam combat techniques). Siamese temples were keepers of a large portion of the able bodied male population, and were even refuge from early 20th century royal military conscription efforts, and were keepers of Muay Thai (Boran) fighting knowledge. In this way Siamese temples were set up for at least some Shaolin style specialization of fighting knowledge or aspects of its trained pedagogy and preservation. (When I say Shaolin-style, I don't mean Kung Fu. I mean a home for organized, disciplined able bodied men, which may have formed their own fighting prowess through teaching (we see something of this mythos in the framing of Ong Bak and the passing of Muay Boran forms). Siamese temples, architecturally, likely were the most fortified structures in a region, and operated with it own political power.) In the broad brush, the martial history of Thailand's Muay Thai (Boran) likely is composed of all three, a trinity of Royal, Rural and Wat realities, with centuries of festival (betting) ring Muay Thai operating as the living thread through all three.


above, the Ong Bak (2003) mythos of the rural Thai Wat as the (secret) keeper of Muay Boran art form


This is the full text of the Charney article:


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Re-linking this thread which is a reading list of citations building out the picture of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya as cosmopolitan center of trade and mercenary forces. The Kingdom of Ayutthaya, as is presented here, was actually a Maritime Empire (despite its inland location). This thread draws out the possible influences from the South through trade, and the international presences around the city and court of Ayutthaya:



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I've been following this thread (very very interesting but takes time to understand) and have some reflections to come on myay thai fighting as avoidance of conflict. But first thing I noted of the Burmese warriors were the leg tattoos (as you point out) known as Htoe Kwin, deeply associated with lethwei. Mainly older lethwei fighters will wear them but some younger fighters have adopted the practice as well. There's a Wikipedia page on this, but the sources on htoe kwin I'm not too sure about, lots of misinterpreted, simplified info spread by Westerners due to lack of Burmese translation. 

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On 5/26/2023 at 12:54 PM, LengLeng said:

Mainly older lethwei fighters will wear them but some younger fighters have adopted the practice as well.

I wonder if what is being depicted is (easily) identifiable ethnic differences, rather than just a practice. I'm feeling that the tattoos, at least at this time (late 1800s) indicated a people. I believe Burma had several warring, or at least conflicting ethnicities.


Thank you for following along. It is a difficult thread, as some of this is just dropping article reference, and some posts are concept building posts. What is interesting is that all of this is very likely the kind of work that just is never attempted in relationship to Muay Thai or even combat sports/arts. The story of the development of Muay Thai is often a very simple one, with very little specific anchorage in history. And in English this story just gets repeated. But, because there is very little substantive scholarship on Muay Thai, one has to bring together diverse scholarship from other fields, and attempt to piece together a picture, create a new, richer, more complex story.

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On 5/26/2023 at 12:54 PM, LengLeng said:

ave some reflections to come on myay thai fighting as avoidance of conflict

Importantly, the most substantial sources on this would point to this being a mode of Southeast Asian mode warfare, and not particular to Thailand. I'm just drawing on these wider observations and applying them to what we know of Thailand's Muay Thai.

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20 hours ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

I wonder if what is being depicted is (easily) identifiable ethnic differences, rather than just a practice. I'm feeling that the tattoos, at least at this time (late 1800s) indicated a people. I believe Burma had several warring, or at least conflicting ethnicities.

Yes I believe you are right. Leg tattoos are also associated with the Shan people (one of the hundreds of ethnic groups in Myanmar) so the illustrations could depict that. Face tattoos for example are closely related to the Chin people, and the Naga ppl have their distinctive tattoos. And since the leg tattoos are a sign of masculinity/becoming a man lethwei fighters might have picked it up since you see it among lethwei fighters of various ethnicities. . 


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19 hours ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

Importantly, the most substantial sources on this would point to this being a mode of Southeast Asian mode warfare, and not particular to Thailand. I'm just drawing on these wider observations and applying them to what we know of Thailand's Muay Thai.

Yes, understood. It resonates a lot with evasive muay thai comparing it to that kind of warfare. What caught my attention is the stark contrast to lethwei which is very aggressive and forward moving. I have a limited view not speaking the language properly and lethwei teachers or students who do are very few. And Burmese people who do speak English but not too invested in martial arts have a hard time translating for me as the Burmese words used for various strikes and techniques are not self-explanatory. In addition, the sport is dominated by Karen, Mon and Kachin people with different languages. My teachers are Karen and their words for specific techniques are different than Bamar people's for example. 

But having trained with very traditional teachers and shared some clips with Sylvie, seems like traditional techniques I'm being taught are very similar to muay boran. So even though the sport today might seem brutal and aggressive there is something beneath what it has become known as "most brutal sports on the planet" (and promoted as by western fighters). I've been taught techniques that would pacify my opponent like stomping their foot with my heel, push my thumb into the neck of my opponent, heel kick back of opponents knee in the clinch. Things that are effective but doesn't cause too much damage. Which would resonate with your reflections on capture not kill. 

One thing though is that retreating is not viewed beautifully in traditional lethwei. And caused a bit of drama recently when two champions met in a title fight scored on points and one of the up and coming champions Thway Thit used a retreating style making champion Tun Tun Min chase him. Thway Thit won (very fairly he scored more) but his backing up caused debate. 

I wonder if it has to do with more recent history. Myanmar was colonised by Britain, occupied by Japan and since independence oppressed by the Myanmar armed forces with around 26 Ethnic Armed Organisations fighting for their independence (Karen being very successful example). During the recent coup people fought back. They wouldn't have it. They won't give up. Myanmar culture has a lot of stubbornness in it. Which I see reflected in lethwei. 

I might simplify your theories here by seeing how Thailand avoided colonisation, it evaded it very cleverly. 

I saw something you wrote about burning villages by the way, this is of course pre-Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces established in 1940s), but scorching earth policy is a permanent strategy of the Tatmadaw (they just keep burning down villages as im writing this). I wonder if there's a cultural root in that depicted in the illustrations?

Above views are really just my own reflections and very anecdotal. I just find this region very interesting and I'm wondering how Khun Khmer and Lao martial arts fit in. 

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5 hours ago, LengLeng said:

In addition, the sport is dominated by Karen, Mon and Kachin people with different languages. My teachers are Karen and their words for specific techniques are different than Bamar people's for example. 

One of the interesting things in Michael Chaney treatment is that he specifically would like to erase the highland/lowland distinction that a lot of historians focus on. This, for instance, in Thai-Siam studies can be quite emphasized. Part of this may be that highland cultures may have had more of a penchant for aggression or violence in combat - for instance headhunting seems to have persisted in the highland regions much longer than elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia, and in Siam-Thai ideology these peoples have been positioned as "savage", opposed to the high culture of the Capital and its halo of authority out to the foothills of the North. I don't really know the distribution of ethnicity, but have you noticed an cultural connection between highland (or lowland) Burmese and present day Lethwei? 


5 hours ago, LengLeng said:

I've been taught techniques that would pacify my opponent like stomping their foot with my heel, push my thumb into the neck of my opponent, heel kick back of opponents knee in the clinch. Things that are effective but doesn't cause too much damage. Which would resonate with your reflections on capture not kill. 

That is a very nice data point. My own intuition is that I have doubts about Muay Boran (or Lethwei) directly coming from combat itself, at least large scale combat tracing back to the 17th century, for example. My main reason for this is that practically every piece of evidence I've seen is that this kind of combat is not weaponless at all. Everyone is armed with blades, spear/lance and/or shield. I'm sure every rice farmer was very adept at using a blade for work. If there WAS a direct development of a fighting art for or from military actions it most certainly would have been a weaponed fighting art, and the shield would probably be a significant aspect of that fighting. We can make conceptual connections to how Muay Thai, Muay Boran or (I guess) Lethwei may be related to weaponed fighting...but that fact that it isn't weaponed fighting seriously undermines some of that historical picture.

I could though see subduing an opponent being part of much smaller scale raiding, which would be largely focused on slave capture.

5 hours ago, LengLeng said:

I wonder if it has to do with more recent history. Myanmar was colonised by Britain, occupied by Japan and since independence oppressed by the Myanmar armed forces with around 26 Ethnic Armed Organisations fighting for their independence (Karen being very successful example). During the recent coup people fought back. They wouldn't have it. They won't give up. Myanmar culture has a lot of stubbornness in it. Which I see reflected in lethwei. 

I think this makes perfect sense. I think trends in culture and expression really change and can change fast, in a decade or two, and not necessarily reach back centuries. A big part of the ideological picture Thailand presents about Muay Thai is that it is the reason the Thais were never in historical fact colonized (the story that is told). Instead it is presented that a series of Kings through strategy were able to find ways to absorb Western influence & control, and retain a sense of ideological identity. [sorry, I wrote all this before I saw that you brought it up! But I'll leave it in nonetheless] In the Thai telling they "won" because they were smart and pliant before a formidable force, something they navigated with great sagacity. You can see how the two mythologies diverge (not making judgements on either). The brief (allied) Japanese occupation left a mark on Thailand, but largely there has been seldom a sense that a foreign invader had to be fought off (since the Burmese defeat of Ayutthaya, with possible exceptions of some of the 19th century slave capture revolts in the Northeast, and the fight against Communism in the 1960s-1970s, and today's insurgence in the South). Largely, Thailand has painted itself as "whole". Maybe this makes a big difference in terms of what fighting means to a culture.

5 hours ago, LengLeng said:

I wonder if there's a cultural root in that depicted in the illustrations?

Much further up in the thread this is discussed in broad SEA historical view by Anthony Reid. He suggests that even the way in which SEAians thought about property, identity, wealth, was shaped by the transience of wooden houses. This flows into the idea of the perpetual possibility of retreat. Houses were not valuable. The land in a certain sense is not valuable (because fertile land is not scare, as say it is in Europe). Speaking very broadly, invaders or raiders would come, villagers would run to the forest and take all their valuables with them (wealth had to be transportable), and the village would be burned. He presents this as nearly a pan SEA pattern lasting centuries. When the Dutch came and established trading posts in, I think Jakarta?, they were forbidden from building anything with stone. Everything had to be made from wood, with the exception of the palace (and perhaps wats). In the sense or warfare and conflict, if Anthony Reid is right, then raid (and maybe burning) were a regular part of the life cycle, as was fleeing to the forest or mountains, and relocating one's village. The main point was not to be captured, and to escape with one's relative wealth (rice, valuables).

Personally, I see in this transience of the abode something even of the foundations of the Buddhist conceptions of the transience of the Self. As the palace and the wat were made of stone, you have the contrastive permanence of spiritual and political authority. This is quite different than in the West where one's home/land helps constitute one's more individual identity much more. The "castle" of the Self, to which Western religions are more focused on. In any case, an interesting speculation.



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Sorry for not answering in proper quotations, a quick input. I asked someone who documents lethwei about it:

"I think a lot of people mistake the tattoos for being directly connected to lethwei. I've seen them in so many more contexts including theatre and other traditional sports from Burma."

On martial arts as warfare I completely agree with you. It would be extremely odd if weapons were not included. Lethwei belongs to "thaing" though, one of Myanmar's traditional martial arts together with banshe which uses weapons. I understand Myanmar army has been trained in Thaing and historically there were differences between various people and parts of the country, lowlands and highlands. Could be a connection there? 

In lethwei what we see today I think difference is more in personal styles than ethnicity but I'm not 100% sure. 




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If interested in other examples of differing martial logics, these two videos by S.C.M. Paine who teaches at the Naval War College, on her theory of Continental (occupy) vs Maritime (trade) Empires may be worth listening to. I found them fascinating. She repeats her theory in each, the second one is a Q&A with more emphasis on contemporary events and is probably more engaging.

The Geopolitics and History of Continental and Maritime Power - S.C.M. Paine (2 years ago)


Sarah C. M. Paine - WW2, Taiwan, Ukraine, & Maritime vs Continental Powers (new)

Her theory of empires is perhaps related to these historical questions about Siam & mainland warfare (there have have been informative debates over whether early Siamese empires were land oriented or maritime), but her theory does not explicitly map onto the land vs labor analysis. A dialogue between these two frameworks would be interesting.

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and later



from "Siam’s Colonial Conditions and the Birth of Thai History"
Thongchai Winichakul


A bit more support of the notion that Siamese battles were personified moral contests, at least from the historical perspective. Further up in this thread this is discussed in terms of representational, ritualistic combat, a logic of combat that at least to me likely played out on the local level of betting, provisional Muay Thai over centuries: combatant as substantive representative for a community or clan.

For more thoughts in this direction see, this theory on the Spiritual logic of Thailand's Muay Thai:

Muay Thai Spiritual Charisma-1.png


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More footnotes to the thesis that war was essentially labor capture, and that this was extremely wide spread. In the 1830s Chiang Mai (region) population was reported to be 3/4s comprised of war slaves.

from "Of Corvee and Slavery: Historical Intricacies of the Division of Labor and State Power in Northern Thailand",  Katherine Bowie


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footnotes. More on the transitory, seasonal migration of culture in SEA. Not only the patterns of tradewinds, but also large scale slave captures in warfare. Not only was there a continuous cultural mix from external cultures, slave warfare was constantly stirring the influences within SEA itself.

"Southeast Asian Slavery and Slave‐Gathering Warfare as a Vector for Cultural Transmission: The Case of Burma and Thailand" (2009)





and then a restatement of the Anthony Reid thesis with detail on slave management by skill:






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Continuing from the article above,

The primary result of warfare in Siam was that a village, a tow, wld be marched as slave labor en masse to a new location in proximity to the victor's land. There were constant forced migrations that often involved harsh marches. This is 1 reason why warfare could involve evasion.



For this reason capture & surrender often involved strategic assessment from the nobility, towns caught between major powers. Escape into the forests was a option for the common folk.



The conclusion paints a vivid picture of the kinds of choices that faced the towns and villages that would be relocated to the Chiangmai region of Lanna. Continuous warfare instability, famine, tigers and bandits.



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In Thailand's Muay Thai it is the opposite. This fundamental criteria reversal leads to a lot of Western viewers being confused over how fights are scored. Just being very broad about it, when a Thai fighter takes the lead in a fight - something that they know because audience gambling odds have changed in their favor - they begin to retreat. The retreating, defensive fighter is seen as protecting their lead. Their defense becomes their path to victory, which is why historically Thai fighters became the best defensive fighters in the world. Defense takes the spotlight in almost any lead, all other things being equal. A fighter going to the ropes in the broad Western conception is a fighter who has been forced there. A fighter who goes to the ropes in Muay Thai is in the dominant picture of thought signalling that they are in the lead. It's an upside down world for the Westerner and leads to a lot of miscomprehension. It's best to continually return to the note that these are broad, image-of-thought pictures of aggression and ring space. Judging a fight is much more complex than this. Over the years there are pendulum swings in how aggressive or active the retreating fighter has to be, and this is something that has differed even between the National Stadia of the sport, each with their own scoring aesthetics. Broadly though, the way that the edges and corners are semiotically coded, what they signify, is areas of control where fights are won and lost. And, because fighters in the lead retreat and defend, a lot of fights head to the edges, especially in the traditional, high-scoring later rounds. If you want to see the highest levels of this edge-excellence, I recommend this fight between two legends of the sport. Somrak in red, Boonlai in blue. Noteworthy in this fight is that Somrak at this time was one of the best Western Boxers all of Thailand. In a few years he would go onto win Gold at the 1996 Olympics in Mayweather's division. In this fight he hardly throws a punch until the fight is well in hand. It's footwork, interception, movement and countering, a great deal of it at the edge. At the edge because he is winning, and he is signalling his superiority. watch Boonlai vs Somrak here Another classic example is this study of Samart Payakaroon, widely thought to be the GOAT of Muay Thai, fighting the forward knee-fighter Namphon Nongkipahayuth (below). Watch the entire fight, but also look at the study of how Samart, almost always on the ropes, command and controls Namphon's knee and clinch attack through interception and movement. In a manner different than much of Western symbology, Samart is signaling his dominance through rope work, interception and evasion. watch this study of Samart's defense along the ropes in his Golden Age rematch vs Namphon   In a general way, just at the level of style, watch this highlight compilation of the switching footwork of possibly the most artful fighter of Thailand's Golden Age, the great Karuhat Sor Supawan (below). You will see his deft switching in both attack and defense at the ropes featured here, but when in the lead and he performs his best magic, his back is to the rope. Back to the rope signals dominance. watch Muay Thai Scholar's study of the legend Karuhat's switching footwork   Dipping into Thai History and the Games of Go and Chess Thailand's Muay Thai is a fighting art and combat sport of extraordinary uniqueness. Fashioned as it has been from at least 100+ years of continuous provincial fighting deep in its countryside custom - something that may stretch back multiple centuries - fortified and shaped by Royal and State warfare, itself composed of worldwide mercenary influences, from Japanese & Javanese merchant pirates to Persian & Portuguese regimented manpower, it stands as both a cosmopolitan fighting art, and still one which has been richly woven together as wholly Buddhistic Siamese and then Thai continuity. Channeled and informed by British Boxing's colonialist, pressuring example in its modernizing period (1920-1950s), what remains most valuable in Muay Thai are the ways it is like no other fighting art. It's a purity of difference. Both lab-tested in 100,000s of full-contact ring fights multiplied by generations, and expressive of wool-dyed Buddhistic principles, this is a synergy of provincial and the Capital fight knowledge, both martial and sport, like no other in the world. They just fight differently...and have arguably been the best ring fighters in the world. The at-top diagram juxtaposing two combat inspired board games, Chess and the game of Go, aims to draw out some of the deeper philosophical and conceptual differences between Thailand's Southeast Asian fighting art and many of Western conceptions of combat, especially at the dominant image of thought level. Chess is a game of some disputed origin approximately 1,500 years ago. It was not a Western game. It's largely believed to have come from India by way of Persia. The Western Chess vocabulary is etymologically Persian, and the Persian version of the game is closest to the one adopted in Europe. Interestingly enough, the birth of Chess and its dissemination throughout the world across tradewinds corresponds roughly to the period, 3rd-6th century AD, during which Southeast Asia underwent Indianization. Indian culture became powerfully adopted throughout mainland Southeast Asia, and importantly in the history of Siam significantly informed Khmer Empire (today's Cambodia) royalty warfare and statecraft, much of which would be adopted by Siamese kings to the West. Royal, court and State culture was Indianized, bearing qualities (language, social forms, knowledges) which were not shared by the common populace. The Indianization of Southeast Asia has been culturally compared to the Roman Empire's Romanization in of Europe. And to this day Thai Royalty, its Brahmin customs and practices, the common worship of Hindu gods within a Buddhist context reflects this 1,500 years of influence of Indian culture. This is to say, when comparing Thailand's Muay Thai to the West via the game of Chess, we are speaking of a game that was of Indian and Persian origin, something quite closely braided within Siamese history. For instance, King Narai of Ayutthaya in 17th century had 200 Persian warriors as his personal guard. The influence of India and Persia is profound. What I want you to see is that Muay Thai's historical past is likely quite imbricated. There are layers upon layers of historical segmentation. Within this history the Royal form in particular had a distinctly Indianized history, and Thailand's Muay Thai has had a robust Royal history surrounding the raising of armies, large scale wars at times with armies (perhaps fancifully) rumored to approach 1,000,000 men. This Statecraft heritage is likely something we can see reflected in the game of Chess itself, the game of Kings, castles and queens. And, the history that we have of Thailand's Muay Thai is almost entirely composed of this Royal-State story, as royal record and foreign visitors to Siam's kingdoms comprises our written history. The possible story of Muay Thai that involves provincial, rural, village, regional martial and sport practices has vanished seemingly just as much as houses of wood or bamboo will not be preserved. Yet, in the nature of Southeast Asian and Siamese fighting arts we very well may see the martial contrastive martial logic of the Siamese people, especially when compared to the visions of the West. Chess, Go, Striated and Smooth Spaces In this we turn to the 4,000 year old Chinese and then Japanese game of Go (the game of surrounding). wikipedia: Japanese word igo (囲碁; いご), which derives from earlier wigo (ゐご), in turn from Middle Chinese ɦʉi gi (圍棋, Mandarin: wéiqí, lit. 'encirclement board game' or 'board game of surrounding'). I have written about the historical origins of Thailand's Muay Thai that particularly bring out its logic of surrounding and capture, a martial logic that is quite embodied in the game of Go (The Historical Foundations of Thailand's Retreating Style, or How They Became the Best Defensive Fighters In the World). In short, historians of Southeast Asia point out that unlike in Europe where land was scarce (and therefore the anchor of wealth), and manpower plentiful, conquering land and killing occupying enemies formed a basic martial logic in warfare. In Southeast Asia where fecund land was everywhere, but population sparse (especially in Siam which had been one of the least populated regions of Southasia), warfare was focused on capture and enslavement. Enemy land capture was at a minimum, and even in the case of the famed and ruinous sackings of the Siamese Capital of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, the captured territory was not held. These are just very different spatial and aim-oriented logics, in fact opposite logics. I'm using the game of Go, which expresses a fluid rationality of edge control and reversible enemy capture (captured stones add to your wealth, and don't only subtract from one's enemy), opposed to the more centric, land-control logic of Chess. A Chess of Indian-Persian statecraft which resonated with European political and warfare realities. This juxtaposition between games is not mine, though I'm probably the first to use it to illuminate combat sport perceptions in today's ring fighting. It comes from the sociologically oriented philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. A notoriously difficult work due to its heavy reliance on invented vocabularies, and its opaque, keyed-in references to specific philosophical traditions, psychoanalysis and their theoretical problems, it still provides rich analysis of buried trends in Western social organization, and a metaphysics for thinking about the history of the world as a whole. What Deleuze and Guattari want to do in contrasting Go with Chess is to think about the different ways that Space is organized and traversed by political powers and regimes of meaning. They propose that Chess is a striated (divided, segmented, hierarchical) Space, And Go more of a smooth space. This blogged description is a good summary of the two kinds of Space: The much older game of Go is a strategy of surround and capture, wherein you turn an enemy's wealth - by our analogy labor-power - into your own. This is mirrored in Siamese warfare as reported in 1688 by an Iranian vistor, "...the struggle is wholly confined to trickery and deception. They have no intention of killing each other or of inflicting any great slaughter because if a general gained a real conquest, he would be shedding his own blood so to speak" (context, Ibrahim), full quote here. We have at surface a strong homology between foreign reports and the structural nature of the game of Go. More can be understood of my position and the role of evasion, surround-and-capture principles in this extended thread here. Diving down into the more philosophical ramifications I provide the extended Deleuze & Guattari quotation comparing the game of Chess vs the game of Go: Rather, he is like a pure and immeasurable multiplicity, the pack, an irruption of the ephemeral and the power of metamorphosis. He unties the bond just as he betrays the pact. He brings a furor to bear against sovereignty, a celerity against gravity, secrecy against the public, a power (puissance) against sovereignty, a machine against the apparatus. He bears witness to another kind of justice, one of incomprehensible cruelty at times, but at others of unequaled pity as well (because he unties bonds.. .). He bears witness, above all, to other relations with women, with animals, because he sees all things in relations of becoming, rather than implementing binary distributions between "states": a veritable becoming-animal of the warrior, a becoming-woman, which lies outside. Let us take a limited example and compare the war machine and the State apparatus in the context of the theory of games. Let us take chess and Go, from the standpoint of the game pieces, the relations between the pieces and the space involved. Chess is a game of State, or of the court: the emperor of China played it. Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game's form of interiority. Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: Thus the relations are very different in the two cases. Within their milieu of interiority, chess pieces entertain biunivocal relations with one another, and with the adversary's pieces: their functioning is structural. On the other hand, a Go piece has only a milieu of exteriority, or extrinsic relations with nebulas or constellations, according to which it fulfills functions of insertion or situation, such as bordering, encircling, shattering. All by itself, a Go piece can destroy an entire constellation synchronically; a chess piece cannot (or can do so diachronically only). Chess is indeed a war, but an institutionalized, regulated, coded war, with a front, a rear, battles. But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology. Finally, the space is not at all the same: in chess, it is a question of arranging a closed space for oneself, thus of going from one point to another, of occupying the maximum number of squares with the minimum number of pieces. In Go, it is a question of arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point: the movement is not from one point to another, but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, with out departure or arrival. The "smooth" space of Go, as against the "striated" space of chess. The nomos of Go against the State of chess, nomos against polis. The difference is that chess codes and decodes space, whereas Go proceeds altogether differently, territorializing or deterritorializing it (make the outside a territory in space; consolidate that territory by the construction of a second, adjacent territory; deterritorialize the enemy by shattering his territory from within; deterritorialize oneself by renouncing, by going elsewhere . ..). Another justice, another movement, another space-time. Deleuze & Guattari, "1227: TREATISE ON NOMADOLOGY—THE WAR MACHINE", A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia   Becoming and A Warfare of Capture What Deleuze and Guattari are invoking is a conception of warfare which is much more fully potentiated. Not locked into rigid hierarchies and roles of figures of power, it is a much more metaphysical battle that reflects aspects of what I have argued is the spiritual foundation of Thailand's Muay Thai, an animism of powers within the history of the culture that predates the arrival of Buddhism (Toward a Theory of the Spirituality of Thailand's Muay Thai). This logic of an animism of powers contains an essential aspect of captured power, the incorporated power of a captured enemy, founded on what historians of Southeast Asia have called "Soul Stuff", roughly equivalent of Hindu shakti (strength). This can be manifested in captured slave labor, or perhaps even in the prehistoric rites of cannibalism through which one consumed the soul stuff of an enemy. You can find a logic of Soul Stuff here, this graphic below helps represent the animism of contest. A primary source on soul stuff and a fusion of military and spiritual prowess can be found with historian O.W. Walters here. Thus, within the cultural origins of Siamese culture, even that which pre-dates the Indianization of the region, we have essential aspects of a smooth, tactical space in a Deleuze & Guattari sense, which potentially maps quite well into the game of Go, especially as it is contrasted to Chess.   Further in concordance with Deleuze & Guattari's philosophical concept of liberty is the way in which Thailand's Muay Thai can be understood as revolutionary in their terms. Deleuze & Guattari write of becoming-animal, becoming-child, becoming-woman, deterritorializing flights inimitable to human freedom. Thailand's Muay Thai (& broader Thai agonism) de-privileges these categories, along a continuous spectrum of thymotic struggle, which runs thru the social hierarchies of low to high, sewing them together. One could say a smooth thymotic space of trajectories. Thailand known for its (ethically criticized) child fighting, women have fought for 100+ yrs, and beetle fighting embodies much of the Muay Thai gambled form. In many important ways Thailand's Muay Thai avoids the stacked arboreal structure of Western Man (& its contrastive Others), favoring a continuity agonistic spectrum within its (Indianized) hierarchies. It has strongly weighted traditional hierarchies, but within this a thymotic line-of-becoming that runs between divinity and animality. see Beetle Fighting, Muay Thai and the Health of the Culture of Thailand - The Ecology of Fighting more on the division of divinity and animality by wicha here: Muay Thai Seen as a Rite: Sacrifice, Combat Sports, Loser as Sacred Victim Knowing-as-doing, the wicha of technical knowledge of how to do, runs between the axes of divinity and animality in a way that supports a mutuality of any figure's becoming, from the insect up to the heightened champion fighter, in a line of flight shared by others. Most Deleuzian becoming-animal, -child, -woman examples come from the arts (sometimes the bedroom), but instead in Thai, gambled agonism we have the becoming of actual animals, children, women & the projective affects of an equally agonistic audience undergoing its own becoming-as. When I say revolutionary, I say "Thailand's Muay Thai has something to teach the world about the nature of violence and its meaning." Learning From Chess in How to See Thailand's Muay Thai Keep in mind, this isn't an direct one-for-one comparison of the contemporary game of Chess (and Chess Theory) and the ring sport of Muay Thai. It compares the dominant image of thought in the conceptual trend. Some have pointed out that my gross picture of Chess leaves out its post-1920s modern Chess Theory development, which often eschews central forward advancement. What is important in the Chess example isn't how Chess was played in 1960s, say, but rather that Chess over the sweep of its history allows us to see how it expressed the martial logic from which it came, ie, how some battles were fought in the field, with advancing lines, and a central capture of territory focus. Chess I would argue contains a martial logic fingerprint in its organizational structure, just as the real life political powers of Kings, Queens, knights and bishops made their impact on its rules & formation, the increased power of the Queen on the board said to be a fine example of this (see: A Queen in Any Other Language). Even in the Hypermodernism of Chess one might say that the center still holds importance, as there are just other ways of controlling or managing it.  Hypermodernism for instance may have reflected the increased use of cannon & then WW1 artillery. Between the two games of Chess and Go are differing Martial Logics. It doesn't mean that there is zero fighting for the center in Muay Thai (or in Southeast Asian warfare...siege warfare is prominent in Ayutthaya history for instance, though with influence from the Portuguese, etc), or that there is zero edge or flank control in Western European warfare or Chess (flank maneuvers are numerous in European warfare). The contrast is really meant to exposed how we perceive conflict spatially, and that these are things we've culturally inherited. You see these inherited concepts, for instance the centrality of territory capture in common Western scoring criteria like "ring control". Centralized conflict is part of our past and informs how we judge fighting styles, just as edge conflict is part of Southeast Asia's past. And importantly this also informs our ideas of violence, with a European tendency toward "kill" (to control land, ie the center) and a SEA tendency toward "capture"(to control labor, ie the edge).  
    • Hey so im an ammateur fighting in europe mostly at DIY events. The thing is even though every fight I improve I am never able to win and its starting to get to me.  I have 5 fights in total 2 k1 and 3 muay thai and iv never won a muay thai, won 1 k1 cos my cardio was better than the other girl and I just out brawld her.  People say wow your technique is so much better than the fight I saw you in last year etc but it still feels bitter to constantly lose. I know i am improving but feel that I always just get tougher and tougher matches, the last 3 fights I lost have all been very close fights. One I lost cos my opponent got injured and broke her ankle when I bloked with a knee but she was able to hide it, another one I lost cos she was using more clean techniques and I was brawling (this one I agree with 100% cos I was landing but it was sloppy.)  The last one I lost cos my cardio was bad which is also fine. I am fine with losing, its just starting to get to me that I never win. It also kinda annoys me that the only fight I ever won was one that I just outbrawled the other girl. Feels like my improvements havnt really helped me cos I just get matched with tougher and tougher opponents each time.  Im wondering if I should give up on decision fights for a while and just do non decisions to get my condifence back up or whether I will eventually break through and be able to win. I am also kinda old at 32 so even though my technique is improving my strength, reflexes and reactions will begin to fade soon. 
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