Siamese-Burmese Wars

Siam (modern Thailand) and Burma (now Myanmar) were tangled in a series of wars in which Siamese perseverance forced the Burmese to abandon their expansions to the east for a century and a half. The conflicts defined not only a region and its boundaries but also its peoples, who still experience effects of the conflicts.

Summary of Event

Burmese domination in the late fifteenth century of the area of what is now Myanmar was followed by two centuries of Burmese attempts to subdue Thai kingdoms and add them to Burma’s territories. The first period of strife, falling roughly between 1548 and 1600, caused great suffering for Thai and Mon peoples alike, but eventually the conflicts ended in stalemate. Mons
Siamese-Burmese Wars (1548-1600)[Siamese Burmese Wars (1548-1600)]
Burma;and Thai peoples[Thai]
Phra Naret
Phra Naret

Following the fall of Burma’s capital city, Pagan, in 1287, the Burmese and the Mons entered into a period of unrest that lasted more than two centuries, in which both tried to secure dominance in the region. Eventually, the Burmese controlled Myanmar, and by the mid-sixteenth century they dominated the once-powerful Mons completely.

The Burmese king Tabinshwehti began the conquest of Myanmar in the 1530’, first conquering the Kingdom of Pegu Pegu, Kingdom of , which fell in 1539. The Mon Mons king died after the fall, leading most of the Mon chiefs to Tabinshwehti in an attempt to end the conflict. Although Tabinshwehti made great efforts to unify the Burmese and Mons, including cutting his hair in the Mon fashion and staging coronations using both Burmese and Mon rituals, he also ordered the massacre of large populations of Mons who did not surrender to his rule. The newfound unity and power of the Burmese inspired them to seek expansion into the neighboring Thai kingdoms to the east.

The Burmese and the Thais, living in an area of relatively low population density, sought to enslave captives, thereby making them into a source of revenue. The Thais were divided into several small and competing states, the most powerful of which, Siam, had Ayutthaya Ayutthaya as its capital.

Ayutthaya had long struggled to absorb its smaller, northern Thai neighbor of Chiang Mai Chiang Mai and to dominate the Chao Phraya River valley. Other Thai peoples, such as those in the Shan states and Laos, played shifting roles in this struggle. After consolidating his power in Myanmar, Tabinshwehti began to plan for the conquest of Ayutthaya.

There were many reasons for the invasion, but a combination of the need for captives to serve as slaves and an unquenchable drive for expansion that had fueled Tabinshwehti’s life thus far were the most likely reasons. Both Burma and Siam had long sought to dominate the smaller Thai kingdom of Chiang Mai, but the stated reason for war was more spiritual. White elephants, albinos, were valued strongly in both Thai and Burmese cultures. According to one legend, Buddha had been a white elephant—an animal believed to have magical properties—in a previous incarnation. The Siamese king at Ayutthaya, P’rajai, had a stable of white elephants. Tabinshwehti, demanding two of the elephants, became outraged after the Siamese refused to part with them. Tabinshwehti, however, did not force the issue, but unrest in the Siamese royal family in the 1540’s prompted him to invade Siam, with the goal of conquering and annexing the kingdom.

In 1547, after the king of Chiang Mai had died in a hunting accident, Siamese armies (under King P’rajai) arrived at the gates of Chiang Mai intending to conquer the northern Thai kingdom. After they were repulsed, King P’rajai was poisoned by one of his concubines. In the king’s absence, his concubine had become pregnant by a commoner. Her nine-year-old son by the king was placed on the throne of Siam’s capital, Ayutthaya, and then was sent to a monastery or killed (accounts vary); the concubine and her lover proclaimed the lover king of Ayutthaya. After a reign of two months, Siamese nobles rebelled and killed the usurpers and placed P’rajai’s younger brother on the throne, to rule as King Chakrapat.

With the onset of the dry season in 1548, the Burmese began their invasion of Siam. Although the invasion was massive by local standards, it failed to take Ayutthaya by the arrival of the wet season, and the Burmese army had to retreat. Attacks by the Siamese, who hastened the invaders home, caused great losses among Tabinshwehti’s forces. Following this setback, Tabinshwehti lost much of his earlier drive, and he neglected affairs. His Mon subjects, who suffered most of the casualties in the invasion, rebelled and, in 1550, killed Tabinshwehti. This rebellion was crushed by Bayinnaung, Tabinshwehti’s brother-in-law, who soon dominated the Burmese. Bayinnaung then conquered Chiang Mai and led a punitive expedition into Laos, which had opposed the Burmese conquest of Chiang Mai in 1557. After the defeat of the Laotians in 1559, Bayinnaung controlled most of the Thai peoples to the north of Siam. From this position of power he repeated the demand that Ayutthaya surrender two white elephants to Burma. King Chakrapat of Siam refused.

The second Burmese attack on Siam, from 1568 to 1569, with perhaps 120,000 soldiers, proved more successful for the Burmese. Chakrapat died attempting to defend his capital, and the Burmese ruled the territory of Ayutthaya (which fell in 1569) for the next fifteen years. Thousands of Thais were enslaved and taken to Burma. Following the death of Bayinnaung in 1581, the Thais began to recover their strength and independence. A Siamese prince known as Phra Naret (the Black Prince), who had been living as a hostage in Burma, gained enough acceptance by the Burmese that eventually he married Bayinnaung’s sister and was allowed to return to Ayutthaya. Once in his home city, he expelled the Burmese garrison. He then solidified his control over Siam by squashing rebellions in outlying provinces and launching a punitive invasion of Cambodia. The revived Siam then invaded Burma but was able to conquer only parts of the south in 1593. Burmese forces, although taken by surprise by the suddenly revitalized and aggressive Siam, still were able to defend the central kingdom.

The strategic stalemate that ensued was made possible by a balance of power between the two kingdoms. Following more than four decades of war and occupation, the two kingdoms began to focus on new adversaries. The Burmese became more isolationist, although recurring problems on their Chinese border kept them busy. The Siamese found new difficulties, as the French and Dutch began to replace the much more amiable Portuguese in the waters around the Malay Peninsula.

This era of peace lasted until the revival of warfare between the two kingdoms in 1760, which was caused, initially, by the escape of a large population of Mons into Siam following a Burmese capture of the southern Irrawaddy River valley. The cycle of invasions was renewed, lasting several decades after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1768 and after the collapse of the Ayutthaya Dynasty in Siam. Ayutthaya would not recover from the destruction.

The new Chakkri Dynasty Chakkri Dynasty took power in Siam soon after and established its capital farther down the Phra Chat River, across from the modern capital city, Bangkok. Even with the establishment of a new capital and the founding of a new and dynamic royal family, the Burmese invaded Siam four more times between 1785 and 1802, unsuccessfully. Lasting peace did not come until the imperialist era of the late nineteenth century, when Britain displaced the Burmese monarchy and assumed control over Burma.


The struggle between Siam and Burma in the last half of the sixteenth century defined a relationship between the Thais and the Burmese that has lasted into the twenty-first century. Although it was the Burmese who most often were the aggressors in the struggles, the Siamese were the ones who absorbed most of the Thai kingdoms and who survived the later imperialist era with the loss of minor peripheral territory only. In the late nineteenth century, the Burmese were conquered by the British and their monarchy was destroyed, whereas the Chakkri Dynasty still reigns in Bangkok.

Further Reading

  • Hall, D. G. E. A History of Southeast Asia. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. A concise and well-organized introductory history of the region and the struggles between China and Burma.
  • Jumsai, Manich. Popular History of Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: Chalermnit, 2000. A narrative account of Thai history written for the Anglophone reader but based almost entirely on Thai sources.
  • SarDesai, D. R. Southeast Asia: Past and Present. 3d ed. San Francisco, Calif.: Westview Press, 1994. A concise history of Southeast Asia, focusing on the colonial experience and its impact on the region in the postcolonial era.
  • Wood, W. A. R. A History of Siam. 1924. Reprint. Bangkok, Thailand: Wachrin, 1994. Often based as much on legend as on fact, this often-cited work is one of the first English-language works to attempt a scholarly understanding of Siamese history.
  • Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A standard academic history of the Thais from their tribal origins through the end of the twentieth century.

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

1558-1593: Burmese-Laotian Wars

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