Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Rajadhirat’s Mask of Command:
Military leadership in Burma (c. 1383-1421)

Human agency and the pre-modern economic engine of warfare

"Is it natural for sons and grandsons of royalty to do nothing while their vassals do the fighting? If they have martial prowess, their vassals will likewise have it. Is it right if the vassals are the only ones that have martial expertise?" (Razadarit Ayeidawpon, p. 121, tr. San Lwin)

The Mon king Rajadhirat (r. 1383-1421) asks these questions of his trusted minister Deinmaniyut towards the end of his reign in the Razadarit Ayeidawpon, the legendary story of his life. These questions summarize the central theme of this literary work and the genre of works of which it is a part, the Ayeidawpon Kyan (U Thaw Kaung, 2004b).

Kings and princes must be exemplary in their conduct if they are to succeed in warfare and build states. The title "Rajadhirat" itself means "King of Kings" marking King Rajadhirat as an exemplary king. It is not clear to what extent Rajadhirat gained this status during his life or afterwards by later fictional amplification, but as the Mon scholar Emmanuel Guillon observes, despite the often legendary nature of Rajadhirat’s life: "Undoubtedly, he was an uncommon personage".

The distinctive features of Ayedawbon Kyan genre are : "(1) How individuals of prowess consolidated their power and fought to obtain the throne. (2) How these kings retained their power by military means and other endeavours like diplomacy, alliances and stratagem, (3) How rebellions were crushed, (4) How wars were waged for the expansion of their territory, (5) Important achievements of a particular king like building new towns and cities, pagodas and palaces, etc" (Thaw Kaung, 2004b).

"Aggressive, invasive, exemplary, risk-taking," King Rajadhirat possessed the "heroic style of military leadership" that military historian John Keegan identifies in his treatise "The Mask of Command". Military display, skill at arms, and bold speech are additional traits of the heroic leader found in Rajadhirat (Keegan, 1987, 10-11).

Rajadhirat was a king who, unlike his father and predecessor, had to fight for power and once he won power, had to continue fighting to maintain it. The period of endemic warfare during his 38 year-long reign 1383-1421 was the longest, most complex, and most indeterminate in pre-modern Burmese history. The critical first seven years of consolidating his power is his own answer to the question he posed above:

"I was only 16 when I knew a plot against my life and at the bidding of the gods started looking for supporters. When I had recruited about twenty or thirty I went down to Dagon and rebelled. Then I was hemmed in on three sides by Smin Maru, Laukpya and Baik Kamyin but I negotiated with them successfully. As I ascended the throne in Pegu, Laukpya brought the Burmese king's armies against me but I jousted successfully on my elephant twice and brought off victory although I was numerically inferior. At the town of Wun I dueled twice on my elephant and won. At Lagunpyi I won a joust on my elephant too. It was the same at Myaungmya when I defeated ByiNwe in a duel with elephants. Only after that did I gain suzerainty over all three territories ruled by my father Hsinbyushin" (San Lwin, 121).

Or from an opposing perspective:

"The son of Banya U, Siharaja by name [Rajadhirat], when at the age of sixteen years rebelled against his father. When his father was no more, he became king. This king because he had made friends with enemies, had gained a knowledge of the customs of war. This king as he went on his kingly duties in whatsoever way he turned there was no one who dared strive with him" (Halliday (tr. from Mon), History of Kings, p. 97)

In both renditions of events, Rajadhirat stood alone and survived through a superior knowledge of warfare. Without King Rajadhirat, peace might very likely have been the norm during the period of his long 38 year rule. With respect to peace he is also exceptional.

Rajadhirat is proof of the power of individual human agency to influence events. Human agency driving narrative history has largely lost out in the recent past to the analysis of more deterministic environmental and cultural structures working over the longue duree. Although Rajadhirat may have come to power during a period of political tumult, to single-mindedly persist with offensive warfare for nearly four decades in a war that ultimately led nowhere is certainly a singular personal characteristic.

As human agency comes to the fore, so does strategic action to deal with the larger complex environment that envelopes and threatens the individual human agent struggling within it. As Clausewitz pointed out, warfare is an activity immersed in chance and contingency. Strategy is a way of visualizing a way out of this labyrinth. Razadarit's strategies, whether wholly of his own creation or rather later interpretations that overlay historical fact, address almost every aspect of pre-modern warfare in western mainland Southeast Asian (c. 1350-1600).

Although Rajadhirat is the principal driving historical agent in this historical narrative, there are many other important actors that play essential roles such as Rajadhirat’s commanders and strategists Byat Za and Deinmaniyut, the enemy kingdom of Ava ruled by the kings Minyekyawswa and Minhkaung during Rajadhirat's long reign, the headstrong princes of Ava Teiddat, Hsinbyushin and Minyekyawswa who often act independently of their father the king, the nobility of both sides installed as local rulers in conquered domains and just as quickly deposed or defecting to the other side.

The war that Rajadhirat wages has its origins in a traditional succession crisis at the death of a king in which members of the ruling elite compete for the vacant throne. Guillon (1999) objects that the Rajadhirat narrative, like other chronicle narratives, is too theatrical, that there is a "marked taste for intrigues with bloody endings, that it caters "to a certain bent for the fantastic," and tends "to emphasize the difficulty of a 'normal' succession at the death of a king." Koenig's (1990) detailed analysis of succession crises during the better documented early Konbaung period (c. 1752-1819) clearly shows that succession crises at the death of kings were a constant and unchanging feature of elite political behavior in western mainland Southeast Asia for hundreds of years and that the succession struggles and inter-elite strategic behavior of Rajadhirat was most likely not a mere imaginary overlay.

Guillon objects that "not a single detail in the chronicles or rare inscriptions provides any clues to the economic basis of this [Razadarit's] power" (Guillon, 1999, 165). It is a commonly accepted fact among political anthropologists that the food supply of an emergent agrarian state provides a food surplus that finances warfare and state formation (Diamond, 1999). In the campaigns of Razadarit the food supply emerges as the limiting factor in warfare that is eventually overcome with the supply line strategies. Food supply and warfare plays a central role in Rajadhirat compared to the few references to external trade. Could this mirror the actual economic organization of society during the period?

Were war and agriculture the main engines driving growth in the economies of pre-modern Southeast Asian states? Did economic expansion and contraction follow military success or failure? Warfare was certainly a source of zero-sum resource transfers between states, augmenting the resources of the victorious expanding state while decreasing that of the vanquished. Both skilled and unskilled manpower were resettled around the victor's capital (Lieberman, 1964, 2003; Grabowsky, 1999). As Di Cosmo's model of state formation makes clear, longer term hegemonic relations led to wealth accumulation progressively in the form of plunder from raids (transferred religious wealth), tribute, and ultimately taxes (Di Cosmo, 1999; Fernquest, 2005).

The historian of ancient Greece M.I. Finley points out that Marx first introduced the idea that "in early societies, war was the basic factor in economic growth and consequently in social structure." Citing Marx's Grundrisse:

"The only barrier which the community can encounter in its relations to the natural conditions of production as its own -- to the land -- is some other community, which has already laid claim to them as an inorganic body. War is therefore one of the earliest tasks of every primitive community of this kind, both for the defense of property and for its acquisition... Where man himself is captured as an organic accessory of the land and together with it, he is captured as one of conditions of production, and this is the origin of slavery and serfdom [war captives and manpower], which soon debase and modify the original forms of all communities, and themselves become their foundations" (Finley, 73-74; Cohen, 1964)

Pre-modern mainland Southeast Asian history provides evidence that warfare was in fact an engine of growth and contraction.



Charney, Michael. (2004) Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Diamond, Jared (1999) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Di Cosmo, Nicola. (1999) "State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History," Journal of World History, 10:1 (Spring, 1999): 1-40.

Earle and Johnson

Fernquest, Jon (2005) "Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan Invasions of Ava(1524-27), and the Beginnings of Expansionary Warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005

Finley, M.I. () Ancient History: Evidence and Models, p. 73-74, citing

Marx, Karl The Grundrisse, (J. Cohen, translator of the section called Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (London, 1964), p. 89.

Grabowsky, Volker (1999) "Forced Resettlement Campaigns in Northern Thailand During the Early Bangkok Period" (revised version), Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 87, Parts 1 & 2, pp. 45-86

Guillon, Emmanuel. The Mons: A Civilization of Southeast Asia. James V. Di Crocco (tr. & ed.). Bangkok: Siam Society. 1999.

Harvey, G.E. (1967) History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824, The Beginning of the English Conquest. 1925. Reprint, London, 1967.

Keegan, John (1987) The Mask of Command. London: Penguin Books. 1987

Koenig, William J. The Burmese Polity, 1752-1819: Politics, Administration, and Social Organization in the Early Kon-baung Period. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Center for South & Southeast Asian Studies, 1990.

Lieberman, Victor. (1984). Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580-1760. Princeton University Press.

Lieberman, Victor. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Volume One: Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

San Lwin (tr.) (no date) The Campaigns of Razadarit – Binnya Dala. Unpublished manuscript.

Thaw Kaung, U. (2004a) "Accounts of King Bayinnaung's Life and the Hanthawadi Hsin-byu-myashin Ayedawbon, A Record of His Campaigns." In Selected Writings of U Thaw Kaung (Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2004): 29-54.

Thaw Kaung, U. (2004b) "Ayedawbon Kyan, an Important Myanmar Literary Genre Recording Historical Events." In Selected Writings of U Thaw Kaung (Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2004): 1-28. (First published in the Journal of the Siam Society)