A Second Introduction


Or, The Colonial Era in Southeast Asian History Begins

The previous episode of the podcast finished the early modern era of Southeast Asian history (1500 to 1800), and now it is time to begin covering the colonial era (1800 to 1965).  But first we need to learn what changed the relationship between Europe and Southeast Asia, and what made the Europeans boldly march in to take over the region, after they had sat on the periphery for the past three hundred years.  Because this explanation is a bit too long to tack onto a regular episode, it is presented here as a special mini-episode.  Listen to this, and expect the narrative to resume with the next episode, on or near June 1.



(Transcript, added 04/06/2020)

This episode is dedicated to Marcus J, who made a donation last week after discovering the podcast. As I have said to the rest of you who made donations, thank you for your support, Marcus. The appreciation of you and others for this work inspires me to keep on recording. Since you haven’t finished listening to all the episodes yet, I trust you will stay with us as the narrative moves into times that for some of us, seem like only yesterday.


Episode 21: A Second Introduction


Greetings, dear listeners! This is going to be an unusually short episode; you might even want to call it a mini-episode. Part of the reason is because I was out of town for three days in the first week of May 2017, so I didn’t have as much time for research and recording as I normally do. Second, and more importantly, we are transitioning from one era in history to another, and the relationship between Southeast Asia and Europe changed dramatically as a result. I thought I would take a few minutes to explain those changes and what caused them, without tacking that explanation onto part of the narrative. That is why I am calling this a second introduction; it will be a little bit like the introductory episode which launched this podcast series.


If you’re one of those history buffs who likes to divide the past into a series of “ages,” like the stone age, bronze age, and iron age, well, here is how the sequence works for our narrative. Episodes 1 & 2 of this podcast series covered Southeast Asia in prehistoric times, Episodes 3 to 5 covered ancient times, and Episodes 6 to 11 covered medieval times. Then Episodes 12 through 20 covered the years between 1500 and 1800, what I have also called the early modern era. We introduced the Europeans as players in the narrative, and watched them explore the region, send merchants, and send missionaries.


The first change I need to announce is simply a change of names, so I’ll get that out of the way now. England and Scotland were united in 1603, when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England. The Scottish royal family, the Stuarts, ruled for most of the next eighty-five years, and were kicked out in 1688, but many folks in both England and Scotland wanted the union of their countries to become permanent. The English wanted this because in the past, when England was at war with its archenemy, France, Scotland took the side of the French, and a union would keep Scotland from doing that again. As for the Scots, they supported union because Scotland was poor, and in the late 1690s the Scots had spent one fifth of the country’s cash on an unsuccessful attempt to set up a colony in Panama, a venture we now call the “Darien Scheme”; in these financial hard times, it looked like Scotland could no longer survive on its own, and a union with England was the least painful way out of the mess. In 1707 their agreement was put down in writing and signed, as the Treaty of Union. Henceforth, instead of having two governments on the island of Great Britain, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, there would be one government for the whole British Isles, called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. From now on we will refer to anyone from Great Britain as British or simply Brits, whether they are English, Scottish, Welsh or Cornish.


The European military strategy used in Southeast Asia was the same one that Europeans used whenever they went overseas. Whereas non-European nations measured their strength in how many men and resources they could bring to bear, the secret to European strength was superior technology and training. European commanders emphasized fighting with quality, because they could not fight with quantity. Thus, in a one-on-one fight between Europeans and natives, the Europeans usually won. We see this in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, and the British conquest of Bengal in India; in all these places, empires with populations numbering in the millions were slapped down by a handful of men. A successful overseas military commander also had to be a penny pincher, for he could not waste any available soldiers, resources or cash, and there was no room for error, no second chance, if he lost.


The logistics of sailing in the early modern era meant that only a few Europeans made it to Southeast Asia, because the trip from Europe took anywhere from six to eighteen months, and a lot of Europeans did not survive the trip, succumbing to scurvy and other diseases. Because of the cost, in money and lives, no European nation could afford to send more than a few hundred soldiers to Southeast Asia, so the ability of those soldiers to win battles was limited. When it came to conquering territory, Europeans only enjoyed much success on Southeast Asia’s islands, where the natives were too poorly organized to resist. We saw previously that Spain conquered the Philippines, and before it went out of business in 1799, the Dutch East India Company managed to conquer all of the Moluccas, the so-called “Spice Islands,” and about two-thirds of Java. Although one of my sources called the early modern era “the first centuries of European penetration,” in most places the penetration was limited to a few outposts — trading posts, embassies and missions — plus a handful of individual Europeans who happened to be in the right place, like Constantine Phaulkon in Episode 18.


Sometimes a European commander would recruit non-European troops as a money-saving way to augment the limited force from the mother country. In Southeast Asia, the best example of this happened in 1621, when the Dutch East India Company’s man on the spot, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, conquered the Banda Islands, the islands in the Moluccas which were the world’s only source of nutmeg. To do this he hired Ronin from Japan, Samurai warriors who had lost their masters, usually because they were on the losing side in battles, and these Ronin did the dirty work for the company, massacring an estimated 14,000 natives of the Banda Islands before it was all over.


It wasn’t just the sea and unfriendly natives that were dangerous to Europeans. The hot and wet climate also took its toll. In the jungles of west and central Africa, if ten Europeans came ashore during this time, it was a safe bet that six would be dead a year later, mostly because of malaria. The most dangerous part of Africa for Europeans was the coast of Nigeria, so this region was nicknamed “the white man’s grave.” The same was true for Southeast Asia; those Europeans who did not work in Southeast Asia saw it as another disease-infested place, to be avoided, if possible.


An example of how unhealthy a place Southeast Asia could be was presented in 1770, when James Cook’s first expedition around the world passed through Indonesia. This voyage of exploration was one of the most successful ever launched, in part because Cook cared more for the health of his crew than most ship captains did. The typical eighteenth-century ship could expect to lose 50 percent of its crew on a year-long voyage, but in the first twenty-six months after Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, left England, Cook lost only two of his seventy crewmen. To keep the men from getting scurvy, Cook gave them lots of vegetables, especially pickled cabbage. In those days vitamin C hadn’t been discovered yet, and the only thing Cook knew was that there was something in veggies that prevented scurvy. However, sauerkraut is an acquired taste; you have to eat it several times before you will enjoy it. Because this wasn’t a German crew, they hated the stuff, and Cook had to become a stern disciplinarian to make them eat it. Later on, British sailors found out that fresh citrus fruits are a much more enjoyable source of vitamin C, and they earned the nickname of “Limeys” for bringing limes with them. After Cook explored Australia, the Endeavour went to Batavia, the Dutch East India Company headquarters in Indonesia, because this was the first significant European settlement on the way home. Unfortunately Cook’s score was ruined by the stop in Batavia, because that port was infested with malaria and dysentery, so by the time they returned to England the death toll was 32–close to the usual amount.


Okay, now we know how the Europeans beat the scurvy problem. What about the jungle diseases? That was solved by the great improvements in medicine during the nineteenth century. For example, in 1847 a British naval surgeon discovered that a daily dose of quinine reduced the effects of sub-tertial malaria, the deadliest type of that disease. The effectiveness of this drug was shown in 1854, when a twelve-man team explored the lower part of the Niger River in West Africa without losing anybody, something that had been impossible previously. When Europeans began to routinely equip themselves with medikits containing quinine, every place in the tropics, including Southeast Asia, lost its first line of defense.


Probably the most important factor in the change of relations between Europe and Southeast Asia was the Industrial Revolution, because it vastly increased the resources available to Europe, and it revolutionized the system of transportation. We’ll talk about the increased resources first; they made Europe almost unstoppable. In a capitalist economy, whoever has money has power as well. The newly built factories made their owners filthy rich; and the governments that collected taxes from those factory owners gained the money and supplies to recruit and arm as many soldiers as were needed to get the job done. That largely eliminated Europe’s disadvantage in numbers, because now Europeans, and not their opponents, could afford to fight unprofitable wars. In the nineteenth century, power went to the five countries that built the most industries: Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Japan. Major powers which did not industrialize, like Spain, fell to the rank of lesser powers.


You will notice that two of the nations I just mentioned, the United States and Japan, are not in Europe. Until now we haven’t needed to talk about the United States, because as a nation, it only got started in the late eighteenth century, at the end of the period covered in recent episodes. However, when it industrialized, it acquired a taste for imperialism at the same time, leading to the American conquest of the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century, and military intervention on the Southeast Asian mainland in the mid-twentieth century, especially in Vietnam. It was a similar story with Japan; the development of Japanese industry encouraged the Japanese to go out and take by force the resources their industry needed. That, in a nutshell, is the cause of the Pacific war during World War II.


Advances in transportation kept up with advances in factory production, thanks to the steam engine. The invention of the steamship and the railroad meant that people could travel around the world much faster than had been possible before. In the 1860s, the Suez Canal was dug between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and that made travel even faster — now ships going between Europe and Asia no longer had to sail all the way around Africa.


The building of steamships and the construction of the Suez Canal not only made travel faster, they also brought down the cost of travel. Before 1800, the only cases of I know about where Southeast Asians visited Europe were two official embassies sent to meet the king of France. Siam sent the first embassy in 1684, and the Vietnamese ruler Nguyen Anh sent the second in 1787; we covered these in Episodes 18 and 19 respectively. However, because sea travel was safer and more affordable in the nineteenth century, other Southeast Asians could now go to the countries the Europeans came from. Fathers could afford to send their children to European colleges, too. And they will be able to see for themselves what Europeans and their homelands are really like; they no longer have to believe everything the Europeans tell them about themselves. In that sense, by making transportation easier, the Europeans unwittingly planted the seeds of modern nationalist movements in the most far-flung colonies of their empires. Those movements would eventually bring down their empires, but that’s a subject we’ll have to save until after we see how those empires were acquired in the first place.


And that’s all for today. Again, I apologize for the shortened episode. Next time we will get back into the narrative, with a look at how the Dutch transformed Indonesia into their largest colony, the Dutch East Indies. I believe it will take six episodes to cover all the Western conquests in the nineteenth century. And then — spoiler alert! — we will learn how Siam avoided becoming one of those conquests. I look forward to having all of you there!


We will end with the usual shop talk. Consider making a donation to support this podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s Blubrry.com page. I am grateful to all of you who have done so. If you listen to this podcast on iTunes, a review is very helpful, too. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, if you haven’t done so already. That way you won’t miss updates, and often I post pictures, maps, and even videos on the Facebook page that are relevant to what you are hearing here. Again as always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!



Eighteenth-Century Burma & Siam

Or, The Fall of Ayutthaya and the Rise of Bangkok

The latest episode covers another round in the ongoing conflict between Myanmar and Thailand, or as they were called before the twentieth century, Burma and Siam.  At the height of the fighting, the Burmese utterly destroyed Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam.  But this wasn’t the end of Siam; the Siamese kings move first to Thonburi, then to Bangkok, and the kingdom recovered with amazing speed.



(Transcript, added 03/28/2020)


Episode 20: Eighteenth Century Burma & Siam

or, The Fall of Ayutthaya and the Rise of Bangkok


Greetings, dear listeners! We have been covering Southeast Asia in the early modern era for the past eight episodes, or if you’re listening as soon as each episode is uploaded, since the beginning of 2017. Much of the time, especially in Episodes 15 & 16, we have been covering an ongoing feud between Myanmar and Thailand, or as they were called back then, Burma and Siam. So did you think we were done with that conflict? If so, you were terribly wrong. I gave you a clue that it wasn’t over when I said that Burma and Siam spent most of the seventeenth century recovering from their wars in the sixteenth century. You may have heard that in some languages, the word “cease-fire” also means “reload!”, and whether or not that is true in Burmese and Thai, the rulers of those countries acted like it was. We are going to see another big war in the eighteenth century, and this one will waste Siam so badly, that you’ll be amazed at how quickly the Siamese recover from it; in fact, you may be amazed that they recovered at all. And you will get to hear me mangle the pronunciation of Burmese and Thai names again. Oh, joy!


All right, the last Burmese-Siamese war that we talked about ended in 1618. What happened after that? Well, the two sides may have taken a break from fighting each other, but that did not stop political instability within the borders of both countries. In Burma, the instability was usually caused by non-Burmese ethnic groups that didn’t like being under Burmese rule, while in Siam, the main cause was disputes over who should be king. The last king of Siam we saw in our narrative was Ekatotsarot, the younger brother of Naresuan the Great, and after his death in 1620, four kings quickly rose and fell from the throne. Only one of them ruled for more than a year, and the last only ruled for 36 days. Because none of these kings was an effective military leader, the king of Cambodia declared he was no longer a vassal of Siam, and in 1622 he defeated the Siamese soldiers and ships sent to reassert Siamese control.


Two of the short-lived Siamese kings were deposed and murdered by Prasat Thong, a leading government official, and in 1629 he declared himself king, claiming at the same time that he was an illegitimate son of Ekatotsarot. At this time, there was a sizeable Japanese community in Ayutthaya, the Siamese capital, and because the Siamese kings found the Japanese were very useful, especially as mercenaries, the leader of the community, an adventurer named Yamada Nagamasa, was also an important official. Yamada refused to accept Prasat Thong as the new king, so Prasat Thong poisoned him, and sent soldiers to attack the Japanese community, forcing most of them to flee the country. Down in the Malay peninsula, the southernmost province, Pattani, also refused to recognize Prasat Thong’s authority, and the soldiers he sent against that province in 1634 failed to reconquer it, leaving Pattani an autonomous part of Siam for the rest of his reign. However, the military expedition he sent into Cambodia succeeded in persuading the Cambodians that Siam was still their boss.


Far to the north of both Burma and Siam, the newest barbarian horde, the Manchus, invaded China, captured Beijing in 1644, and kicked out the Ming dynasty. The Manchus gained control over the North China Plain and the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys quickly enough, but because the provinces south of the Yangtze were so far away from Beijing, the last Ming emperor, Yongli, was able to hold onto this area for a few more years. Still, he continued to lose ground, and by 1658 only the southwestern province of Yunnan was left to Yongli; before the year was over he abandoned even that, and fled into Burma.


The current Burmese king, Pindale, gave him permission to live at Sagaing, near the Burmese capital of Ava. However, Yongli could not stay there in peace, for a Manchu army pursued him into Burma. These invaders wasted the countryside around Ava; thinking Ava would fall to them, Pindale fled to Chiangmai and asked Narai, the new king of Siam, for help. To refresh your memory, Chiangmai is an important city, located north of Siam and east of Burma. Back in Episode 10, it was the capital of Lan Na, another kingdom populated by the Thai peoples, like Siam, and in Episodes 15 & 16, Burma, Siam and Laos had fought over it, so Chiangmai frequently changed hands between those nations, with Burma being the latest to have it. In the delta of the Irrawaddy River, the Mons had launched another revolt, because they wanted to have their own country again, so they asked Narai for help, too. Of course, with the rivalry between Burma and Siam, asking the Siamese to ignore trouble in Burma was like asking a dog to ignore a fire hydrant, so Narai assembled an army to invade Burma.


In the end the Manchus did not take Ava, thanks to a successful defense by some Portuguese gunners in the Burmese king’s service. A message was sent to Narai telling him that his aid was no longer needed, but Narai wasn’t the type to let his troops go to waste; now he used those troops in an attempt to take Chiangmai. This led to a short war between Burma and Siam, lasting from 1660 to 1662. Although Narai managed to take Chiangmai and the surrounding towns twice, Burmese forces drove him out each time; in southern Burma, the Siamese captured the ports of Martaban and Rangoon, but had to return home when their supplies ran out. As a result, neither side gained any territory. If you listened to Episode 18, you will remember that in the 1680s, near the end of Narai’s reign, a European named Constantine Phaulkon became the second most powerful person in Siam.


Back in Burma, Pindale was treacherously overthrown and drowned by his brother, Pye Min, in 1661. At the end of the same year, another Manchu army, numbering 20,000 men, invaded Burma from China. The general leading this army demanded that Yongli be handed over, and since the Burmese could not take on the Manchus and Siamese at the same time, Pye Min complied with the demand; thus, the last Ming Emperor was taken back to China and executed.


Nearly fifty years of peace followed, and then in 1710 the Cambodian problem came up again. We saw in the previous episode that Vietnam was divided between several rulers during the eighteenth century, and this time, 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. Cambodians regard this as one of the worst times in their history.


Siam still had a problem with royal succession in the eighteenth 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 the king’s heir, the uparat, died before the king did, only an overwhelmingly popular monarch like Naresuan could name a new heir and make the claim stick. Another factor was that control over the country’s workers and soldiers was divided evenly between three princes, giving them a powerful role as kingmakers. Thus, in eighteenth-century Siam, power mattered more than legitimacy.


The last competent Ayutthayan king was Borommarachathirat III, who ruled from 1733 to 1758. He took over by winning the civil war that broke out on the death of his predecessor, and afterwards, to prevent future civil wars, he divided the country’s manpower between thirteen princes instead of three, so that none could seize the throne by himself. Modern Thais shorten this king’s name to Borommakot, meaning “The King in the Urn.” This is a reference to royal funeral customs; in Siam, Laos and Cambodia, the body of a deceased king is kept in a large urn, in a seated fetal position, until cremation time. Because of the chaos that came after his reign, Borommakot was the last Ayutthayan king to receive a proper funeral.


Borommakot also gets credit for saving Therevada Buddhism in its homeland, Sri Lanka. By his time Sri Lankan Buddhism had declined so badly, in numbers of followers and quality of teaching, that the remaining monks turned to Siam for help. Borommakot sent two monks to Sri Lanka, and these holy men ordained new monks and purified existing teachings and practices. The school they established was called Syamvamsa, and it still exists today. For that reason, today’s Thais claim that their country has replaced Sri Lanka as the true headquarters of Buddhism.


Burma’s weakness in the early eighteenth century encouraged Manipur, the nearest Indian state, to launch a series of raids into Burma, from 1714 to 1749. Soon other enemies of the Burmese kings tried their luck, too. Chiangmai revolted against high taxation in 1727, and two Burmese invasions failed to regain control, meaning that Chiangmai was now independent.


In the Mon city of Bago, the Ava-appointed governor was assassinated in 1740, and the local government elected Smim Htaw Buddhaketi, an ethnic Burmese noble related to the royal family in Ava, as the first king of a restored Hanthawaddy kingdom. Smim Htaw Buddhaketi got the job because he spoke the Mon language and his sympathies were with the Mons, but otherwise wasn’t kingly material; before his election, he had been a monk. Consequently he let the man appointed as prime minister, an ethnic Shan named Binnya Dala, run the new kingdom for him. In 1742 the Mons began moving up the Irrawaddy River, sending raids into Upper Burma and capturing Prome and Toungoo, the original home of the ruling Burmese dynasty. The Burmese retalited by taking the Mon city of Syriam in 1743, but the Mons soon recovered it. Then in 1747 Binnya Dala forced Smim Htaw Buddhaketi to abdicate, and Binnya Dala now became the second — and last king.


For the whole decade of the 1740s, the Burmese civil war continued on a small scale. By the beginning of the 1750s, both sides had acquired foreign friends; China sent troops to Ava, while France gave military aid, mainly ships, to help the Mons. In addition, the Mons had recruited a few Dutch and Portuguese mercenaries. The European aid was more effective; with it, Binnya Dala launched an all-out invasion up the Irrawaddy that conquered Upper Burma, captured Ava in 1752, and brought the Toungoo dynasty to an end. The last king of Ava, his family and court, and all the court records of Ava, were taken away to Bago.


The Mon rule over Upper Burma was brief, for the Mons had defeated the Burmese king, but not his people. Even before Ava fell, the Burmese began to rally around a new leader, a village cheiftain named Aung Zeya. He was a handsome, charismatic leader, and when he saw there was no hope for Ava, he proclaimed himself king, changed his name to Alaungpaya, meaning “The Victorious,” and declared his home village, Shwebo, the new capital. Thus, he founded the Konbaung dynasty, the last dynasty to rule Burma, and became the founder of the third Burmese empire. On the other side, the Mon king made a capital mistake by withdrawing two thirds of his army from Upper Burma; he figured that after taking Ava, the war had become a mopping up operation, and he would not need the whole force for that. This allowed Alaungpaya to gain control over most of the Burmese villages and towns without much opposition; even the nearest Shan states paid homage to him. At the beginning of 1754, Alaungpaya took back Ava for the Burmese, and realizing that he was losing control over Upper Burma, Binnya Dala sent the army against Shwebo, but it was too late; Alaungpaya defeated the Mons easily.


In the next year, 1755, Alaungpaya went on the offensive, invading the Mon country. Within four months his army went all the way down the Irrawaddy to its mouth, and captured a Mon fishing village named Dagon. Alaungpaya gave the village its Burmese name, Yangon; in English it is usually called Rangoon. Previously, the only thing that made this place special was the great pagoda on the site, an enormous, gold-plated tower shaped like a bell, the Shwedagon. You have probably seen pictures of the Shwedagon, even if you have never been to Yangon; it is one of the modern world’s most recognizeable buildings. It is so important to modern Myanmar that a few years ago, when the Burmese government moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw, they felt the need to build the Uppatasanti Pagoda, a full-sized replica of the Shwedagon, in their new capital.


Archaeologists and historians believe the Mons built the Shwedagon pagoda at some time between the sixth and tenth centuries A.D., while the local Buddhists claimed construction started on it while the Buddha was alive, which would make it the oldest existing Buddhist temple in the world. Over the centuries it was damaged by earthquakes more than once, and every king or queen who repaired it made it larger than it was before. By the sixteenth century it had become the most popular destination in Burma for pilgrimmages. Now that the Shwedagon came under Burmese rule, the village around it grew rapidly into a seaport, guaranteeing that from now on Yangon would be one of Burma’s most important cities.


By 1757 Alaungpaya had completed the conquest of the Irrawaddy delta. Bago was sacked, and Binnya Dala was taken away into capitivity. Because the French were on the side of the Mons, he also captured Thanlyin, the French East India Company’s outpost in the delta. There were also a few English merchants in the delta. Alaungpaya asked them for English-made arms, but with the Seven Years War going on in Europe, North America and India at that time, the English had nothing to spare for a customer in Burma. Later on, in 1759, Alaungpaya would massacre the English at Cape Negrais, the English East India Company’s first outpost in Burma, because he heard a report that they had sold 500 muskets and ammunition to Mon rebels. To any Anglophiles listening to this, don’t be sad; England will come back to Burma in a future episode.


Alaungpaya’s victory ends the story of the Mons in our narrative. Afterwards, ethnic Burmese moved into the delta, and many Mons became refugees, fleeing across the border into Siam. In addition to those migrations, assimilation and intermarriage between Burmese and Mons further diluted the Mon population. Whereas the Mons used to be the most important ethnic group in Burma besides the Burmese, today they are just another small minority, something Southeast Asia has plenty of.


For 1758, Alaungpaya campaigned in the north. He conquered Manipur, seeing that as payback for the raids Manipur had inflicted on his homeland a few years earlier. Next, he campaigned on the Chinese border, persuading some Shan tribes who had previously paid tribute to the Chinese to become his vassals instead. And to the east, Chiangmai swore loyalty to him. When he wasn’t on military campaigns, Alaungpaya tried to make the Burmese more devout Buddhists than they already were, by ending a schism in the Buddhist clergy, banning the drinking of liquor, and decreeing an end to cattle slaughter; the latter was done for economic as well as religious reasons.


Siam grew alarmed as it saw Alaungpaya’s series of successes. The Siamese had not gotten involved in Burma while the Mons were winning, because the Mons were not a threat to them, but a strong Burmese state was another matter. When the Siamese gave aid to Mon rebellions in the south, Alaungpaya decided that Siam was the real enemy. From the southeastern city of Martaban, he launched an invasion of Siam in late 1759. First he took the ports of Moulmein, Tavoy, and Tenasserim; previously these were Siamese ports on the Indian Ocean, and they have been part of Burma ever since. Ayutthaya was surrounded in April 1760, but on the fifth day of the siege, Alaungpaya either became critically injured or seriously ill, and the army started marching back to Burma. Our sources disagree on what put the king out of action. The Burmese claim he had either dysentery or scrofula, while the Siamese give a more dramatic story; they report that the king was standing next to a cannon about to be fired and it blew up instead. Alaungpaya knew he was a goner and told his troops that he wanted to see his home village, Shwebo, one more time, but he died before the army could take him there.

Alaungpaya had ruled for only eight years, and was 46 years old at the time of his death. Nevertheless, today’s Burmese rank him as one of their three greatest kings; the others are Anawrahta, the founder of the first Burmese empire, and Bayinnaung, the sixteenth-century conqueror. Today statues of the three warrior kings stand together in Naypyidaw. G. E. Harvey, the author we quoted in the past when discussing Burmese history, wrote this about Alaungpaya’s short reign and lifespan. Quote: “Men are remembered by the years they use, not by the years they last.” End Quote.


Alaungpaya’s sons were also topnotch military commanders. The eldest, Naungdawgyi, became the next king; he moved the capital to the Upper Burmese city of Sagaing, and he put down a series of revolts that broke out at Ava, Toungoo, Chiangmai, Martaban, and Manipur. The Manipur rebels included a small unit of English East India Company troops, because England demanded reparations for the loss of their men and outpost at Cape Negrais. Although the new king beat all the rebels, he died suddenly of scrofula in 1763, after ruling for only three years. He was succeeded by the second son of Alaungpaya, Hsinbyushin.


Hsinbyushin ruled longer than his two predecessors, from 1763 to 1776. He rebuilt Ava, something his father never got around to doing, and enlarged the Shwedagon Pagoda to its present-day size, 99 meters, or 328 feet high. But most of his achievements were military ones; he was the most aggressive monarch of the Konbaung dynasty. As soon as he was king, he began making plans for another invasion of Siam. He also invaded Laos, a move that outflanked Siam and gave Burma a protective “buffer zone” on its eastern frontier. In Episode 18 we saw that Laos was divided into three states in the eighteenth century, each named after its capital: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak. Hsinbyushin conquered Luang Prabang and held it from 1763 to 1769, and Vientiane peacefully submitted to Burma as a vassal state during that time.


By 1765 the Burmese forces were ready to invade Siam. Where Alaungpaya had failed, Hsinbyushin was dreadfully successful. Three armies took part in the invasion, each entering Siam at a different point. One followed the traditional invasion route, the Three Pagodas Pass; one struck south from Chiangmai, and one came up from the Malay peninsula. The siege of Ayutthaya lasted fourteen months, from February 1766 to April 1767, and when the capital fell, the Burmese destroyed it completely. Ten thousand captives were led away, including Ekkathat, the last king of the dynasty, who spent the remaining 29 years of his life as a monk in 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. Although the ruins of Ayutthaya are a major tourist attraction in present-day Thailand, the city was never rebuilt.


The Golden Buddha


I’m going to interrupt the narrative to tell you a story with a happier ending. Remember what I said about the Burmese soldiers hacking the gold off Siamese Buddhas? Well, the biggest prize escaped them completely, though it was in plain view for them to see. This was a Buddha that wasn’t just gold-plated, but made of solid gold. Ten feet wide and almost thirteen feet high, this statue weighs five and a half tons, so at the current gold price, the bullion alone is worth $226 million in US dollars. I’ll let you guess how much value is added from the artwork.


Nobody knows when the golden Buddha was made; modern-day Thais believe it dates to the thirteenth century, because the statue was done in the Sukhothai art style. Also, back in Episode 10 I told you about the inscription carved by Ramkhamhaeng, the great thirteenth-century king, and he mentioned a gold Buddha in the middle of his capital, so it’s a safe bet this is it. Right before the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya, the Siamese plastered over the statue with stucco and moved it to an unimportant temple, so any Burmese who saw it figured it wasn’t worth stealing or defacing. After the Burmese were driven out, the Siamese forgot to remove the stucco covering.


In 1801, King Rama I ordered the Buddha moved to Bangkok, as part of his program to make Bangkok look more like Ayutthaya. By then, thirty-four years after Ayutthaya’s destruction, nobody remembered that the Buddha was really a golden statue. Two generations later, King Rama III built a temple big enough to hold the Buddha, but nobody thought this was a big deal. By 1935, this temple had fallen apart from neglect, and the big, ugly, plastered Buddha ended up under a simple tin roof.


Finally in 1955, an attempt was made to move the Buddha to a new temple, and the clumsy workers used a set of ropes that broke; the Buddha was dropped on the ground, knocking off some of the stucco and revealing the gold underneath. The rest of the covering was carefully removed. The workers also found out that the statue had been made in nine parts, and underneath the Buddha was a key, encased in plaster, that allowed one to separate the parts, or lock them together. That made it much easier to move the statue; now the workers only had to move one piece at a time. The building the Buddha is currently in, the Wat Traimit Temple in Bangkok, was just completed in 2010, and here you can see the Golden Buddha in its full pre-1767 glory.


Moving to Bangkok


The Burmese promptly withdrew from Siam after they were finished with Ayutthaya, thinking that Siam had been destroyed with its capital. By doing this, they made the same mistake as the Mons did, fifteen years earlier, but they had a good reason to pull out; China had invaded Burma, in retaliation for Alaungpaya’s successful campaign on the Burma-Chinese border in the 1750s. The first two invasions, in 1765 and 1766, were defeated so easily that Hsinbyushin did not need to recall the soldiers in Laos and Siam. However, for the third invasion, in November 1767, the Chinese army was much larger, and instead of being composed solely of Chinese troops, it also included tougher Mongol and Manchu cavalry men, and was led by a Manchu general. When this force met the Burmese, it won the first battle, and that persuaded Hsinbyushin to recall his troops. Eventually he beat the third invasion as well, using the tactics of guerrilla warfare to wear down the Chinese army before crushing it. The fourth Chinese invasion, in 1769, was defeated the same way. Four unsuccessful campaigns convinced China that it could not win, in an alien environment so far from home, so it sued for peace, and Hsinbyushin wisely accepted, quitting while he was ahead.


The Siamese were down, but not out, because they had one good leader left, a half-Chinese general named Phya Taksin. During the Burmese invasion, Taksin had fought the most successful holding action, delaying one of the Burmese armies for five months. Because of that, the Siamese king put him in charge of Ayutthaya’s defenses, but he could not launch an effective counterattack from the capital, and that brought unfair criticism from the king down on him. Unable to make the king listen to reason, Taksin cut his way out of the doomed city with 500 followers at the beginning of 1767, and escaped to the countryside. When he reached the Gulf of Siam, Taksin began to raise a new army. Now that he wasn’t forced to fight from a fixed position, he went from victory to victory. Nothing succeeds like success, and he gained more recruits every time he won a battle. Just a year after Ayutthaya fell, Taksin took it back, so in 1768 he had himself crowned at a new capital, Thonburi, near the mouth of the Menam River. By 1769 he had freed all of Siam from Burmese forces.


However, the warrior king’s troubles were far from ended. First of all, various warlords had established themselves in the countryside, while there was no central authority, and four rivals (a prince, a monk, and two governors) claimed the throne for themselves; it took a three-year civil war, from 1767 to 1770, to eliminate all opposition. In the middle of that conflict, he sent yet another expedition into Cambodia, this time to drive out the Vietnamese from that neighboring country; I mentioned that expedition in the previous episode. And once his position on the throne was secure, Taksin was motivated to restore the glories of Ayutthayan Siam overnight. Accordingly, he marched north and conquered Chiangmai in 1775. This time, the city which had changed hands so many times, stayed with Siam for good; today it is the most important city in northern Thailand. But Burma would not give up so easily, and the Burmese launched another invasion to recover Chiangmai in the following year; Siam managed to drive it back. Finally, there was the 1778 conquest of Laos, which was covered in Episode 18 of this podcast. Fifteen years of uninterrupted warfare took its toil; the king went insane, and declared himself a Bodhisattva, a saint or living Buddha. After that he spent most of his time teaching advanced Buddhist theology to anyone who would listen, instead of ruling the kingdom.


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 Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok, Taksin’s best general. This general was in Cambodia at the time, leading the latest campaign, and he had to call off the campaign so he could accept this promotion. But before the coronation could take place, something had to be done about Taksin. Unfortunately this was a hundred years before Sigmund Freud, so there was no psychiatrist available to help. The hero who saved Siam in 1767 was (reluctantly) executed; they tied him up in a sack, and broke his neck with a blow from a club. This action both cured the royal madness and removed the biggest challenge to Chulalok’s rule.


Thonburi happened to be on the left bank of the Menam River, the side facing Burma, and because Burma was still a threat, the capital was moved to Bangkok, a city on the right bank of the river, thereby adding the river as another line of defense. The dynasty Chulalok founded, the Chakri dynasty, has ruled Siam and Thailand ever since. Chulalok went down in history as King Rama I, because one hundred years ago, King Vajiravudh realized that Thai names were too long for Europeans to pronounce easily, so he ordered that each king of the dynasty also be named Rama, followed by a number. Thus, Vajiravudh became known as Rama VI, and the king who took charge last October has the birth name of Vajiralongkorn, but you can also call him Rama X.


If you think the names you have heard are long, wait until you hear Bangkok’s real name in the Thai language. It is one of the longest place names ever invented, and certainly the longest for a capital city. I’m going to have to take a deep breath before I try to say it, so here goes:













Thank you. Thank you very much. In English those eight cumbersome words mean “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Intra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” Present-day Thais find this a tongue twister and will simply say Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, or Krung Thep — the City of Angels. How Krung Thep got translated into English as Bangkok is a mystery to me.


I will finish today’s narrative with a Burmese epilogue. Hsinbyushin died in 1776 of scrofula, the same illness that killed his older brother, and maybe his father. He was followed by his son, Singu Min. By the time Singu Min was crowned, Burma was exhausted from a generation of warfare, so he ended his father’s latest war with Siam, and limited his own campaigns to putting down rebellions in Manipur. At the same time his rise to the throne was controversial, because oldtimers at the court remembered that the great Alaungpaya had expressed a wish that all his sons get a turn at being king, so the oldest son still alive, Bodawpaya, should have been crowned next. If you smell a palace coup in the making, you’re right — but there were two coups, not one. In 1782 the king’s cousin, Phaungka, seized power, and then one week later, both Singu Min and Phaungka were deposed and drowned by Uncle Bodawpaya. Because Bodawpaya’s reign lasted well into the nineteenth century, I will break off here, and save Bodawpaya’s achievements for another episode.


On that note, we’re done. In the words of the eloquent cartoon character Porky Pig:


“Th-th-that’s all folks!”


We have now completed our narrative about Southeast Asia in the early modern era, except for a few stories that will be shared at the appropriate times. Next we should proceed into the nineteenth century, but I am thinking of first doing a special episode to explain how the relationship of Europe and Southeast Asia changed drastically at this time, and the events that caused those changes, like the Industrial Revolution. So join me next time as we enter a new era in Southeast Asian history, the era when the nations of the West take over.


If you enjoyed this episode, I would greatly appreciate a donation to support this podcast; you can make one by clicking on the Paypal button at the bottom of this episode’s Blubrry.com page. If you listen on iTunes, consider writing a review as well. Like I have said before, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!