Alaungpaya Unites Burma Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The creation of the Burmese Third Empire by Alaungpaya ushered in the modern era of British colonial affiliation, featuring the exploitation of the production capacities of the Irrawaddy and Salween River Valleys to provide rice exports in the global colonial trade.

Summary of Event

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Burmese people had been dominated by the Mons Mons for nearly a millennium. They had begun moving into the Irrawaddy River Valley Irrawaddy River Valley, Myanmar by the ninth century, but for the next nine hundred years they remained under the yoke of the Mons rulers, who were related to the people of Siam. These centuries of oppression came to an end when Alaungpaya—a local tribal headman, or myothugyi—overthrew the Mons, establishing Burmese dominance around the Irrawaddy River and then expanding his sphere of influence to include the upper regions of the valley and the surrounding mountains. The Konbaung Dynasty Konbaung Dynasty established by Alaungpaya remained politically dominant in the region for 130 years. [kw]Alaungpaya Unites Burma (1752-1760) [kw]Burma, Alaungpaya Unites (1752-1760) [kw]Unites Burma, Alaungpaya (1752-1760) Burmese Third Empire Colonization;British of Burma Burmese unification [g]Southeast Asia;1752-1760: Alaungpaya Unites Burma[1360] [g]Burma;1752-1760: Alaungpaya Unites Burma[1360] [c]Government and politics;1752-1760: Alaungpaya Unites Burma[1360] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1752-1760: Alaungpaya Unites Burma[1360] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1752-1760: Alaungpaya Unites Burma[1360] Alaungpaya Hsinbyushin Bodawpaya

The domination of the Irrawaddy region by the Mons was never as complete or as hegemonic as they desired. Indeed, long periods of political fragmentation were the rule in the Irrawaddy River Valley, as various tribal powers struggled to establish themselves as the sole source of authority. More often than not, however, it was the lowland cultures living along the river that represented the political majority, while surrounding hill tribes represented a volatile minority that was difficult to subdue but had little say in Burmese decision making. The Karens—who lived in the Irrawaddy delta and the nearby hill areas to the immediate west—were probably the most significant and most affected of the minority peoples. The Mons often captured Karens and forced the captives to serve them for a while before letting them go. Chins, Naga, and Kachins were hill tribes that represented continuous thorns in the side of Burmese rulers and disrupted plans to unify the region. In between the ruling dynasties of “Old Burma,” moreover, regional unity was often disrupted by foreign invasions from China, India, Mongolia, and Central Asia.

The fragmentation of the Irrawaddy region was brought to an end by Alaungpaya, not only because he was one of the shrewdest military leaders in Burmese history but also because he had the charisma and strength of character to motivate the various hill peoples and lowland peoples to accept his rule. Alaungpaya’s reign, nevertheless, was dominated by constant and intense military action. Even after he died invading Siam in 1760, Alaungpaya was succeeded by two of his sons, who continued his strategy of constant warfare and violent expansionism. Alaungpaya’s campaigns of conquest began in northern Burma in 1752, when he rose up against the highland Mons who had come north from the Dawna Range in the southeast. The Mons were ultimately driven back to their home region on the Malayan Peninsula.

After driving the bulk of the Mons southward, Alaungpaya returned north to deal with numerous Mon and Talaing holdouts who remained in the two central cities of the region, Syriam and Pegu. Upon reasserting his authority over these cities, Alaungpaya turned his attention farther northward and added the Shan states of the upper plateau to his domain. During the next three or four years, he fought constantly to maintain the territory he had gained: He alternated his time between putting down various Mon uprisings in the south and defeating similar periodic resistance in the central Irrawaddy River Valley around Manipur.

Finally, in 1759, he felt either secure or ambitious enough to attempt another major conquest: He turned his attention southeastward across the Dawna Range to the Siamese culture of the Chao Phraya River Valley (in present-day Thailand). It was during this Siamese campaign the following year that Alaungpaya was mortally wounded by the explosion of his own artillery.

Before his death, Alaungpaya conquered and unified several disparate Southeast Asian peoples, establishing them all as subjects of a kingdom ruled by the lowland Burmese. Much of the appeal of King Alaungpaya to the various Burmese subcultures, transcending even his military genius and charisma, emanated from his original status as myothugyi, Myothugyi (local headman) or local headman, in the upper Irrawaddy city of Shwebo, about fifty miles north of the capital at Ava. As myothugyi, Alaungpaya was the key personality to whom the local population acknowledged direct personal allegiance. His authority, therefore, was steeped in a more direct, familiar relationship to his constituency than was that of the traditional Burmese royal figure.

As myothugyi, Alaungpaya had been responsible for adjudicating disputes and local military commands. He was essentially the local police chief, judge, arbiter, tax collector, army recruiter, marriage and divorce witness, promoter and arranger of festivals and celebrations, and public works engineer, as well as assigning service obligations to members of his community. He was an indispensable bridge between the arbitrary authority of the king and his subjects. He identified more with the interests of his own people than did the often predatory royal officials. It was this identification and direct contact with common tribal people and concerns that broadened Alaungpaya’s appeal and united his followers as he gained in strength and prowess.

Significance

Under Alaungpaya’s sons, Hsinbyushin and Bodawpaya, the Burmese Empire continued to expand, reaching its greatest territorial extent in the early nineteenth century. Burmese forces invaded Siam once more, taking the territory Alaungpaya had failed to capture. They also repelled Chinese invaders from the north and added Arakan and Assam to their imperial holdings. The empire maintained its sovereignty throughout the region it had conquered, until it was conquered in turn by Britain and assimilated into the British Empire in 1885.

Alaungpaya was the first of the Burmese kings to deal with European colonists. He received “aid” from the British East India Company in his fight against the Mons, who were supported by the French. After conquering the Mons, he secured French weaponry and artillerymen to gain a substantial advantage in his later military campaigns. Both French and English captains knelt before Alaungpaya to receive orders in respectful silence. He was probably the last Burmese ruler to withstand manipulation by these erstwhile foreign colonial powers.

The reign of Alaungpaya brought no particular cultural, religious, or administrative enrichment to Burma. Instead, the new king brought to his throne a compelling military persistence, a warlike force of character, a tradition of direct popular interaction derived from his position as myothugyi, and a tremendous energetic will to extend Burmese political dominance that served to unite the Burmese people for the next century.

None of the Burmese dynasties prior to Alaungpaya’s Konbaung Dynasty had been able to achieve the same level of political legitimacy among the radically diverse regional subcultures. Alaungpaya was responsible for restoring Burmese morale, as well as for filling his peoples with the sense of invincibility that would ultimately prove their undoing: The decision of Bodawpaya to transgress recognized borders into British Assam led to British intervention and placed Burma in the British imperial consciousness. The Burmese, by this time, had adopted a contemptuous attitude toward foreigners, which clouded their perceptions, preventing them from recognizing the superior military strength of British India.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aung-Thwin, Michael A. Irrigation in the Heartland of Burma: Foundations of the Pre-colonial Burmese State. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1990. The formation of Burmese culture is examined from a nontraditional perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Mists of Ramanna: The Legend That Was Lower Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005. A detailed account of the formation of lowland Burmese culture as distinguished from highland culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998. Provides a useful account of the beliefs and institutions of Burmese culture during and before the time of Alaungpaya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985. Generalized, book-length account of times leading up to Alaungpaya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koenig, William J. Burmese Polity, 1752-1819: A Study of Kon Baung Politics, Administration, and Social Organization. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1990. Examination of political relations within the Konbaung Dynasty.

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