Confederation of Thai Tribes

Loose confederations of tribes of people speaking Thai or Tai languages enabled the ancestors of the modern Thai, Lao, and other groups to maintain ties while migrating into Southeast Asia.

Summary of Event

Centuries before the development of Siam (Thailand) and Laos, tribes of the ancestors of the Thai and Lao were grouped into muangs
Muangs , or principalities, that maintained alliances. These alliances may have led to the creation of the ancient kingdom of Nanzhao in Yunnan, and they enabled migrants into Southeast Asia to unite against the Cambodian empire. [kw]Confederation of Thai Tribes (c. 700-1253)
[kw]Thai Tribes, Confederation of (c. 700-1253)
China;c. 700-1253: Confederation of Thai Tribes[0490]
Southeast Asia;c. 700-1253: Confederation of Thai Tribes[0490]
Expansion and land acquisition;c. 700-1253: Confederation of Thai Tribes[0490]
Government and politics;c. 700-1253: Confederation of Thai Tribes[0490]
Kublai Khan
Sri Indraditya

Scholars disagree on the origins of the Thai people. Some argue that the Thai have lived on the lands now known as Thailand since prehistoric times. Most maintain that they migrated into Southeast Asia from some other location. The most common view on the origin of the Thai is that they moved south from China and that the Thai and Lao nations grew out of a loose and shifting confederation of tribes over the course of several centuries. Migrations;Thai to Southeast Asia

The Thai (also known as Siamese); the Lao Lao ; and the Shan Shan , who are located mainly in contemporary northeastern Burma, are three of the largest groups of people who speak Tai, or T’ai, languages. Ancient Chinese documents refer to these people as the Ailao. According to some accounts, the Ailao Ailao moved up into south China from the Indian subcontinent and established a federation of muangs (muong or meuang). The word muang in modern Thai refers to a country or a people, and Thailand itself is often known as Muang Thai. The ancient word appears to have meant something along the lines of a tribe or a principality, a collection of scattered villages. A chao, or lord, led each muang. Leadership was based on personal ties between the lord and those who followed him, and the personal qualities of lords gave them their authority.

According to this view of history, the Thai tribes were based mainly in the mountainous plateau of modern Yunnan Province, south of the Yangtze River in China. They would frequently join together against some common enemy, such as the Chinese. This kind of union may have led to the first Thai kingdom, Nanzhao Nanzhao (Nanchao), located mainly in Yunnan.

The Chinese had established their sovereignty over the Ailao or Thai tribes by about the middle of the third century. Some of the tribes moved south in response. The view of many historians is that Nanzhao continued to serve as a central starting point for the migration of bands out of southern China. During the middle of the seventh century, the tribes who remained in Yunnan joined together to revolt against Chinese rule. The confederation resulted in the rise of King Sinulo Sinulo , supposedly the first Thai ruler of the kingdom of Nanzhao. The Chinese Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;Nanzhao and (Tan’g; 618-907) accepted the existence of the new kingdom and established a treaty with it. The ties between Nanzhao and China resulted in many lasting Chinese cultural influences on the Thai.

Political connections between the Thai of Nanzhao and the Chinese became stronger with threats from the Tibetans. King Pilaoko Pilaoko , who came to the throne of Nanzhao in 728, allied himself with the Chinese emperor Xuanzong Xuanzong (Tang emperor) (Hsüan-tsung; r. 712-756) and agreed to defend the borders of China from all enemies, especially from Tibet. Pilaoko then turned to attack Tibet, and he seized several Tibetan settlements.

Pilaoko’s son Kolofeng Kolofeng reportedly turned against the Chinese. Kolofeng struck an alliance with the Tibetans and invaded China. In response, the Chinese invaded Nanzhao once again, in 752-754, but failed to impose their will on the rebellious state. Over the next 150 years, Nanzhao maintained troubled relations with China. However, after about 900, the kingdom received little mention in the Chinese annals, indicating that these years may have been peaceful ones.

In 1253, Kublai Khan Kublai Khan , chief of the Mongols in China, invaded and conquered Nanzhao Nanzhao;Mongol conquest of
Mongols;conquest of Nanzhao . This brought an end to the kingdom. Some historians have claimed that the rulers of Nanzhao were not Thai at all, but members of some other ethnic group. Whatever the ethnicity of those at the top, though, the Mongol conquest apparently set off another large wave of migration. Migrations;Thai tribes to Southeast Asia Although some Tai-speaking people remain in modern-day southern China, many tribes left for other locations with the breakup of Nanzhao.

The Thai migrants who moved southward found muangs already established in what is now Thailand. These tribal settlements were under the rule of the Cambodian (Khmer) empire, but some of them, such as the states of Lan Na Lan Na and Phayao Phayao , in modern northern Thailand, had already placed themselves under Thai leadership. The most famous early Thai state, Sukhothai Sukhothai , was originally a tribal chiefdom under the political and cultural direction of the Cambodians. The earliest monuments of Sukhothai, which means “dawn of happiness,” were built in the style of the Cambodians. Because the Cambodians had been heavily influenced by Indian civilization, India ultimately replaced China as a cultural model for the Thai.

Traveling along the banks of rivers and streams, the migrating Thai tribes entered a Cambodian empire that was open to the rise of new powers. Following the death of the Cambodian ruler Jayavarman VII Jayavarman VII around 1220, there appears to have been a great deal of political disorder in the lands to the south of China. Thus, although the Mongol invasion provided pressure to move out of Yunnan, new opportunities seem to have arisen around the Mekong and Chao Phraya rivers. The Mongols may also have served as something as an inspiration for the loosely confederated Thai tribes. According to the famous French scholar George Coedès, the military feats of the Mongols had captured the imagination of the Thai rulers.

In addition to the existing Thai muangs in the south, new principalities came into existence at about this time. The principality of Muang Nai was founded on a tributary of the Salween River in 1223. Even Assam, in the far eastern part of modern-day India, became Thai territory.

At the beginning of the twelfth century, the Thai tribes who had settled in the upper basin of the Chao Praya River grew in strength and political organization. In the early years of the thirteenth century, just before the Mongols invaded Nanzhao, the Thai chiefs of Chieng Rung and Chieng Suen on the upper Mekong, the river that now separates Thailand and Laos, entered into a marriage alliance between their children. This can be seen as a new expression of the old confederation of Thai tribes that may have led to the emergence of Nanzhao in earlier years.

In 1238, an alliance between Thai chiefs enabled them to attack and defeat a Cambodian garrison at Sukhothai, which was at that time the capital city of the northwestern section of the Cambodian empire. One of those chieftains, Bang Klang Hao, took the Indian name of Sri Indraditya Bang Klang Hao . He became the first king of Sukhothai and the father of the most celebrated early Thai ruler, Ramakhamhaeng Ramakhamhaeng (literally, “Rama the brave”).

During the first half of the thirteenth century, a confederation of Thai rulers of Sukhothai defeated their Cambodian overlords and set up an independent Thai kingdom. Driving the Cambodians southward, the Thais, under the leadership of Sukhothai, expanded their power in all directions. In addition to conquest, the rulers of Sukhothai used the common bonds of language and ethnicity to establish networks of marriage alliances with the ruling families of other Thai states. Marriage as a political tool;Thai Religion also served to cement their union because the Thai tribes had adopted Theravāda Buddhism Theravāda Buddhism[Theravada Buddhism] , the school of Buddhism that continues to predominate in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

Thai historians usually date the origin of their nation from the reign of Ramakhamhaeng. This son of Sri Indraditya continued to forge alliances with other Thai princes. In particular, he formed pacts with Mangrai Mangrai , king of Lan Na in northern Thailand, and with Ngam Muang Ngam Muang , the prince of the Thai muang of Phayao. However, as Sukhothai spread its power over a large number of Thai tribes, many of the tribes began to become part of a single state and to move from a confederation to the beginnings of a unified nation.


The confederations formed by Thai tribes allowed these groups to maintain a common identity during the migration from China into Southeast Asia. They also enabled these groups to defend themselves against other groups, including the Mongols and Chinese. These tribal alliances also served to promote the creation of kingdoms that became larger states.

Further Reading

  • Coedès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Translated by Susan Brown Cowing. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968. The classic work on Southeast Asian history.
  • Freeman, Michael. Lanna: Thailand’s Northern Kingdom. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Traces the settlement of northern Thailand by different ethnic groups and describes the artifacts and architecture of the region.
  • Higham, Charles, and Rachanie Thosarat. Prehistoric Thailand: From Early Settlement to Sukhothai. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. The last section discusses the arrival of the Thai and the rise of Sukhothai.
  • Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Provides an introduction to Thai history, including some coverage of the early centuries.