Normally I upload new episodes on the 1st and 16th days of each month, but because February is the shortest month, the latest one is going up a day early. This time we will return to the conflict on the mainland that started at the end of Episode 10. Special attention is given to the two most important Burmese kings of the sixteenth century, Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung. I call this episode and the next one “The Elephant Wars” because most of the fighting was either ON elephants, or OVER elephants.
(Transcript, added 01/26/2020.)
Episode 15: The Elephant Wars, Part 1
Greetings, dear listeners! While I was recording the last episode, I went to see the new Star Wars movie, “Rogue One,” and boy, was it action-packed! Likewise, today’s episode is going to be an action-packed one, too, with hardly a dull moment. I was inspired to call it “The Elephant Wars” because most of the wars covered here were either fought over elephants, or on elephants. The setting for all this is the Southeast Asian mainland, and since we have been talking about Southeast Asia’s islands for the past four epsiodes, I will begin with a recap of sorts, listing the nations that are participating here.
1. Cambodia. Back in Episode 7, Cambodia was Southeast’s Asia’s most impressive nation, but since the Thais captured and looted the great city of Angkor in 1431, Cambodia has only been a shadow of its former self. The Khmers abandoned Angkor to the jungle, and moved to the other end of Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonle Sap. Here they built more than one capital city, including the present-day one, Phnom Penh, and in the 16th century the capital was usually at Longvek, also called Lovek or Lavek. Cambodia is in this episode because it attacked Siam many times, but it no longer was a threat to anybody else.
2. Siam. We met the country that would one day be called Thailand in Episode 10. Now with its capital at Ayutthaya, Siam is coming off some good years in the fifteenth century, but it is surrounded by rival states that do not want its success to continue.
3. Hanthawaddy. This is the Mon state, in Lower or southern Burma, with its capital at Bago. We met the Mons earlier in this podcast; these are cousins of the Khmers who settled in Thailand and Lower Burma, more than 2,000 years ago. The Mons never built an empire, but they played an important role, by being the first to accept Indian civilization, and spreading it to their neighbors, especially the Burmese. Currently they are the richest faction in Burma, thanks to trade with India. However, their star is now setting; the Mons living in Thailand have already been absorbed into the Thai communities that moved in later, and this is the last episode where they will have an important state in Burma.
4. The Shan states. The Shans are a Thai tribe that settled in eastern Burma, so they were too far away to come under Siamese rule. They were never united into one kingdom, and played a precarious game of diplomacy, acting as a vassal to one of their stronger neighbors, and sometimes more than one neighbor, to avoid being conquered outright. There were at least six Shan states in the early sixteenth century, and five of them got together to sack Ava, the Burmese capital, in 1527.
5. The Burmese states. For most of the previous two hundred years, since the fall of Bagan’s empire, the most important city in northern Burma has been Ava. See Episode 9 for Ava’s story. However, as we just noted, Ava was sacked by the Shans in 1527, so the Burmese are now leaderless. The Burmese cities to watch now are Prome, modern Pyay, and Toungoo, also called Taungoo. Which one will take Ava’s place?
6. Arakan. This state on Burma’s northwest coast was isolated from the Burmese states by a mountain range, the Arakan Yoma. We were introduced to Arakan in Episode 5; today it is called Rakhine. Although the people of Arakan are closely related to the Burmese, they have manged to stay independent for most of their history. We will mention them more than once today, but Arakan’s best days are yet to come; I plan to do an episode all about Arakan in the future.
7. Lan Xang. This is the first Laotian state; the name means “One Million Elephants.” Besides modern-day Laos, Lan Xang ruled the Khorat plateau of northeast Thailand, making it twice as large as Laos is today. It was also much stronger; in the 1470s it defeated a Vietnamese invasion, something I don’t think Laos could do today, because it is poorer and has only a fraction of Vietnam’s population. At the end of Episode 10 we saw Lan Xang win the first round, in a fight between the Thai states for control of Chiangmai. Which brings us to . . .
8. Chiangmai. In Episode 10 Chiangmai was the capital of another Thai state, called Lan Na. In the thirteenth century Chiangmai and Siam were friends, but later they became rivals who fought frequently over a city between them, Sukhothai. This went on until 1543, when the last king of Chiangmai died without leaving an heir, and Siam, the Shan states and Lan Xang all fought to add Chiangmai to their kingdoms. The king of Lan Xang, Phothisarat, won the first round, and then died shortly afterwards, so his son, Setthathirat, inherited both the Laotian and Chiangmai thrones.
One final disclaimer. Those of you who listened to Episodes 5 & 9 will know that Burma, also known as Myanmar, has two names for almost every place in the country, thanks to the 1989 decree that ordered foreigners to use Burmese language names only, so whenever I introduce a place in the country, I will give you both the name I learned when I was a youngster, and the name used in atlases and news reports nowadays. You will also remember that a lot of Burmese names are almost unpronounceable in English, so I will warn you up front that I will probably misprounce them again. My Southeast Asian listeners may get a few laughs from my unintentional mistakes here.
Now that the stage is set, let’s jump into the action! What you hear after this will be all killer, no filler.
The Toungoo Dynasty
With Ava eliminated from Southeast Asia’s game of thrones, the fortunes of Toungoo rose rapidly. This city was located in southern Burma, halfway between Ava and Bago, and it took in Burmese refugees fleeing the Shan raids. After it declared independence from Ava in 1510, it made Prome an ally, and it would also ally itself with either Ava or Bago, switching sides whenever it looked like it would be conquered by the Burmese or the Mons.
In 1530 fourteen-year-old Tabinshwehti became king of Toungoo, and he saw the current situation as an opportunity to unite all of Burma under his rule. He started with an attack on Hanthawaddy in 1535, because if he conquered the Mon kingdom, he would gain the wealth of the Mons and direct access to the sea, through control over the Irrawaddy delta. The Mons had a larger army, and their kings in the fifteenth century had been very good rulers, but the current Mon king, Takayutpi, was twenty-four years old, totally incompetent, and had no interest in running the kingdom. The British author G. E. Harvey wrote this about Takayutpi in 1925. Quote: “never looked at a book; he gave himself up for sport in the woods with elephants and horses; he searched for shellfish and crabs; he was like one witless.” End quote. On the other side, the Toungoo armies were led by an excellent general, Bayinnaung, who was also Tabinshwehti’s brother-in-law and a friend since childhood.
Bayinnaung started by capturing Bassein, a city at the mouth of the Irrawaddy that is now called Pathein, but a lengthy siege followed when he reached Bago, because a Portuguese ship full of mercenaries aided the defenders; the mercenaries introduced muskets and cannon to Burma. Bago finally fell in 1539, and Takayutpi fled to Prome. To prevent long sieges in the future, Tabinshwehti hired some Portuguese mercenaries of his own, and used them to conquer the rest of the Mon kingdom. By 1541 they had taken Martaban (modern Mottama), Tavoy (modern Dawei), Moulmein (modern Mawlamyine), and the Tanintharyi or Tenasserim coast. The recruitment of those mercenaries proved to be a good decision when he marched on Prome in 1542. Thohanbwa, the king of Ava, and Min Bin, the king of Arakan, sent troops to support the defense of Prome, and the Arakanese navy took Bassein on the coast, but Bayinnaung prevailed against them all, and took Prome in five months. The Toungoo army advanced as far north as Bagan, and Tabinshwehti celebrated the taking of the ancient Burmese capital by staging a double coronation in 1544. First he had himself crowned in Bagan, with the same ceremonies that had been used for the Bagan kings. As soon as that was done, he went to Bago and staged a matching Mon coronation ceremony. Afterwards he chose a Mon woman, Khay Maw Na, to be his queen, got his hair done in the Mon style, and announced that Bago would become his permanent capital.
Because Arakan had supported Tabinshwehti’s opponents, Arakan was the next enemy that needed killing. Burmese forces overran most of Arakan, and were on the verge of taking the capital, Mrohaung. However, at that point Tabinshwehti heard news about a Siamese invasion from the southeast, and this invasion captured Tavoy in January 1547. Why did Siam do this? Well, Siam had held the land southeast of the Irrawaddy delta in the fourteenth century, and this gave Siam a port on the Indian Ocean. For reasons I wasn’t able to find out, the Siamese kings didn’t want to take it back while the Mons had it, so they waited until it fell into Burmese hands. Big mistake; big, stupid mistake! This marked the beginning of one of history’s long-time rivalries; you can compare it with the more famous rivalries between England and France, or between Rome and Carthage. In Episode 8 of this podcast we covered the rivalry between Vietnam and Champa, which ended in 1471; now the Burma-Siam rivalry will work the same way. Between 1547 and 1855, there were no less than twenty-four wars fought between Burma and Siam. The conflict ended when Britain conquered Burma and spared Siam, so you can say that Siam won, but not through its own efforts.
Tabinshwehti and Min Bin agreed to a truce, and the Burmese withdrew from Arakan so they could deal with the greater threat from Siam. Tavoy was retaken as soon as a Burmese army arrived on the scene, and then in 1548 came a fullscale invasion of Siam. Believe it or not, the Burmese excuse for the invasion was two white elephants. In modern English, “white elephant” is a slang term, meaning something that is unwanted and not useful, but here we’re talking about the real animal. Among Buddhists, white elephants were very special, either seen as reincarnated members of a royal family, or as very good omens, a sign that the kingdom they were born in had an especially virtuous ruler. We also saw in Episode 10 that white elephants were in such demand among Southeast Asian kings that Vietnam and Laos fought a war over one; now it would happen again. The new Siamese king, Maha Chakkraphat, had seven white elephants in the royal herd of 300 elephants, and Tabinshwehti asked for two of them. Most of the Siamese king’s advisors recommended that the request be granted, but Maha Chakkraphat refused, agreeing with those who said that handing over the elephants would be seen as a sign that Siam was subservient to Burma. To the Burmese king, this refusal was an insult, a message that Siam didn’t think he was good enough to have such an animal.
Anyway, the Burmese army marched from Martaban through the Three Pagodas Pass, on the main road between Burma and Siam, and headed stright for Ayutthaya. However, at the walls of Ayutthaya, the 180 Portuguese gunners brought by the Burmese could not beat the 50 Portuguese gunners hired by Siam. One month after the siege began, Siamese forces broke through the Burmese line surrounding the city, forcing a Burmese retreat. According to Thai legends, at the height of the battle, there was a duel fought on elephants. Maha Chakkraphat was riding an elephant, and he was charged by a Burmese leader, the viceroy of Prome, who was also on an elephant. But then Suriyothai, the queen of Siam, saved her husband by riding a third elephant, and putting herself between the two combatants, so the viceroy killed her instead of the king. Supposedly the queen disguised herself by wearing a man’s armor, and the viceroy didn’t know he was fighting a woman until he struck her down and her helmet fell off, revealing her long hair. The queen’s daughter also died fighting in that battle. Unfortunately the Burmese have no records of this duel, so we can’t verify if any of it is true.
After the siege of Ayutthaya failed, the thwarted Burmese went home with nothing to show for their trouble, harassed by the incessant attacks of the Siamese. Two unsuccessful campaigns in a row were too much for Tabinshwehti. A Portuguese mercenary introduced him to wine, and he took such a liking to it that he quickly became an alcoholic. From 1534 to 1548 he had launched military campaigns every year, but now he refused to go on any more campaigns, and went hunting and drinking instead. He wouldn’t handle his royal duties either; the king turned them over to his brother-in-law Bayinnaung. And because he still got his wine from the Portuguese mercenary, he gave his new friend a royal handmaiden for a wife, to make sure the mercenary would come with him wherever he went. In that way, Tabinshwehti lost control over both himself and his kingdom. Bayinnaung had the mercenary arrested and put on a ship leaving the country, but that didn’t cause the king to sober up. One day in 1550, Tabinshwehti went on a hunting trip in a part of the Irrawaddy delta where a white elephant had been spotted, and two of his Mon courtiers beheaded him while he was sleeping in his tent.
Bayinnaung the King
Several provinces promptly rose in revolt when they heard of Tabinshwehti’s death, and five princes claimed the empty throne. So did Smim Htaw, a half-brother of the last Mon king. Among the princes, Bayinnaung had the advantage, since he already controlled both the central government and the army. Within two years Bayinnaung eliminated his rivals and put the kingdom back together again. His 31-year reign, from 1550 to 1581, was an amazing time; G. E. Harvey called it, quote: “the greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma.” End quote. By 1553 the south had been reconquered, and Smim Htaw was captured and executed, so in 1554 Bayinnaung launched a great northern campaign, which conquered Ava. Then he turned east to conquer the Shan states, and finally in 1558, he took Chiangmai, the city the Thais had been fighting over. These victories encouraged him to follow them up with a matching campaign in the northwest, where he conquered the Indian state of Manipur in 1560.
Between campaigns, Bayinnaung promoted Buddhism. All Burmese kings were expected to do this, but he may have also done 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 among Moslems and the animist Shans. Often he sent offerings to the Sri Lankan temple where the Tooth of the Buddha was kept; once he sent brooms to sweep the temple with, 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 tooth. Bayinnaung sent envoys with an offer of 300,000 ducats for it, about $45 million in today’s American dollars. The viceroy of Portuguese India was interested in the offer, but the Inquisition and the archbishop of Goa declared the tooth a dangerous idol, and had it destroyed. Here is how G. E. Harvey told the story. Quote: “While the Burmese envoys gazed in frozen horror, the archbishop placed the Tooth in a mortar, grounded it to powder, burned it in a brazier, and cast the ashes into the river.” End quote. Back in Sri Lanka, it was announced that the destroyed tooth was really a pig’s tooth, and 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 could have begun a golden age if Bayinnaung had known when to stop marching. But the king had ambitions even greater than his talents. Chiangmai opened the way to Laos, and provided an alternate way to invade Siam, since the Three Pagodas Pass had turned out to be a place where the Siamese could easily ambush the Burmese army. His reason for going to war against Siam was the same as Tabishwehti’s reasons: white elephants. At this time, Maha Chakkraphat had four white elephants; Bayinnaung asked for one of them, and Maha Chakkraphat refused. Boy, the Siamese king didn’t learn anything from the last time a Burmese king asked for an elephant!
Bayinnaung mobilized his entire army, knowing that Siam was his strongest opponent; he sent part of the army through the Three Pagodas Pass, and the rest of it to Chiangmai. Only the first force reached the Siamese capital, because the one in Chiangmai had to put down a Shan revolt, but still, the Burmese captured Ayutthaya easily in 1564. Bayinnaung took away all four white elephants, and to make sure everyone knew he was the man, he gave himself two new titles he had just earned. The first title was “Victor of the Ten Directions,” and the second title was “Lord of the White Elephant, the Red Elephant, the Mottled Elephant, and All Other Elephants.” Is that clear, everyone? Meanwhile, when the army in Chiangmai was finished with the Shans, it invaded Lan Xang, captured Vientiane, and installed a son-in-law of Setthathirat as the new Laotian king. But the puppet king only controlled the area around Vientiane, where he had Burmese occupation troops, while Setthathirat still had the rest of the kingdom on his side. In 1567 Setthathirat took back Vientiane, two years after he had lost it.
In Siam, Maha Chakkraphat hadn’t given up yet, and revolted as soon as the Burmese troops left Ayutthaya. In 1568 he attacked Phitsanulok, a Siamese city under the control of a pro-Burmese prince, forcing Bayinnaung to return to Siam in 1569. Maha Chakkraphat died while Ayutthaya was under siege, and then the Siamese capital fell a second time. Bayinnaung installed the prince of Phitsanulok as the new king. The son of the new king, Naret, had been held hostage at the Burmese court since 1564 to ensure his father’s good behavior, so Siam stayed loyal to Burma for the rest of Bayinnaung’s reign, but remember that prince! He will grow up to become Naresuan, the next important character in our narrative.
Siam may have been pacified at last, but conflicts continued to spring up elsewhere. Cambodia attacked, seeing an opportunity to even old scores with the Thais; between 1570 and 1587, six Cambodian raids (1570-87) were defeated. The raids forced Bayinnaung to rebuild Ayutthaya’s defenses, though he knew that could come back to bite Burma someday. In the northeast, Lan Xang became a constant source of trouble because it never accepted the loss of Chiangmai. Bayinnaung invaded Laos in 1569, 1572 and 1574. He took both Laotian capitals, Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but never captured Settathirat; the Laotian king died in the countryside in 1571, and after the last invasion Bayinnaung appointed a younger brother of Settathirat as the new king. Because this king’s legitmacy was beyond dispute, the Laotians gave the Burmese no more trouble.
Five years of peace followed, from 1575 to 1580. Now that everyone had seen what Bayinnaung could do, no potential enemy, inside or outside of Burma, wanted to mess with him. During this period Bayinnaung ruled the largest empire ever seen on the Southeast Asian mainland. He held all of present-day Burma except for Arakan, all of Thailand and Laos, and Manipur in India. On the podcast’s Facebook page, and on the Blubrry.com page where this episode is hosted, you can see a map from Wikipedia, showing Burma’s borders in the late 1570s. Check that out for a visual image of what we are talking about. Wikipedia also suggests that Vietnam and Cambodia paid tribute to Bayinnaung, but I have not heard any evidence to believe that. Besides, Vietnam had its own problems at this time, which I will explain another day.
For most of Bayinnaung’s reign, Arakan escaped his attention, but in late 1580 he finally prepared a campaign to conquer Burma’s western neighbor. The fleet assembled for this purpose captured the port of Sandoway, modern Thandwe, but then the Burmese forces halted because Bayinnaung, now sixty-five years old, fell ill, and he was expected to personally lead the army. Instead he died in the following year; the campaign was called off, and Arakanese independence lasted for two more centuries.
Okay, we’re going to end this episode a bit early. The squabble between Burma and Siam is by no means finished, but if I tried including it all in one episode, it would run for more than an hour, maybe two hours, and while that may be fine for podcasters like Dan Carlin and Daniele Bolelli, I’m not ready to do such a marathon yet. Also, this is when Naresuan takes over in Siam, and because the people of Thailand now consider him their greatest king, I don’t want him and Bayinnaung competing for the top spot in the same episode. So join me next time as I tell you how Naresuan liberated Siam, and how a few Europeans tried taking advantage of all the chaos on the Southeast Asian mainland during this time.
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