Eighteenth Century Burma & Siam

   by Charles Kimball

Siam still had a problem with royal succession in the 18th century; as the country grew richer, the problem got worse, because the rewards to be gained by winning the throne were greater than ever. The 300-year-old laws of King Trailok limited the number of eligible candidates, but there still was a crisis almost every time the throne became vacant. If an uparat died before the king did, only an overwhelmingly popular monarch like Naresuen could name a new heir and make the claim stick. Another factor was that control of the country's laborers and soldiers was divided evenly between three princes, giving them a powerful role as kingmakers. Many of the kings that ruled in the 17th and early 18th centuries did so by disguised or real usurpations; power mattered more than legitimacy here.

The last competent Ayutthayan king, Song Tham (1733-58), tried to bring stability by dividing the country's manpower between thirteen princes instead of three, so that none could seize the throne by himself. Because of the troubles that came after his reign, Song Tham is called Borommakot by modern Thais, meaning "The King in the Urn (awaiting cremation)," because he was the last 18th century king to receive a proper funeral.(1)

There was also trouble in Siam's vassal state to the southeast, Cambodia. In 1710 Vietnam's Nguyen monarch invaded and placed a pro-Vietnamese prince on the Cambodian throne. Siam tried to remove him but couldn't, so an agreement was reached where Cambodia paid tribute to both Siam and Vietnam. For the next century and a half Cambodia alternated between pro-Siamese and pro-Vietnamese rulers with distressing frequency.

Burma could be ignored in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but things changed suddenly when an aggressive new dynasty came to power. In the 1740s all of Burma's ethnic minorities revolted. At the same time the raja of Manipur, the nearest Indian state, regularly sent raiders into the country. The rebellions culminated in 1752 when the Mons, aided by the French, captured Ava, bringing the Toungoo dynasty to an end.

The Mon rule of Burma, however, was brief, for the Mons had defeated the Burmese king, not his people. In the same year a popular local leader, Alaungpaya, rose up and gained control of Upper Burma and the Shan states. By 1758 he had also conquered Manipur and the Mons, defeating their French allies. Siam grew alarmed and tried to start new rebellions, and Alaungpaya responded by invading Siam in 1759. First he took the ports of Moulmein, Tavoy, and Tenasserim; they have been part of Burma ever since. Ayutthaya was surrounded in the following year, but before the city could be taken, a Burmese cannon exploded, mortally wounding Alaungpaya. He died while his army retreated home.

Where Alaungpaya failed his son Hsinbyushin (1763-76) was dreadfully successful. After putting down a rebellion in Chiangmai, he invaded Siam with three armies: one followed the traditional invasion route, the Three Pagodas Pass; one came from Chiangmai, and one came from the Malay peninsula. The siege of Ayutthaya lasted fourteen months (February 1766-April 1767), and when the capital fell, the Burmese destroyed it completely. Ten thousand captives were led away to Burma, everything flammable was put to the torch, and the Burmese did not let their piety stop them from hacking gold plate off images of the Buddha. The ruined city was never rebuilt.

The Burmese army promptly withdrew after it was finished with Ayutthaya, thinking that Siam had been destroyed with its capital. However, Siam had one good leader left, a half-Chinese general named Taksin. He first gained renown when he fought the most successful holding action against the Burmese, delaying one of their armies for five months. He was put in charge of Ayutthaya's defenses, but could not launch an effective counterattack, which brought some unfair criticism from the Siamese king. Unable to make the king listen to reason, Taksin cut his way out of the doomed city with 500 followers and escaped. When he reached the Gulf of Thailand, Taksin began to raise a new army. No longer forced to fight from a fixed position, he went from victory to victory, gaining more recruits every time he won a battle. Siam was quickly liberated, and Taksin had himself crowned at a new capital, Thonburi, near the mouth of the Menam River.

The warrior king's troubles were, however, far from ended. First of all, four rivals (a prince, a monk, and two governors) claimed the throne for themselves; it took a three-year civil war (1767-70) to eliminate them. Second, Burma did not give up easily, and a follow-up invasion had to be driven back. Finally, Taksin was motivated to restore the glories of Ayutthayan Siam overnight, so he conquered Chiangmai (1776, this time for good) and Laos (1778); he also sent yet another expedition into Cambodia. Fifteen years of uninterrupted warfare took its toil; the king went insane, and declared himself a Bodhisattva (saint or living Buddha).

In 1781 the Siamese nobility decided that Taksin had to be replaced; he had become a threat to Buddhism and his country. They placed him in a monastery, and offered the crown to Chakri, Taksin's best general, who hurriedly called off the Cambodian campaign so he could accept it. But before the coronation could take place, something had to be done about Taksin. The hero of 1767 was (reluctantly) executed, which both cured the royal madness and removed the biggest challenge to Chakri's rule. Because Burma was still a threat, the capital was moved across the Menam River to Bangkok, on the east bank. Chakri went down in history as King Rama I, and the dynasty he started still rules Thailand today.

- It is worth pointing out here that Borommakot is also credited with saving Therevada Buddhism in its homeland, Sri Lanka. By his time Sri Lankan Buddhism had declined so badly, in numbers and quality of teaching, that the remaining monks turned to Siam for help. Borommakot sent missions to Sri Lanka that ordained monks and purified existing teachings and practices. The school they established, called Syamvamsa, still exists today. Nowadays the Thai people claim that their country has replaced Sri Lanka as the true headquarters of Buddhism.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball