Burmese Civil Wars

The Burmese Civil Wars, rather than create an era of instability, allowed the Toungoo Dynasty to unify the various states and ethnic tribes under the kingdom of Burma.

Summary of Event

The area now occupied by Myanmar (also known as Burma) lies between modern India to the west, the Bay of Bengal to the southwest, and China, Laos, and Thailand to the northeast and east. It began to form its own political powers in the ninth century, when the Burman people of Bagan (modern Pegu), a city on the Irrawaddy River, were able to fill a power vacuum left when the people of Nanzhao (southwestern China) overcame another major people of Burma, the Pyu. As a result, the Burmans were able to dominate the country, incorporating the Mon kingdom and their Theravāda Buddhist influence (1057), until the Mongols overpowered them in the late thirteenth century and left the area to conflicts between the Mon and the Burmans that lasted for the next two centuries. Mons The Mon would ultimately fall to the Burmans of the Toungoo Dynasty Toungoo Dynasty , founded by King Minkyinyo in 1486. This dynasty would eventually overrun the city-states of several other peoples in the area, forming the basis for modern Burma. Burmese Civil Wars (1527-1599)
Nanda Bayin
Mello, Diogo Soarez
Nanda Bayin

As Minkyinyo took the throne at Toungoo, situated on the Sittang River north of the Irrawaddy Delta region, the state of Ava Ava (near modern Mandalay) was increasingly declining in power. Ava was Toungoo’s strongest rival for dominance in Burma, and Minkyinyo took the opportunity to seize Kyauske, a vital rice area belonging to Ava. Following this, Minkyinyo expanded his territory. In 1527, the Shan Shan (Burmese peoples) people (from northern Burma) sacked Ava, placing their own king, Thonganbwa, on the throne. Not wanting to submit to Shan rule, Burmese chiefs fled Ava and pledged loyalty to Minkyinyo. At Minkyinyo’s death, Toungoo was the premier state in Burma.

Tabinshwehti ascended the throne after Minkyinyo, intending to expand his territory and rule all of Burma. By 1535, he had completely overrun the Irrawaddy Delta. He then turned his sites on Pegu, the Mon Mons capital, presumably for its riches. At the beginning of the siege, Bassein and Myanugmya fell. Ava assisted Pegu, and in 1539 after four years of fighting, Pegu fell. The Mon chiefs pledged loyalty to Tabinshwehti, and the Mon king, Takayutpi, fled to Prome. He was followed by Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, Tabinshwehti’s brother-in-law.

Tabinshwehti’s first attack on Prome was unsuccessful. He was thwarted by a flotilla of soldiers from Ava, so he retreated. He focused on Martaban and its coastal areas, enlisting the help of Portuguese gunners and Mon mercenaries to supplement his army. In 1541, Martaban fell, and Tabinshwehti annexed the Tenasserim coast down to Tavoy on the border with Siam (modern Thailand). Previously, Tabinshwehti had been careful to respect the people, customs, and cultures of those he conquered, which allowed him to gain their acceptance. However, the army that sacked Martaban was full of Mon and Portuguese mercenaries, and there was pillaging and massacre for three days. While this was not Tabinshwehti’s way, it did benefit his military campaigns. The Mons were so frightened by the savagery at Martaban that the Mon state of Moulmein submitted without conflict.

Tabinshwehti returned to Prome, and this time not only Ava but also Arakan Arakan (on the coast northeast of the Bay of Bengal) came to help Prome. After a five-month siege, the people of Prome were starving; their city fell in 1542. Shortly after, the site of Pagan, Burma’s ancient empire, was taken. In 1544, the Shan states united, and Ava, Hsenwi, Bhamo, Mohnyin, Momeik, Mone, and Yawnghwe, attacked Prome in an effort to reclaim it. They were unsuccessful, and Tabinshwehti’s Portuguese gunners were able to resist the Shans. By now Tabinshwehti controlled a large portion of Burma, and in 1546, he was crowned king of Burma at Pagan and moved his capital to Pegu. In 1544 and 1546-1547, Tabinshwehti attacked Arakan unsuccessfully. The Arakanese capital, Mrohaung, was well defended and Tabinshwehti had to call a halt to that campaign.

Now that he had conquered most of Burma, Tabinshwehti focused on expanding his borders into Siam, which was threatening Tavoy. His attacks failed, and consequently he lost control of his kingdom. The Mons rebelled, Pegu fell to a member of the Mon royal family, and in 1550, Tabinshwehti was assassinated, possibly because people believed he was corrupted by his Portuguese associations. Prome and Toungoo declared independence, and the era of warring states was about to return. The allegiance of the Mons was divided, but a majority of Mons and Burmese agreed that a national kingship was better than separated states, a legacy of Minkyinyo and Tabinshwehti. Bayinnaung, with the help of a Portuguese leader, Diogo Soarez de Mello, captured Toungoo and became Tabinshwehti’s successor.

Bayinnaung, referred to as the “Napoleon of Burma,” immediately began to reestablish the kingdom of Burma. He retook Pegu from Mon rebels in 1551. From 1554 to 1555, he captured the Shan states Ava and Shwebo in bloodless battles. By 1562, he had forced allegiance of most of the Shan states. He captured the Siamese capital of Chiang Mai in 1564, lost it to rebellion, and recaptured it again. This angered the Burmese, and Bayinnaung was faced with quenching rebellions. The same thing occurred when he tried to take Laos, and he therefore had to abandon his desire to expand Burma into foreign lands. In 1581, Arakan again became a target, but Bayinnaung and the campaign ended. The constant wars had impoverished the Burmese, the Portuguese mercenaries that he befriended tended to defy the king, and famine occurred in 1567. These conditions created an atmosphere of revolt.

Bayinnaung’s son, Nanda Bayin, ascended the throne as king of Burma, but the country was quickly descending into rebellion. At first, Nanda Bayin was able to suppress each revolt. A Venetian writer, Gasparo Balbi, described a 1583 execution of suspected rebels and their families, specifically involving a revolt led by Nanda Bayin’s uncle, the viceroy of Ava.

Siam Siam soon realized that Burma was weakening and began a series of attacks to reclaim its territory and parts of Lower Burma. Nanda Bayin’s eldest son was killed by the Siamese in 1593. The Mons felt the brunt of the Siamese attacks, as their land was torn by war and the people were forced into labor and military service. The Mons began to rebel but met with savage results. This treatment forced the Mons to migrate to Siam, and in 1595 thousands fled with the Siamese army.

Prome, Toungoo, and Chiang Mai also revolted. Toungoo and Prome, both ruled by Nanda Bayin’s brothers, also fought one another. As the kingdom shattered, Siam launched another attack on Burma, and Arakan seized Syriam (in the Rangoon Delta region) and joined Toungoo in an attack on Pegu. Nanda Bayin surrendered and was taken to Toungoo, where he was murdered. Pegu was destroyed. Various forces, such as the Portuguese, Siamese, and Arakenese, began to carve out pieces of Burma for themselves, and the kingdom was no longer unified.


The Burmese Civil Wars had two important effects on Burma, both historically and culturally, which reverberated into modern Myanmar. Despite the constant fighting, Burma was relatively stable as a result of Tabinshwehti’s and Bayinnaung’s reigns. The two kings united the Mons, Shans, the Burmese and their respective states under the kingdom of Burma, and despite their tribal allegiances, they all became Burmese. This marked the first time that all the states of Burma, except Arakan, were united politically and created a national consciousness that allowed the tribes to retain their customs and traditions. The people of modern Myanmar retain this identity to this day. Had the kings failed to unify the kingdom, a sense of national unity would possibly never have risen, and Burma’s constituent tribes might have broken off and created their own countries.

While Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung united Burma, Nanda Bayin completely divided it, and the Mons, Shans, and Burmese returned to their tribal loyalties. However, Nanda Bayin shattered the country so much that he not only splintered that country’s unity but also undermined the invasion and occupation of foreign forces. Siam took portions of Burma and a large population of Mons migrated to Siam. The Portuguese, whose role in the civil wars was mainly mercenary, carved out their own portion of coastal Burma.

The demise of a national kingship therefore had two effects: It reduced Burma’s importance as an overseas trade partner, and it opened the way for European colonization. The end of the first Toungoo Dynasty created tribal strife, and when the second Toungoo Dynasty appeared soon afterward, the Mons and Shans viewed each other as inferior, which made the idea of Burmese unity impossible. Although the Toungoo Dynasty survived until the mid-eighteenth century, it was weakened, and the national disintegration allowed the Portuguese to gain more land and power, paving the way for inroads by English as well. Nevertheless, the brief period of unity during the first Tonguoo Dynasty created the beginnings of a modern state.

Further Reading

  • Aung-Thwin, Michael A. Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices. Number 102 in the Monographs in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. Discusses the historic basis of various myths of the three kingdoms of Pagan, Ava, and Toungoo.
  • Gommans, Jos, and Jacques Leider, eds. The Maritime Frontier of Burma: Exploring Political, Cultural and Commercial Interaction in the Indian World, 1200-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Discusses mainly the importance of overseas trade to the kingdom of Burma and how politics and the civil wars affected it.
  • Phayre, Arthur P. History of Burma: From the Earliest Time to the End of the First War with British India. Bangkok, Thailand: Orchid Press, 1998. Gives a brief breakdown of the important events of each Burmese king’s reign.
  • Tarling, Nicholas. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia: From c. 1500 to c. 1800. Vol. 2. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Discusses the Toungoo Dynasty and its various wars between other Burmese states.

1450’s-1471: Champa Civil Wars

1450’s-1529: Thai Wars

1454: China Subdues Burma

1469-1481: Reign of the Ava King Thihathura

c. 1488-1594: Khmer-Thai Wars

1548-1600: Siamese-Burmese Wars

1558-1593: Burmese-Laotian Wars

c. 1580-c. 1600: Siamese-Cambodian Wars