The Second Burmese Empire

   by Charles Kimball

The fall of Ava caused power in Burma to pass from the Shan-dominated north and east to the city of Toungoo. Before this time Toungoo had been an independent city-state halfway between Ava and Pegu, settled by Burmese refugees fleeing the Shan raids. It managed to survive because it allied itself with either Ava or Pegu, switching sides from time to time to prevent its conquest by one of the two larger states. After Ava fell the Toungoo king, Tabinshweti (1531-50), saw an opportunity to reunite Burma under his rule. He started by pushing south to the Irrawaddy delta in 1535; Pegu was surrounded, but not taken until 1539, thanks to a Portuguese ship that aided the defenders.

To prevent lengthy sieges in the future, Tabinshweti hired some Portuguese mercenaries of his own, using them to conquer the rest of the Mon kingdom (Martaban, Tavoy, Moulmein, and the Tenasserim coast) in 1541. Then came a decisive victory against the Shans. After crowning himself king of Burma at Pagan, Tabinshweti returned to Pegu, crowned himself king of the Mons, and announced that Pegu would become his permanent capital. Then he invaded Arakan, only to call off the attack when he got news of a raid on Tavoy by the country he now saw as his real enemy--Siam. His invasion of Siam in 1547-48 went as planned until he reached the walls of Ayutthaya, where his 180 Portuguese gunners met their match in the 50 Portuguese gunners hired by Siam. The thwarted Burmese returned without spoil, harassed by the incessant attacks of the Siamese. Two defeats in a row were too much for Tabinshweti; he lost control of both himself and his kingdom, and was assassinated.

Five princes claimed Tabinshweti's throne at Pegu, but one of them, the late king's brother-in-law Bayinnaung, quickly eliminated the others. His thirty-year reign (1551-81) was the most energetic period in Burmese history. Once the south was secure, he marched north and east, conquering Ava, the Shan states, and Chiangmai (1554-7).

Between campaigns Bayinnaung found time to be an ardent patron of Buddhism. Perhaps he did it in atonement for all the lives lost in his wars. Wherever he went he built pagodas, made and distributed copies of the scriptures, and fed monks. He outlawed animal sacrifice, a common practice by Moslems and the animist Shans. Often he sent offerings to the Sri Lankan temple where the Tooth of the Buddha was kept, one time sending brooms made from his own and the chief queen's hair. In 1560 he got an awful shock when the Portuguese raided Sri Lanka, to punish a local ruler for persecuting St. Francis Xavier's Catholic converts. Among the treasures brought back to Goa was a tooth, presumably Buddha's. Bayinnaung sent envoys with an offer of 300,000 ducats for it. But the Inquisition declared the tooth to be a dangerous idol and had it destroyed. Not long after that two more holy teeth appeared in Sri Lanka, the backers of each insisting it was really the original. One of them is enshrined in the Temple of the Tooth today; the other was sent to Bayinnaung as a gift, along with a Sinhalese bride.

Burma might have enjoyed a long period of peace had the phenomenal king stopped his conquests with Chiangmai. But Chiangmai opened the way to both Laos and Siam, and Bayinnaung had ambitions even greater than his talents. He captured Ayutthaya easily in 1564, but not for long, because the Siamese king, Maha Chakrap'at, promptly revolted at the first opportunity. Bayinnaung returned in 1569, captured Ayutthaya a second time, and placed a pro-Burmese prince on the Siamese throne. This time Siam stayed loyal for the rest of his reign, but troubles sprang up elsewhere. Cambodia attacked, seeing an opportunity to even old scores with the Thais; six Cambodian raids (1570-87) were defeated, forcing Bayinnaung to rebuild Ayutthaya's defenses, even though he knew that might be asking for trouble in the long run. In the northeast, Laos became a constant source of trouble because it never accepted the loss of Chiangmai. Bayinnaung invaded Laos twice, taking both Laotian capitals (Luang Prabang and Vientiane), but never capturing the king; every time the Burmese withdrew Setthathirat returned to make more trouble. At the time of his death in 1581, Bayinnaung was preparing to conquer Arakan, which up to that date had escaped his attention. The campaign was canceled, and Arakanese independence lasted for two more centuries.

Bayinnaung left his son and successor, Nanda Bayin (1581-99), with more problems than he could handle. In 1584 his uncle revolted at Ava, and Nanda Bayin called upon Pra Naret, the new prince of Siam, for help. Pra Naret brought an army to Pegu, only to discover in the nick of time that Nanda Bayin plotted to kill him. Thereupon he rescued some prisoners previously brought there by Bayinnaung and returned home. Nanda Bayin took this as an insult and invaded Siam three times (1585, 1586, and 1592) to bring Pra Naret to heel; each time Pra Naret crushed the invading forces. Siam's independence was assured after this. In 1590 his father died and he was crowned king of Siam, changing his name to Naresuen. In 1593 he turned the tables on Burma by invading and taking Tavoy and Martaban. Two years later the Burmese governor of Chiangmai had to request Siamese aid to stop an invasion from Laos, and Naresuen gave it on condition that the governor switch his allegiance to Siam.

Burma fell apart completely while Naresuen was restoring Siam. Two brothers of Nanda Bayin revolted, called in help from Arakan, and together they burned Pegu to the ground (1599). Nanda Bayin was taken to Toungoo and executed, and Pegu never completely recovered afterwards. Naresuen was also involved in the attack, but he arrived too late to share in the looting of Pegu; in fact, his "allies" inflicted a nasty defeat that forced him to flee back to Siam.

Nanda Bayin's nephew, Anaukpetlun, recovered Lower Burma (1605-13) and Chiangmai (1615) from his enemies, bringing a measure of stability back to Burma. The Toungoo dynasty moved its capital to Ava, where it lasted until 1752, but its kings were weak, and holding the country together was all they could do.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball