Burmese-Laotian Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Burmese and Laotian plans for expansion brought the two kingdoms into conflict. Laos managed to shake off Burmese dominance through alliances with the Siamese, who were under constant attack from the Burmese, and declare independence from Burma in 1593. Siam would come to dominate the region, however, as Laos and Burma began a period of decline.

Summary of Event

Burma (now Myanmar) was an expanding power in mainland Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century, ruled by the Toungoo Dynasty Toungoo Dynasty , named after the original location of the capital. The second ruler of the Toungoo Dynasty, Tabinshwehti (r. 1531-1546), defeated the kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma in 1535 and had plans to conquer Siam (central Thailand). A rival Burmese prince leading a rebellion assassinated Tabinshwehti, who was by this time the king of unified Burma, in 1550. Tabinshwehti’s brother-in-law, the military leader Bayinnaung, put down the rebellion. Bayinnaung then had himself crowned king and took up the goal of expansion. Burmese-Laotian Wars (1558-1593)[Burmese Laotian Wars (1558-1593)] Setthathirat I Bayinnaung Mekhuti Vorawongse I Sen Soulinthara Nokeo Koumane Tabinshwehti Bayinnaung Photisarath Setthathirat I Mekhuti Chakrapat Mahin Vorawongse I Nokeo Koumane Sen Soulinthara

The Laotian kingdom of Lan Xang Lan Xang , also, was expanding its reach. The mother of the Lao king Photisarath (d. 1547) was a princess of the kingdom of Lan Na, located in what is now northern Thailand, which had a capital city at Chiang Mai. In 1545, the king of Chiang Mai was assassinated, leaving the kingdom without an heir to the throne. Photisarath claimed the vacant throne and sent a force of soldiers to claim the Crown, which he accepted in the name of his eldest son, Setthathirat (also known as Jetthadiraja and Setthavong). The new king settled in Chiang Mai, but after he died in a hunting accident in 1547, Setthathirat returned to Lan Xang to be crowned.

It was difficult for Setthathirat to maintain his position in Chiang Mai from the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang or from the growing city of Vientiane (Viangchan), which had been established by his father. The Siamese attacked Chiang Mai Chiang Mai , but were beaten back by Laotian forces. Setthathirat did not want to return to Chiang Mai, so, in 1551, he agreed to recognize Mekhuti, a prince of Shan ethnicity elected by local leaders, as the new king of Chiang Mai.

Bayinnaung had been conquering the Shan territories of what is now northern Myanmar (Burma), and the absence of Setthathirat encouraged him to attempt to take Chiang Mai too. Bayinnaung arrived at Chiang Mai in 1556. Mekhuti offered little resistance and swore allegiance to Bayinnaung, promising to pay tribute to the Burmese king. After Bayinnaung’s return to Burma, though, the Laotian forces of Setthathirat reinvaded in 1558 and defeated Mekhuti. The Burmese returned and placed Mekhuti back on the throne of Chiang Mai. Bayinnaung proclaimed that Setthathirat was no longer the king of Lan Xang, prompting Setthathirat to form an alliance against Burma with the Shan states. In turn, Bayinnaung sent his army into the Shan states, depriving Setthathirat of allies.

To counter the threat from Burma, Setthathirat sought close relations with the Siamese. who were also under pressure from Bayinnaung’s military. Setthathirat concluded an alliance with the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, under King Chakrapat, in 1560. Bayinnaung’s occupation of Chiang Mai, however, gave the Burmese king an excellent strategic location for launching a full-scale invasion of Siamese lands in 1563.

Mekhuti attempted to express his independence from Burma by refusing to help in the invasion of Siamese lands and by trying to prevent Burmese supply boats from leaving Chiang Mai. The Burmese then sent soldiers, under the command of Bayinnaung’s son, to unseat Mekhuti. In the meantime, Bayinnaung enjoyed a string of victories against Siam and, after laying siege to Ayutthaya, he received the surrender of Chakrapat early in 1564. Chakrapat apparently became a Buddhist monk, which was common for royalty leaving public life, and his son, Mahin, took over as ruler under Burmese domination. According to some accounts, Chakrapat was placed by Bayinnaung in a monastery in Burma. A Siamese prince of the city of Phitsanulok served as regional deputy of Burma and helped keep watch over Mahin.

While the war with the Siamese was under way, the Burmese subdued Chiang Mai, and Mekhuti fled to Vientiane. Setthathirat had made Vientiane, located along the Mekhong River, the new capital of the Laotian kingdom, believing Vientiane was a better location than Luang Prabang strategically. The Burmese forces, having for the time finished with the Siamese, set out in boats to Vientiane. The city fell to the invaders in 1565, but Setthathirat managed to escape. The Burmese seized Setthathirat’s brother, his queen, and Mekhuti, though, and took them back to Burma as prisoners. An aging princess of the old royal family of Chiang Mai was placed in charge there under the guidance of Burmese guards.

With the departure of the Burmese, Setthathirat returned to Vientiane. Mahin, the Siamese ruler at Ayutthaya, was eager to throw off Burma’s control, so he contacted Setthathirat for help against their mutual enemy. Together, they attacked the central Siamese city of Phitsanulok in 1566, which was allied with Burma. However, Bayinnaung sent defenders and the Lao and Siamese were forced to give up the effort for the time. The following year, though, Chakrapat managed to leave his monastery and join his son’s revolt. The Siamese again assaulted and laid siege to Phitsanulok.

Bayinnaung sent forces to help his ally at Phitsanulok, and Setthathirat marched from the north to help the Siamese. The Laotians and Siamese were pushed back by the combined strength of Phitsanulok and the Burmese. In late 1568, Bayinnaung undertook a second massive invasion of Siam. He relieved Phitsanulok and then marched to Ayutthaya. After a siege of several months, the Siamese capital fell. Both Chakrapat and Mahin died—Chakrapat during the siege and Mahin while on his way to Burma as a captive. The ruler of Phitsanulok, Thammaracha (r. 1569-1590), became the new Burmese sponsored-king of Ayutthaya in 1569.

After the fall of Ayutthaya, Bayinnaung again attacked Vientiane. The Laotians managed to defend Vientiane, forcing the Burmese army to give up; the Burmese returned home in the spring of 1570. Laos was not free of the Burmese for long, however, because Setthathirat died the following year, giving Bayinnaung an excuse to again intervene. Setthathirat’s brother Vorawongse, who had been appointed vice-king years earlier, had been a prisoner in Burma since the invasion of 1564. From 1571 to 1572, Setthathirat’s young son Nokeo Koumane was recognized as king under the regency of his maternal grandfather, Sen Soulinthara, but Sen Soulinthara would soon declare himself king. As a result, the Burmese invaded once again, took Sen Soulinthara prisoner, and placed Vorawongse onto the throne.

The Laotians refused to accept Vorawongse as their legitimate ruler. He accidentally drowned while fleeing from a revolt in 1579, leaving the throne of Lan Xang empty once more. The aging Bayinnaung reinstated Sen Soulinthara as king of Lan Xang. Both rulers soon died, though. After a period of nearly one decade with no definitive king, Nokeo Koumane, Setthathirat’s son, who had been a prisoner in Burma for years, took back the throne in 1591. Two years later, Nokeo Koumane declared Laotian independence from Burma.

Significance

Setthathirat is considered a national hero in Laos because he resisted Burmese domination. The Burmese-Laotian Wars marked the high point of Burmese expansion. At the end of this era, both Burma and Laos went into a period of decline, and Siam began its rise to regional dominance.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coedés, George. The Making of Southeast Asia. Translated by H. M. Wright. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1966. A classic introduction to early Southeast Asian history that examines the Siamese-Cambodian wars of the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, D. G. E. A History of South-East Asia. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. A standard, comprehensive history of the region. Chapter 15, “Burma and the T’ai Kingdoms in the Sixteenth Century,” examines events related to the Burmese-Laotian Wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stuart-Fox, Martin. A History of Laos. New York: Cambridge University Press. Although concerned mainly with the history of modern Laos, the book’s first chapter provides an excellent introduction to the events of the Lan Xang period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stuart-Fox, Martin. The Lao Kingdom of Lan-Xang: Rise and Decline. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press, 1998. Written by an Australian historian recognized as one of the foremost contemporary scholars on Laos, this work tells the story of the Laotian kingdom that flourished from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It includes the history of the Burmese invasions.

1450’s-1529: Thai Wars

1454: China Subdues Burma

1469-1481: Reign of the Ava King Thihathura

c. 1488-1594: Khmer-Thai Wars

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1527-1599: Burmese Civil Wars

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

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