Showing posts with label south east asian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label south east asian. Show all posts

Spanish Colonization of the Philippines

The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia. It contains a great deal of diversity in ethnicity and social organization. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there were very few credible accounts of life on the archipelago and, consequently, what is known about precolonial Philippines depends on postcolonization sources. Prior to Spanish rule, the Philippines consisted of small-scale communities with little connection to any larger state.
Spanish Colonization of the Philippines

Junks had been traveling to the islands from China for centuries and some islands and ports had roles in the international spice trade. The southern islands of the Philippines had become partly Islamized since the 15th century from Brunei to Mindanao and the Sulu islands.

Both Spain and Portugal had become active in the Southeast Asian region by the late 15th century, attracted by the valuable spice trade, access to the markets of China, and the possibility of converting souls to Christianity.

Relations between Spain and Portugal were regulated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which divided lands outside Europe between the two powers. This division was further regulated by the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529, which fixed the exact line in the Pacific at 17 degrees east of the Moluccas Islands.

A Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, arrived a Cebu (part of the chain that became the Philippines) across the Pacific from the Western Hemisphere in 1521. In 1565, the first permanent Spanish settlement was established on Cebu. Manila was established in 1571; it became the capital of Spanish-ruled Philippines.

The spread of Spanish influence occurred quickly and peaceably, since there were few large communities able to resist the superior technology and organization, except for the Islamized states in the south, especially Mindanao. None of the desired spices were found in the Philippines.

The colonization was, consequently, of only limited success from the Spanish perspective and the local cultural heritage partly replaced by European Christianity and agriculture and other economic activities were reorganized and surplus was exported to Spain. Spanish appointed governors replaced the indigenous rulers.

Local exports to Spain, however, were very secondary to Chinese-made goods that Chinese merchants took to Manila, as they had been doing since the end of the first millennium c.e.

These goods, primarily silk textiles, tea, and porcelain, were in great demand in Europe, with the result that Manila became the gathering place of Spanish galleons that would sail in convoy annually to ports on the Pacific coast in southern Mexico, whence they would be carried across the isthmus by Mexican porters to Veracruz, a port in the Gulf of Mexico, and loaded onto ships for transport across the Atlantic to Spain. Thus the Philippines were more important to Spain as a gathering place for goods made in China and secondarily from Japan than for its own products.

As a result of Spanish rule until the end of the 19th century, the Philippines is the only Asian country with a majority Catholic population.

Viceroyalty of New Spain

For 300 years (1521–1821), the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the richest and most important political jurisdiction in Spain’s American holdings, expanded from its original boundaries in central Mexico south and west to the Pacific Ocean; south and east to include the Yucatán Peninsula, Florida, the Caribbean, northern South America, and Central America to contemporary Panama (the latter in a jurisdictional subdivision called the Kingdom of Guatemala); and north to include significant portions of what later became the U.S. Southwest.

At the political, economic, and demographic center of this vast colony was the Basin of Mexico, at the heart of which lay Mexico City, built atop the ruins of the aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.

Consequences of Colonial Rule

Three hundred years of colonial rule bequeathed to New Spain an enduring legacy whose consequences remain amply apparent in Mexico and Central America today. Most fundamentally, the new colonial order created new social and racial hierarchies, with Spaniards dominant, Indians subordinate, and, as time passed, mestizos (“mixed-race” Spaniards and Indians) occupying a widening middle ground.

During the first century of colonial rule, the colony’s major social institutions can be identified as the following: the colonial state and its byzantine administrative apparatus; the Roman Catholic Church, both its “regular” and “secular” branches; encomienda; Indian communities; and the patriarchal family.

From around the mid-1600s, hacienda, generally accompanied by debt peonage, displaced encomienda as the principal institution governing land-labor relations between Spaniards and Indians, largely in consequence of steep population declines among Indians resulting from the ravages of epidemic diseases, which effectively rendered encomienda obsolete.

Secular Church's Power Grows

During the same period, the so-called secular church (the ecclesiastical hierarchy emanating from Rome, with the pope at its head) grew in power relative to the regular church (composed of quasi-independent missionary or “mendicant” orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and others, each governed by specific reglas or rules).

This growing power of the secular church, densely entwined with the colonial state, was especially apparent in the most densely populated core regions, while the missionary orders remained strong in the colony’s peripheral zones, such as Yucatán, the northern deserts, and elsewhere.

The overall animo of the colonial period was for the regular church to initiate the process of conversion in peripheral areas, and, over time, as populations grew and the state extended its reach, to cede ecclesiastical authority to the encroaching secular church.

Far from a monolithic institution, the colonial church was wracked by division and conflict, both within and between its major branches. By the end of the colonial period, the Roman Catholic Church, both regular and secular, was not only one of the colony’s most important social institutions, but also far and away its largest landowner.

Contrary to a popularly held view, surviving Indian communities in New Spain and elsewhere retained various forms of collective (or “corporate”) landownership throughout the colonial period. This too became a crucial colonial legacy, especially evident in liberal efforts to privatize landownership in the decades after independence in 1821, efforts fiercely resisted by both the church and Indian communities.


The Basin of Mexico became and remained the colony’s breadbasket and major source of grain, meat, and other foodstuffs, as well as domestic industry such as obrajes, with expanding market relations especially important in the fertile and well-watered zones north and west of Mexico City.

In the 1540s, the discovery of large deposits of silver northwest of the Basin of Mexico, centered on the province of Zacatecas, provided the colonial state with a steady supply of silver bullion, fueling a price revolution in Iberia and the rest of Europe and transforming the regional colonial economies of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and other mining regions.

By the mid-1600s, the sprawling colony sank into what one scholar dubbed “New Spain’s century of depression,” though the nature and extent of that “depression” remain the subject of scholarly debate. Compared to the thriving colonies of British North America and elsewhere, however, New Spain did experience a prolonged period of relative economic stagnation.

The imperial state’s efforts to redress its colonies’ relative economic decline, launched after the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13), are known collectively as the Bourbon Reforms, named after the ruling dynasty that assumed power in Spain after the fall of the Habsburgs.

In a process similar to that unfolding elsewhere in the Americas, as time passed, the “creoles” (or criollos, i.e., Spaniards born in the Americas) became an increasingly important and powerful group, despite its relatively small size—a gradual shift that by the late 1700s led to a growing sense of American identity and the first stirrings for independence from Spain.

Indian and “mixed-race” rebellions and uprisings occurred throughout the colonial period, but most remained local and regional and focused on redress of specific grievances relating to colonial governance or perceived abuses by individual authorities.


The demographic makeup of the colony changed markedly over time, from its initial overwhelming preponderance of Indians and tiny number of Spaniards, to steep Indian population decline, to increasing number of mestizos and others of “mixed race,” Africans, and a small but growing number of creoles.

New Spain’s population at the end of the colonial period is estimated at around 6 million—around 50 percent Indian, 30 to 40 percent “mixed race,” 10 to 20 percent Spanish and creole, and less than 1 percent African.

In sum, 300 years of colonial rule left a profound and lasting legacy across New Spain, in every realm of society. Grappling with the nature of that legacy remains one of the most challenging and central tasks facing scholars of postconquest Mexico and Central America.

Le Dynasty of Vietnam

Le Dynasty of Vietnam
Le Dynasty of Vietnam
The Le dynasty ruled Vietnam from 1428 to 1788, the longest reign in Vietnam’s history. Le Loi, the founder of the Le dynasty, who ascended the throne as Le Thai To, is one of the most celebrated heroes in the country.

He is credited with freeing the country from Chinese Ming domination in 1428. Le Loi was an aristocratic landowner. He was helped by Nguyen Trai, a Confucian statesman, poet, and military strategist. Vietnam would maintain peaceful relations with China as a vassal state for more than 300 years.

Le Thanh Tong, who ruled Vietnam from 1460 to 1497, is the second-most significant ruler of the Le dynasty. He reorganized the administrative divisions of the country and upgraded the civil service system.

He ordered a census of people and landholdings to be taken every six years, revised the tax system, and commissioned the writing of a national history. He completed the conquest of Champa in 1471 and quelled Lao-led insurrections in the western border area.

He also ordered the formulation of the Hong Duc legal code, which was based on Chinese law but included distinctly Vietnamese features, such as recognition of the higher position of women. Under the new code, parental consent was not required for marriage, and daughters were granted equal inheritance rights with sons.

He also initiated the construction and repair of granaries, dispatched his troops to rebuild irrigation works following floods, and provided medical aid during epidemics. He also encouraged and emphasized the Confucian examination system. Thus his reign was a golden age of literature and science.

Le Thanh Tong presided over a great period of southward expansion. The don dien system of land settlement, borrowed from China, was used to develop territory wrested from Champa. Military colonies were established and soldiers and landless peasants moved to and cultivated a new area and served as a militia to defend it.

After three years, the village was incorporated into the Vietnamese administrative system, a communal village meetinghouse (dinh) was built, and the workers were given an opportunity to share community land granted by the state to each village. The remainder of the land belonged to the state.

As each area was cleared and a village established, the soldiers would move on to clear more land. This method contributed greatly to the success of Vietnam’s southward expansion and eased the land hunger of the peasants. As the Le dynasty declined, landlessness contributed to the turbulence as the peasants rose up in revolt.

Under the Le dynasty there was a division between state and local responsibilities in government. The central government was responsible for military, judicial, and religious functions, while village authorities oversaw the construction of public works projects such as roads, dikes, and bridges. The autonomy enjoyed by the villages, however, contributed to the weakness of the Vietnamese political system.

If the dynasty could not protect a village, the villages would often support a rebel movement, which then had to provide security and to institutionalize their political power. Although it ensured the preservation of a sense of national and cultural identity, the strength of the villages was a factor contributing to the political instability of the society as it expanded southward.

Beginning in 1527, Vietnam came under the control of two families, the Trinh, dominant in the northern, and the Nguyen in the southern part. Their military and political rivalry destabilized Le dynasty and brought its end in 1788. The new Nguyen dynasty ruled Vietnam into the modern period.

Portuguese and Dutch Colonization of Malacca

Malacca (Melaka) is a settlement that commands the strategically important Malacca Straits and thus the sea route linking China to the west. The Strait also links to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The location of Malacca has made it attractive to pirates.
Portuguese and Dutch Colonization of Malacca

A settlement was established at Malacca by the Sumatran prince Paramasvera at the beginning of the 15th century and it grew in importance rapidly. The prince converted to Islam and the Sultanate of Malacca became an important outpost of that religion in a region in Southeast Asia.

In the 18th century, the sultanate became a tributary to the Ming dynasty in China. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive at Malacca and captured it in 1511, with a force commanded by Afonso de Albuquerque. The Portuguese would control Malacca for 130 years before being supplanted by the Dutch.

The defeated sultan established a new capital at Johor and attempted to expel the Portuguese in alliance with Malay rulers nearby, but their mutual rivalry prevented them from forming effective alliances to defeat the Portuguese.

The Acehnese made the most serious attempt to expel the Portuguese with an armada of 300 boats, perhaps 15,000 troops, and artillerymen from Turkey. The Portuguese, however, were able to withstand the repeated assaults.

The Portuguese attempted to convert some of the people of Malacca to Christianity. The noted Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier spent some time in the region. The arrival of Sir Francis Drake of England in the late 16th century brought a new power to the region and another challenge to Portugal.

Dutch ships also became active in the region in the latter part of the 16th century as part of the Dutch trading empire. The Dutch eventually struck up a strong alliance with Johor, a state on the Malay Peninsula, and thus were able to prosecute a successful siege that ended in the Netherlands’s gaining control of Malacca.

The rise in importance of Malacca in the 16th century and beyond was the result of local elites and their ability to mobilize trading networks and the arrival of enterprising Chinese who became merchants, miners, and general traders. Other ethnic groups also contributed to making Malacca a cosmopolitan port. They include Indians, Arabs, Persians, and other Europeans.

Jesuits in Asia

Jesuits in Asia
Jesuits in Asia

The missionary enterprise of the Jesuits in Asia is comprehensible only against the background of three foundational principles. The first two are from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order: Following Jesus as a Jesuit entails missionary outreach, and being a missionary implies cultural adaptation because Jesus adapted himself to the human condition.

The third theological principle is that missionary activity should reflect the shared life of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) as documented in the Formula of the Institute and Constitutions.

The nascent Society of Jesus was yet to receive full papal approbation (September 27, 1540) when a request arrived from João III the Pious, king of Portugal, for Jesuits to work in the Portuguese domains of Asia. Ignatius of Loyola chose two of his first companions, Simão Rodrigues and Nicolas Bobadilla, for the mission.

However, before they could leave for Portugal, Bobadilla fell ill. Providentially, Francis Xavier was then in Rome and Ignatius decided to send him instead. The king of Portugal, impressed by the two Jesuits, decided to keep Rodrigues in Lisbon. Xavier, accompanied by Micer Paul, a secular priest recently admitted into the Society of Jesus, and Francisco Mansilhas, a Jesuit aspirant, set sail for India.

They finally reached Goa in India on May 6, 1542. Xavier would labor in Asia for 10 years as a missionary, baptizing and catechizing the inhabitants of the Fishery Coast of southern India; Malacca on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula; the Moluccas, also known as the “Spice Islands”; and Japan.

While in Japan, Xavier heard about China and resolved to preach the Christian message there. While awaiting Chinese government permission to land, he died on the island of Sancian in 1552, unable to fulfill his dream of converting the Chinese to Christ.

That dream would be partially realized not much later as thousands of Jesuits of various nationalities followed Xavier in the Asian missionary enterprise. Missions were conducted in West Asia, for example, with the appointment of Jesuits as papal legates in establishing relations with the Maronites and in negotiating church unity with Orthodox, Nestorian, and Monophysite Churches. But the majority of Jesuit missionaries worked farther afield, chiefly in South Asia and in East Asia.

After India, Jesuits would find themselves laboring in places in peninsular (Malacca, Indochina) and insular (Indonesia, the Philippines) Southeast Asia, and in Japan and China. The primary goal was of course the spread of Christianity, but the diverse cultures who populated the huge continent called for various missionary strategies and tactics.

The chief architect of the Asian missionary enterprise was an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano. He called for cultural adaptation to Asian ways where this was legitimate and did not compromise the Christian message.

Perhaps the most significant cultural adaptation was the use of Asian languages in the preaching of Christ and teaching of doctrine. They also extended this cultural adaptation to the manner of dress, civil customs, and ordinary life of their target audience.

His principles were put to good use by such as Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri. Aside from exploiting European sciences and arts of their day to gain entrance into the educated elite of China, Ricci and his companions decided to study the Confucian classics esteemed by the Mandarin ruling class.

In a similar way, the Jesuits working in the south of India decided on a two-pronged strategy that enabled them to reach out to both the higher and lower social castes, tailoring their manner of living to gain initial acceptance from their respective audiences.

“Dressed in cloth of red-ochre, a triangular sandal mark on his forehead, high wooden sandals on his feet,” Roberto de Nobili lived in the manner of a Hindu man of God (sannyasi), learned Sanskrit, and memorized the Vedas so that he could share the message of Christ and his church with the Indian people.

In other Asian places not as highly developed in civilization and culture, the Jesuits were animated by the same principles of cultural adaptation. In the Philippines, they creatively replicated strategies that were used elsewhere.

Because local populations were dispersed far and wide, the Jesuits encouraged people to set up permanent communities in planned settlements (a method they used in Latin America called reduction), thus laying the foundation of many towns and cities that exist today. They also set up schools wherever these were needed and constructed churches and other buildings that transformed European architectural designs to suit Asian artistic sensibilities.

They learned the various local languages and dialects and produced grammars, vocabularies, and dictionaries, thus systematizing the study not just of the languages themselves but of the cultures of the peoples that they were seeking to convert. They wrote books that mapped the ethnography of Asia and were keen observers of Asian ways and traditions, including their interaction with the natural environment.

The Jesuit missionary enterprise in Asia met with obstacles along the way. Some of these obstacles arose from European ethnocentric fears and prejudices that burdened the church of their times. Cultural adaptation was denounced as syncretism, and the missionaries themselves were often at loggerheads on the appropriate strategies to use in mission work.

It was not always clear for example whether Chinese categories used to translate Latin ones were without ambiguity, but a lack of understanding, trust, and generosity created a poisoned atmosphere that did not produce the requisite witness to Christian charity.

The distance between Rome and Asia proved to be not only a geographical dilema but also a psychological barrier that prevented church authorities from being more sympathetic to the needs of the missionary enterprise in Asia. Furthermore the political, economic, and social burden imposed by Portuguese and Spanish royal patronage of the church in the Indies proved too heavy at times to carry.

Rome itself would be forced to set up the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith in 1622 to loosen the viselike grip of the European monarchs who wished to manipulate the missionary enterprise for political and economic gain. Also, Jesuits allowed themselves to be caught in political controversies of their host countries, thus inevitably creating enemies for themselves among members of the ruling classes.

In 1759 the Portuguese king expelled all Jesuits working in Portugal and Portuguese Asia. In Spain, the Spanish king followed suit and banished the Jesuits from his domains in 1767. Finally, in 1773, Pope Clement XIV, under extreme political pressure from the Bourbon monarchs of Europe, could no longer prevent the inevitable from happening.

Through the bull Redemptor ac hominis, the pope suppressed the Society of Jesus, thus bringing an end to their missionary work in Asia. This work would be resumed only in the 19th century, when Jesuits would return to their former mission fields now besieged by new historical forces.

Dutch East India Company (Indonesia/Batavia)

Dutch East India Company (Indonesia/Batavia)
Dutch East India Company (Indonesia/Batavia)

The Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) is better known in English as the Dutch East India Company, a joint stock company formed in 1602 and granted a monopoly for all trade between the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan.

The VOC had a twofold purpose: first, to organize and promote Dutch trade in the East Indies, vital because the area produced extremely precious spices; second, to raise revenue for the Dutch War of Independence against Spain.

In East Asia, the VOC was successful in evicting the Portuguese from their holdings and establishing a base at Batavia (modern Jakarta) from which to control the island of Java. In time, the VOC was transformed from a military-trading organization to eksekutif of a colonial empire. By 1799 the company’s usefulness had been outlived and because of corruption was dissolved by the Dutch government.

From its inception the VOC was premitted by the Dutch government to enter into diplomatic relations with foreign powers and to engage in military actions to further Dutch interests, including seizing land and building forts. In Southeast Asia, Protestant Dutch and English contended for influence with Catholic Portuguese and French.

While Portugal and France were interested in religious conversion of local people as well as trade, Britain and the Netherlands were primarily interested in commerce. Its first Dutch overseas base at Ambon was won from the Portuguese and used as a staging post for the import and reexport of pepper and other spices. It next established a permanent base on Java in order to play a greater role in trade throughout Southeast Asia.

They selected a site and named it Batavia, which became their permanent headquarters. The VOC overcame local opposition with their superior weapons and the British decided to focus on India.

The VOC gradually controlled all of Java and spread its influence to other islands. Through a series of naval campaigns, it attempted to create a monopoly of trade in the islands and so fought against local powers and against Indian and Malay states also. It gained control of land and regulated the growth of pepper and other crops. Dutch rule was harsh, forcibly relocating local people and exploiting them.

In 1740, conflict broke out between the Chinese community in Batavia and Dutch officials. It became known as the Chinese War and resulted in 10,000 Chinese deaths.

By the end of the 18th century, the Dutch state had become exhausted by the effects of prolonged warfare in Europe, especially the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War of 1780–81. The VOC was also facing stiff competition from the British. It was dissolved in 1799 by the Dutch government, which decided to assume direct responsibility for overseas possessions. Java and other VOC holdings in the East Indies were transferred to the Dutch government.

Bull of Demarcation

Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas threatened to intensify the rivalry between the Catholic kingdoms of Spain (Castile) and Portugal into open warfare. Both kingdoms wanted to claim all newly discovered lands that were not Christian, that is, not Catholic.

The Line of Demarcation was Pope Alexander IV’s solution to this problem. He issued the Bull of Demarcation to prevent Spain and Portugal from battling over new territories with resources such as gold. The bull successfully prevented a war between Spain and Portugal in the 16th century.

Neither the pope nor the Spanish or Portuguese actually knew what this line was dividing. The knowledge of the lands west of Europe was sketchy, and most people thought that the land Columbus had reached was part of Asia.

The pope may have believed that the Spanish would reach the same lands sailing west over the Atlantic that the Portuguese would reach sailing east around Africa. Previously in 1455, 1456, and 1481, popes had issued bulls about newly discovered land, although they had no knowledge of the actual geography of the earth.

The Roman Catholic nations left out of these bulls, including the French and Dutch, paid no attention to the papal decrees. The power of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had guided all international affairs in Europe up to the 15th century. France and Holland ignored the document, showing that the temporal power of the church was waning.

When Columbus returned from the Americas, he stopped in Portugal before going to back to the court of Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain. King João II of Portugal claimed the lands Columbus told him about even though the explorer had sailed for the Spanish monarchs.

Ferdinand and Isabella appealed to Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard, for a solution. He issued the Inter caetera, the papal Bull of Demarcation, which was very biased toward Spain.

This document conferred all non-Christian lands found west of the designated line to Spain to explore and convert to Christianity. Portugal was to have all non-Christian lands east of the line. This decree in principle shut the Portuguese out of the Americas.

Dissatisfied, the Portuguese appealed to both the pope and Spain. Two more papal bulls followed—Examinae devotionis and another Inter caetera. These documents drew a line 100 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands.

Discoveries east of the line were to belong to Portugal, and discoveries west of the line were to belong to Spain. This resulted in Spain’s domination of all of South and Central America except Brazil, which the Portuguese claimed. The Treaty of Tordesillas modified the papal bull in 1494.

The Bull of Demarcation and later decrees gave the rights to colonize, exploit, and convert all non-Christian territory to Catholicism. These decrees treated all newly discovered nations and people as property and disregarded all non-Christian governments the Catholic explorers found.

Later the church realized these bulls were the cause of the enslavement and brutalization of native peoples and tried to emphasize peaceful, noncoerced conversion to Christianity. But it was too late; the system of Europeans’ forcibly taking control of non-Christian lands was already entrenched in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

There have been modern movements for the revocation of these papal bulls. Indigenous peoples feel they were used for the subjugation of non-Christian indigenous peoples and should be rescinded to reflect modern thinking.

Certainly, the leaders in Rome could not have foreseen the horrendous decimation of native peoples that the conquest by the European powers caused. The Falkland War of the 1980s was in part justified by Argentina’s claim that the Falkland Islands is based on the Inter caetera. However, the Treaty of Madrid in 1750 annulled the boundary line.

Tabin Swehti

Tabin Swehti
Tabin Swehti

Tabin Swehti was the Burmese king who helped to unify the country as part of what is known as the Second Burmese Empire or the Toungoo dynasty, created by his father, Minkyinyo, in 1486 and lasting until 1752.

However, it was Tabin Swehti who was responsible for unifying the kingdom and identifying and adopting cultural institutions under which the country and its people could live together.

Burma was divided into territories held by different ethnic minorities, principal among whom were the Burmans, the Shans, and the Mons. Tabin Swehti was a member of the numerically largest Burman group but he recognized the need to forge a sense of national unity to persuade the Mons in particular that they should be part of his state. He ascended the throne in 1531 and at once set out to defeat the Shans in Upper Burma. The Shans were members of the Tai family, which had migrated to the region.

Having achieved this goal, Tabin Shwehti established his capital at Toungoo on the river Sittang and then dispatched a military campaign to conquer the Irrawaddy delta region and, in particular, the Mon capital of Pegu. By 1544, he had not only achieved this but defeated a Shan counterattack at Prome to the north and arranged for his coronation as king of all Burma at the ancient city of Pagan.

This represented the peak of Tabin Swehti’s career for he was later defeated in his next two campaigns, first against coastal Arakan to the west and then against the rebellious Siamese Tais of Ayutthaya, bolstered by Mon refugees from Pegu. Disappointed, the king is said to have turned to drink for consolation and was assassinated in 1550.

He was succeeded by his brother-in-law and chief general, Bayinnuang, who was responsible for extending Burmese power to an even greater extent. Nevertheless, Tabin Swehti is credited with uniting regions of Burma that had been torn apart since the Mongol invasion in the second half of the 13th century.

Tabin Swehti’s conquest of the Mons was long and bitter. Pegu was only taken after recourse to a stratagem after four years of bitter conflict. He recognized that the Mons had a high culture (and had enjoyed a period of independence of their own since the Mongol conquest) and did what he could to conciliate them.

This inspired him to take up a number of Mon practices and cultures, including adopting the Mon hairstyle. His legacy was to provide a unified state that formed the basis of further expansion and the reduction of internecine conflict.



The Sukhothai was an early kingdom in the area around the city of Sukhothai, in north central Thailand. It existed from 1238 to 1438.

Thailand was under the Funan and Srivijaya Kingdoms before the migration of Thai people because of pressure from the Mongols. They were compelled to leave Nan Chao in Yunan. The formative stage of Thailand’s history began with powerful monarchs operating from Sukhothai on the banks of the Mae Nam Yom River.

The kingdom of Sukhothai’s predominance was due to the fact that it had tremendous potential for agricultural production. It controlled water resources for the entire Menam Basin as it was situated at top of the main flood basin. A surplus of food made it possible to have a large army.

Sukhothai was one of the early kingdoms that emerged in Thailand and Laos integrating the traditional muang administration with the Indian mandala concept of a centralized state. It borrowed art forms and administrative structure from the Khmers. Mongol influence was evident in military units. Legal traditions came from the Mons.

In spite of influences from India, Sri Lanka, and neighboring regions, Sukhothai evolved its own cultural pattern, maintaining its identity. The legacy of Sukhothai was their language, script, and religion, which became an essential part of Thai culture.

The local Thai princes Pho Khun Bang Klang and Pho Khun Pha Muang revolted against Khmer rule, establishing independent regimes. Klang became the king of Sukhothai with title of Sri Indraditya (r. 1238– 70) and was succeeded by his son Pho Khun Ban Muang (r. 1270–77).

The regime expanded under the younger brother of Rama Khamheng (1239–1298), who ruled from 1277 until 1298. Rama Khamheng or Rama the Great was one of the greatest monarchs of Thailand and at the time of his death left a vast kingdom.

He adopted both diplomacy and warfare to expand Sukhothai’s domain. Their stability was assured by a friendship with China. Many important facets of Thai culture developed under his reign. The Mons, Khmers, Indians, and Sri Lankans had close cultural contact with Sukhothai.

The Sri Lankan variety of Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism, also known as Lankavong) became predominant in Thailand. In continuity with the indigenous tradition of worshipping spirits, Rama Khamheng continued to make offerings to Phra Khaphung, the spirit deity located on a hill south of Sukhothai, even after adopting Theravada Buddhism. Thus two religious traditions were merged.

Rama Khamheng was the originator of Thai script. The Thai alphabets invented by him are basically still in use, with modifications. The reign of Rama Khamheng, the warrior and benevolent monarch, is rightly called the golden period in Thai history.

After the death of Rama Khamheng, his son Lao Thai (r. 1298–1346) ascended the throne. The kingdom of Sukhothai faced challenges from rising Thai states and Lao Thai was not very successful.

Decline of the kingdom began and later rulers could not check the process of disintegration. There was a struggle for power after the death of Lao Thai and Nguanamthom ruled for some months.

Lao Thai’s son Luthai ultimately became the ruler with title of Mahathammaracha I (r. 1346–68). A great scholar and patron of Theravada Buddhism, he was more involved in religious affairs. He did not pay much attention to the affairs of the state.

The emergence of the powerful Lan Xang kingdom in Laos and Ayutthaya in southern Thailand resulted in loss of sizable territory of Sukhothai. Fa Nagum established the first unified state of Lan Xang in 1353.

The kingdom of Ayutthaya, founded by Rama Tibodi in 1350, dominated Thai power and culture for four centuries. Neither Mahathammaracha I nor his successor Mahathammaracha II (r. 1368–98) could check acquisition of Sukhothai territory by Lan Xang and Ayutthaya.

In 1371 Borommaracha I (r. 1370–88) of Ayutthaya, bent upon a policy of doing away with his Thai rivals, invaded Sukhothai and captured several towns. Four years afterward, the important town of Phitsanulok fell to the Ayutthaya king’s army.

Sukhothai became a vassal state of Audhya in 1378 after 140 years of independent existence. In 1400 there was a flicker of hope for Sukhothai, when Mahathammaracha III (r. 1398–1419) declared independence from Ayutthaya’s subjugation.

It was suppressed and Ayutthaya installed a new king, Mahathammaracha IV (r. 1419–38). Phitsanulok was the new capital of a much smaller Sukhothai. It became a province of Ayutthaya after the king’s death. The princes of royal families generally became the administrators of the Sukhothai region.

Srivijaya Kingdom

Srivijaya Kingdom
Srivijaya Kingdom

The Sailendra dynasty was based in the Kedu plain in Java. They first appeared in the sixth century, around 570. The name Sailendra means “lord of the mountain,” a title derived from the Funanese kings, from whom they claimed descent.

By the middle of the eighth century the Buddhist dynasty had consolidated its territory in Java, ruling about two-thirds of its eastern area.

Bali, Lombok, coastal areas of Kalimantan, and southern Sulawesi fell under Sailendra control. Their sphere of influence extended to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Siam as well. Their greatest feat was building the Borobudur temple.

Prince Patapan cut their prosperity short; the neighboring Sanjaya dynasty usurped the throne in 832, forcing the Sailendra prince to hide in the forest. The latter returned in 850 but was defeated and fled to the Srivijaya kingdom.

The Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya was located on the large island of Sumatra. The name Srivijaya means “great victory.” Most likely the Srivijaya kingdom was on the southeastern coast of Sumatra, including Palembang, another city farther inland along the Musi River.

Palembang was probably the center of the ancient Malay kingdom. Evidence supporting this view includes a rectangular enclosure encircled by a moat, forming a fort known as Bamboo Fort.

Candi Gumpung at Muaro Jambi
Candi Gumpung at Muaro Jambi

Chinese porcelain shards were discovered in the settlement along the coast. According to a stone inscription dated 683, the founder of the kingdom was a Malay war chief who lived along the river.

He waged war against his rival, the Jambi-Melayu, and emerged victorious. The ruler managed to gather support from neighboring polities along the Musi River, which led to the formation of the Srivijaya kingdom, with Palembang as the core area.

The Srivijaya kingdom achieved commercial dominance as a maritime power because the mouth of the river Musi was rich with silt and therefore very fertile for the cultivation of crops, including rice.

The ancient Malay polity was a coastal power that controlled the Malacca Straits as well as the Sunda Straits, from the late seventh century to the 12th century, though the kingdom might have been in existence since the third century.

The straits were busy routes as ships often passed through them as they traveled between China and India. Among the many ports in the area, Srivijaya was the most powerful.

It ruled over the coasts of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, western Kalimantan, western Java, and the Isthmus of Kra. Srivijaya was mainly a maritime power; its control did not extend to territories far inland.

Because of its widespread dominion, Srivijaya, together with its rival, the kingdom of Jambi, was able to spread Malay culture throughout the Malay Archipelago in the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo.

Srivijaya consisted of three main zones—the estuarine region of the capital city Palembang, the hinterland formed by the Musi River basin that maintained a relative amount of independence but with loyal pledges to the Srivijaya ruler, and former rival estuarine zones.

The Buddhist king built monasteries, visited them often, and gave money to Buddhist monks traveling to India who frequently stopped in the fortified city. A trunk of a large statue of Buddha, remains of a stupa, old bricks, and other Buddhist statues from the late seventh to eighth centuries have been found on the slope of a hill about 100 feet high, known as Bukit Seguntang.

A Chinese monk, I Ching, who visited Srivijaya in 689, wrote that many Chinese monks stayed in the monasteries of Srivijaya long enough to learn the Malay and Sanskrit languages, before continuing their journey to India.

Musi River Palembang, nowdays
Musi River Palembang, nowdays

Srivijaya was sometimes referred to as Jinzhou, or the “Gold Coast.” This was because Srivijaya’s wealth and fame were mainly due to the reserves of gold found within its kingdom.

Srivijaya influence began to decline in the 11th century, weakened by attacks from the Javanese, and the Singhasari dynasty was followed by the powerful Majapahit dynasty. Aceh achieved prominence in the region as a center of Islam, as it was one of the first ports frequented by Indian Muslim and Arab merchants.

The spread of Islam undermined Srivijaya authority in the region. Finally in 1414 the last Srivijaya ruler, Parameswara, became a Muslim. He founded a sultanate in Malacca, a coastal town on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, and it thrived as an important port.

Siamese Invasion of the Khmer Kingdom

Siamese army
Siamese army
The emergence of Thai kingdoms in the 13th century changed the power configuration of mainland Southeast Asia. Angkor and Pagan both felt their military might. The conquest of Nan Chao by the Mongols accelerated the process of Thai migration. The kingdoms emerged from alliances between the leaders of muangs (unit of cluster of villages).

Prince Mengrai (1239–1317) had established the kingdom of Lanna. In 1281 he conquered the kingdom of Haripunjaya and crushed the Mon-Khmer outpost of the area. The founder of Sukhothai, Sri Indraditya (r. 1238–70), overthrew the Khmer overlordship in Thailand.

Rama Khamheng (1239–98), the third ruler, carved out a vast empire ruling over ethnic groups like the Burmese, Mon, Lao, and Khmers. After the emergence of Ayutthaya, the tables were turned and the Siamese attacked the Khmers.

In 1350, Rama Tibodi I (1312–69) founded the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which dominated Siamese history for four centuries. A new capital city was established and Tibodi named the capital after Rama, the pahlawan of the Ramayana, an important Indian epic.

The strategic location of the capital city facilitated attacking the Khmers. Tibodi was bent upon claiming overlordship of the region. The first Siamese invasion began in the year 1352 under the command of Prince Ramesuan (r. 1369–70 and 1388–95).

The Khmer ruler Jayavarman Paramesvar (r. 1327–52) became a vassal of Ayutthaya. However, control of Ayutthaya did not last long and the Khmer ruler Kambujadhiraj (r. 1377–83) recovered Angkor.

Among the rulers of Ayutthaya, two different policies alternated. The Lopburi faction wanted to establish Siamese hegemony over the Khmers. But the Suphanburi faction was interested in subduing the Thai kingdoms and visualized Sukhothai, rather than Angkor, as a rival.

Borommaracha I (r. 1370–88), who was from Suphoburi, did not follow an active policy toward the Khmers and concentrated his energy in subduing Sukhothai. Tibodi and his son Ramesuan along with grandson Ramatacha (1395–1404) were from Lopburi and perceived the threat from Angkor as greater than that of Sukhothai.

Ramesuan attacked the Khmers for the second time in 1389. The immediate result of the invasion was the capture of Chonburi and Chantaburi by the Khmer ruler Dharmasokaraj (r. 1383–89), who also captured the majority of the population.


The troops of Ayutthaya seized Angkor for seven months and took 90,000 Cambodians as prisoners. In 1431 the Ayutthaya King Borommaracha II (r. 1424–48) invaded Angkor again, killing the ruler Srey (sometimes called Tammasok). Prince Intaburi, son of Borommaracha I, was installed as the new king.

But Intaburi’s reign was short-lived and after his death, Angkor again became independent. The Khmers shifted their capital to Phnom Penh in 1432 and their domain was confined to a small area. The objective of making Angkor a vassal state was not realized.

Trailok (r. 1448–88), the eldest son of King Boromaraja II, was one of the greatest Thai monarchs and reformers. He did not pay attention to Angkor and was involved in continuous war with Chieng Mai.

The Siamese attack against the Khmers did not result in Angkor’s becoming a part of Audhya for a long time. After the attack was over and Thai forces retreated back to Ayutthaya, the Khmers reasserted their independence.

The sacking of their capital incurred heavy losses in terms of men and material. From the Siamese viewpoint, they had gained the upper hand and Ayutthaya was safe from attack by the Khmers.

The domination of Cambodia over Thailand was a thing of the past. A general pattern was also emerging in the internecine wars of the Burmese, Khmers, and Thais. Apart from ransacking the towns and imposing tributes, the victorious power was taking much of the population to make up for those killed in the wars.

The result was an ethnic mix in mainland Southeast Asia. The Angkorean features in both the social and cultural domain percolated to Siamese society. The Thais were influenced by the Khmer concept of monarchy, and the system of slavery.


Dvaravati map
Dvaravati map

The Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (also called Siam) flourished in what is now Thailand from the sixth century c.e. to around the 11th century. The kingdom covered the political area of Nakhon Pathom (west of present-day Bangkok), U-Thong, and Khu Bua.

Dvaravati extended outward from the lower Chao Phraya River valley, to the westward Tenasserim Yoma, and then southward to the Isthmus of Kra. The kingdom also consisted of towns immediately outside this perimeter that paid tribute to the kingdom, while not necessarily considering themselves under its direct rule.

Dvaravati did not yield strong political influence on other established Mon kingdoms or states such as Myanmar or the Mon in northern Thailand. This was because of its isolated geographical location (surrounded by mountainous regions). Dvaravati is considered to be the epicenter of the spread of Indian culture in the region.

The Dvaravati kingdom’s capital was Nakhon Pathom, a city archaeologists and historians believe to have been established around 3 b.c.e. Around 607 Chinese pilgrims wrote of a kingdom called To-lo-poti, which practiced Buddhism. It is widely believed that they wrote of Dvaravati.

While the name Dvaravati is of Sanskrit origins, the kingdom was only referred to as such by the Western world in 1964 when anthropologists and archaeologists found coins in the area inscribed with the words sridvaravati. The presence of coins indicates trade, and the Dvaravati kingdom was famed for its trading culture with India, and its sophisticated economic infrastructure.

The kingdom of Dvaravati actively practiced Buddhism, albeit with a mixture of indigenous Mon and Indic culture. Buddhist pilgrims belonging to Emperor Ashoka disseminated it within Southeast Asia. The kingdom was also the center of Buddhist devotion in Southeast Asia at that time.

Numerous Buddhist artifacts have been found in Dvaravati and range in style and infl uence by the trends found within the Gupta empire (Hindu elements), Theravada, and Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Various objects have been found in Nakhon Pathom that point toward ritual offerings as part of the belief structure.

The period of Dvaravati rule was greatly influenced by Vedic and Indic principles within a Buddhist framework. It maintained strong cultural and religious ties to India, reflected through the use of architecture, art, and language. Pali and Sanskrit were spoken, as was the indigenous Mon language.

Art flourished, as did intellectual pursuits such as literature and poetry. Dvaravati was a highly organized and political society and modeled itself upon the Gupta style of organization where minor princes ruled outer provinces and the king directly presided over his locality.

Dvaravati employed the use of councils and administrative regions to govern the wide area. Moats uncovered by archaeological research point toward a sophisticated system of agriculture and as such agricultural development allowed the kingdom to be relatively self-sufficient. Dvaravati was able to sustain its population for centuries.

The kingdom of Dvaravati predated the Khmers by at least 100 years; however it was eventually eclipsed and absorbed into Khmer and Thai religion and culture. Dvaravati had a tumultuous history from the 10th century onward when it was first conquered by the Burmese, and then captured by the Khmer in the 11th century, who dominated the area right up to the 13th century when it was taken over by the Thai kingdom.