Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Michael Vickery's Cambodia And Its Neighbors In The 15th Century (2004)

Vickery, Michael (2004) "Cambodia And Its Neighbors In The 15th Century," Working Paper, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (2003)
June 2004, [pdf]

This working paper by historian Michael Vickery touches upon the Mon history of Lower Burma of the 13th-14th centuries. It is also worth readin, like all his works, for the methodology and examples of critical questions to ask of sources.

Cambodia’s 15th century is nearly a blank page: no inscriptions, insignificant architecture, largely fictional chronicles, and little information in the records of other countries. But we may assume that processes similar to what may be ascertained in other parts of Southeast Asia were at work: changes in state formation, shift of political centers, growth of maritime trade and concomitant decline of ruling groups based in agriculture.

To make sense of the ‘Ming Factor’ in Cambodia’s 15th century we must start with the 12th-century ‘Sung Factor’ when the Sung began to encourage direct Chinese participation in overseas trade, leading to changes in the Southeast Asian countries involved. In Cambodia this is reflected in the 12th-century Cambodian attempts to conquer the coast of Champa with its good ports at the same time as relations with China increased.

The Chinese envoy Chou Ta-kuan in 1296 reported a recent war between Angkor and Hsien/Sien on the Gulf coastal area of Thailand which may well have been rivalry over control of the coasts, prefiguring the Ayutthaya-Cambodia rivalry of later centuries. Cambodia’s growing importance in this area is seen in the sudden increase of Chinese records of trade and diplomatic contact between the 1370s and mid-15th century, at the same time as similar developments with Hsien/Ayutthaya.

This implicit rivalry in trade with China may have been an element in the war of mid-15th century during which Ayutthaya occupied Angkor for more than a decade until expelled by Cambodians who moved their political center to the Phnom Penh region, an excellent river port area.

Because of the lack of other documentation for Cambodia, the Chinese records of contact are very important. The titles and royal names in the Ming shi-lu in particular reflect changes in Cambodian royal traditions under the influence of Ayutthaya, at the same time as Ayutthayan royal traditions were changing through relations with the north central Thai polities of Sukhothai, Phitsanulok and Kamphaeng Phetch, and with Chiang Mai in the far North.

In this paper I compare the genuine contemporary titles of these polities from the 12th century to the fifteenth as seen in inscriptions, when they exist, and the titles recorded in Chinese records from the 13th century through the 15th, in particular the abundance of such records in MSL. This demonstrates changes in relative status among these polities, as they developed economies based on sea trade.

The paper ends with study of the single chronicle which seems to provide accurate detail of political events in Cambodia in mid-15th century, and of special relations between Cambodia and Ayutthaya not found in other documents.

Keywords: Cambodia; Ayutthaya; 15th century; Angkor; Ming