Champa Civil Wars

The Kingdom of Champa, unable to maintain a stable royal system, suffered through decades of civil wars, which fatally weakened the kingdom against the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese defeated Champa in a battle that ended Cham power in Southeast Asia.

Summary of Event

The Kingdom of Champa suffered from civil wars at a time that was already highly volatile for the state and the region. The Vietnamese had been pressuring Champa from the north, and wars with the Cambodians had alienated Champa from that state. Only a unified kingdom could hope to survive in these circumstances, but unity eluded Champa. Champa
Qui Lai
Qui Do
Ban La Tra Nguyet
Ban La Tra Toan
Le Thanh Tong
Maija Vijaya
Qui Lai
Qui Do
Ban La Tra Nguyet
Ban La Tra Toan
Le Thanh Tong

The death of Champa’s successful king Jaya Sinhavarman V (r. 1401-1441) ushered in a period of civil strife. From its beginnings in the first and second century b.c.e., Champa had always been a less centrally organized and less ethnically homogeneous state than its neighbors and rivals. The people along the coast were descendants of maritime nomads from Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, while the uphill Cham consisted of mountain tribes such as the Rhade and Jarai. Once an orderly royal succession had been disrupted, the sociopolitical structure of Champa invited prolonged strife. By 1450, Champa was a nation populated by a mix of people whose diversity and rather loose political association worked against, rather than toward, a unified nation.

After Maija Vijaya (r. 1441-1446) won the contest to succeed his uncle, Jaya Sinhavarman, in 1441, Champa’s civil unrest continued, and it did not give up its habit of seaborne raids to the north. Cham raiders continued to pillage land contested with the Vietnamese empire, called Dai Viet. These raids had earned the Cham the enmity of the Vietnamese, who had fought each other for more than fourteen hundred years.

After King Maija Vijaya raided the Vietnamese province of Hoa Chau (near modern Quang Tri) for two consecutive years, the Vietnamese struck back in 1446. The civil unrest against Maija Vijaya’s rule helped the success of the Vietnamese punitive expedition. In 1446, Vietnamese forces captured Champa’s capital of Vijaya, and Vietnam intervened directly in the Champa civil war. Maija Vijaya was captured, deposed, and deported to Vietnam, together with his wives. The Vietnamese made one of his cousins, Qui Lai, the new king of Champa.

Even though Qui Lai was a son of Jaya Sinhavarman, his installment by the Vietnamese angered many Cham, who violently opposed his rule. Despite the reoccupation of the capital, Vijaya, by Champa soon after the Vietnamese departed, the nation did not regain political stability. After just three years, Qui Do succeeded his older brother, Qui Lai, as the new king.

In 1458, Ban La Tra Nguyet killed Qui Do and usurped the throne. In an effort to shore up the nation’s position against the Vietnamese, King Tra Nguyet sent his younger brother Ban La Tra Toan to the Ming Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);Champa relations with court in Beijing. Tra Toan’s mission was to ask the Chinese emperor for the throne of Vietnam. Nominally, China still considered both the Dai Viet Empire and the Kingdom of Champa as dependent vassal states. In 1407, a Chinese invasion of Vietnam had saved Champa from a Vietnamese onslaught. While China had ruled Vietnam briefly from 1407 until 1428, Champa had been able to recover some land lost to Dai Viet. King Tra Nguyet’s strategy was to look to China as a possible ally, but the Ming court declined any intervention in Vietnam, where it had suffered a military defeat and had been expelled. The Vietnamese were made alert by these events, and as civil strife troubled Champa, they launched a few raids there.

Tra Toan became king of Champa in 1460, upon the death of his brother. Yet some Cham still were opposed to his rule, which rested on his family’s violent accession. Unfortunately for the fate of Champa, while the country was suffering from civil discord, Vietnam saw the coronation of a strong and energetic emperor, Le Thanh Tong.

From the Vietnamese point of view, the Cham were barbaric pirates who needed to be stopped and defeated if Dai Viet was to enjoy peace on its southern border. The Cham considered the Vietnamese robbers of their old lands. Yet civil war weakened Champa considerably. In the years leading up to 1470, clashes between the forces and people of Champa and Dai Viet continued. Vietnam;clashes with Champa While Le Thanh Tong strengthened his army, Tra Toan still had to fight with rivals to his throne. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the increasing crisis came to no avail.

Even though his hold over his kingdom was not absolute, King Tra Toan allowed another raid into Hoa Chau, in 1469. Emperor Le Thanh Tong accelerated his troop build up and intensified military training. In October of 1470, King Tra Toan invaded Hoa Chau with a huge combined land and naval force. Contemporary Vietnamese accounts show that the force had 100,000 soldiers, but this number may be inflated. Faced with this, Le Thanh Tong readied his empire for war. A Vietnamese diplomatic mission to Beijing in October and November of 1470 ensured Chinese acquiescence.

On November 28, 1470, Le Thanh Tong formally launched his attack. In a speech, he used the Champa civil war as an excuse for his invasion: The Cham people were suffering from the illegitimate rule of Tra Toan, a rule gained after his brother murdered the legitimate king Qui Do, and the Vietnamese were coming as liberators, not invaders. After naming more reasons for war, the Vietnamese army and navy of 150,000 men crossed into Champa.

The Cham of the border province of Quang Nam (a province that includes the modern city of Da Nang) surrendered quickly, enabling Le Thanh Tong to advance south in early 1471. In despair, King Tra Toan ordered his younger brother to attack with soldiers mounted on five thousand elephants. However, Le Thanh Tong learned of the attack and took effective countermeasures. Well prepared, the Vietnamese soldiers struck at the Cham on their elephants and defeated them. Tra Toan’s offer for negotiations went unanswered, and Le Thanh Tong advanced on Vijaya (near what is now Qui Nhon).

On March 22, 1471, Vijaya fell to the Vietnamese. The city was completely destroyed, and at least forty thousand, if not sixty thousand, Cham were killed. Thirty thousand other Cham followed their king Tra Toan and his wives into Vietnamese captivity. The Vietnamese cut off the left ear of each of their prisoners of war and enslaved them for life. When Tra Toan died of natural causes on his way to Vietnam, Le Thanh Tong had the head of the Tra Toan’s corpse decapitated and displayed on his ship beneath a white flag and a sarcastic inscription.

In April, 1471, the Champa civil wars came to an end. All of Champa north of the Cu Mong Pass (below what is now An Nhon), including the destroyed city of Vijaya, was annexed to Dai Viet. The rest of Champa to the south was divided into three dukedoms, each too weak to resist the Vietnamese. Champa’s civil wars had ended with its defeat at the hands of their enemies.


The civil wars that had disrupted Champa also accelerated its fall, preventing the Cham from effectively marshaling national resources to withstand the Vietnamese invasion of 1470. Champa’s unwillingness to end its raids into territories wrested from it by the Vietnamese, however, destroyed all chances for a peaceful accommodation of the two peoples.

By 1471, the loss of more than one-third of its territory to Vietnam in the north effectively destroyed Champa as an independent power in Southeast Asia. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Vietnam would finalize its conquest of the remaining Cham territory.

Since its foundation, Champa had been an Indianized nation culturally, in stark contrast to the Chinese-influenced culture of Vietnam. Champa had remained a Hindu nation well into the fifteenth century, at a time when its neighbor Cambodia Cambodia had become Buddhist, and represented a cultural link to India.

After its defeat in 1471, the remainder of Champa became quickly Islamized. Historians have set the date of Champa’s conversion to Islam at the 1471 defeat, rather than in the early 1400’, as previously believed. Many scholars believe that the massive defeat of the Cham at the hands of the non-Hindu Vietnamese led them to become severely disappointed with their religion, which had failed to save them. In turn, the Cham looked to Islam Islam;Champa for salvation. Into the twenty-first century, the vast majority of the approximately sixty thousand ethnic Cham surviving in Vietnam, and their peers in Cambodia and southern China, have remained Muslim.

Further Reading

  • Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Discusses the event in detail from both a Cham and a Vietnamese point of view. Very readable. Includes maps, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Guillon, Emmanuel. Cham Art. Translated by Tom White. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. A richly illustrated work with a valuable chapter on the history of Champa. Includes maps of the region as it appeared at the time of the civil wars.
  • Maspero, Georges. The Champa Kingdom: The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture. Translated by Walter E. J. Tips. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press, 2002. The first English translation of Maspero’s classic 1928 history of Champa, from its origins to its decline. Includes illustrations and chronological table of Champa kings.
  • Phuong, Tran Ky. Unique Vestiges of Cham Civilization. Hanoi, Vietnam: The Giio, 2000. An illustrated guidebook to Cham ruins in Vietnam, with a useful survey of Cham history, including its decline.
  • Thurgood, Graham. From Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Examines primarily the Cham language but also surveys Champa’s history using updated historical and anthropological sources.

Mar. 18-22, 1471: Battle of Vijaya

1539: Jiajing Threatens Vietnam