History and boundary bound: Burma and Thailand’s relationship through the centuries

Citylife's founder, J.C. Shaw looks at the long and often antagonistic history between Thailand and Burma.

By | Thu 30 Apr 2009

The two devastating assaults on Ayutthaya in 1569 and 1767 left a deep and lasting impression on the Thai psyche – the Burmese were the enemy; cruel and evil. Today they are thought of as illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. “I would rather my daughter married a farang than a Burmese,” I was told by one mother, sounding as though she was speaking of the lesser of two evils.

But, in truth, the two countries have a great deal in common. Consider first geography. Burma covers an area of 678,000 sq. km. Thailand, 514,000 sq. km. Both have long sea frontiers, Burma 1930 km. Thailand 3219 km. Both countries have difficult mountainous terrain to the north. Through both countries run great rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Chao Phrya, through arid land in the heart of the country yet debouching into rich and fertile deltas.

In 1890 it was estimated that each country had a population of some nine million. Today each has around 60 million. Both are devout believers in Theravada Buddhism. Pyu people were early dwellers in Burma, followed by the Mons.

The Lawa dwelled in Siam, followed by the Mons at Davaravati and Hariphunchai. Shans were powerful in the north of Burma as were the Lao in the north of Siam. Each house many ethnic minorities – Karen, Wa, Kachin, Hmong, Akha etc.

Anawrahta established the first Burmese Empire at Pagan on the arid plain of Upper Burma in 1044. It held sway over most of Burma until it was destroyed by the Chinese of Kublai Khan in 1287. This was the time when Ramkamhaeng was establishing the first Thai kingdom on the arid plain of central Thailand.

In spite of these similarities, the Burmese and the Thais were very different people even though they had a common religion and culture – the Ramayana, music, dancing, boxing and takraw, handicrafts, dress, even ticals for money. With a common border of 1800 km., friction from time to time was inevitable and when Burma united and became strong enough, they attacked the Thais in the middle of the 16th century, occupying Lanna and devastating Ayutthaya. Two hundred years later they again destroyed and vandalised Ayutthaya.

But Siam rose from the ashes and by 1800, Siam was probably the more successful state. Salmon in the 1778 edition of his World Grammar wrote:
‘Siam is a large, wealthy and flourishing kingdom.’ ‘We know little of the kingdom of Ava (Burma).We are not even sure to whom it belongs.’
This is the time when the real differences between the two countries become apparent.

Burma from pre-historic times had been exposed to the influence of India because of its exposed coast line and its common border. The Indian penetration had been largely benign until the arrival of the British Raj. Burma also shared a border of over 2,000 km with China. This had resulted in the destruction of Pagan in 1287 and several incursions in the late 18th century which, by distracting the Burmese, were of enormous help towards the recovery of Siam.

In 1800 the two countries, with their shared geography and shared problems were about even. ‘What changed the situation so firmly in favour of Siam?’

The British domination of India meant that border and piracy problems were inevitable and the isolated arrogance of the Burmese court meant that they could not be solved. Hence the first Burmese war, 1824-6, when Arakan and Tenasirrim were ceded to Imperial India. In 1852 renewed conflicts resulted in the British Raj taking over the rich delta area of lower Burma – Rangoon, Pegu, Bassein. Resentment and hostility smouldered and in 1885, prompted by the cruelty of King Tibaw and his consort and the machinations of France, the rest of Burma was annexed.

Pacification took some ten years and Burma was never satisfactorily colonised, mainly because the Indian government attempted to impose administrative systems that were foreign to, and unacceptable to, the Burmese.

The Buddhist sangha whose head had always been the king, did not take kindly to their new head being a white faced Christian living in India, nor did they like it that education, traditionally a monastic affair, was being challenged by Anglo-vernacular schools.

Meanwhile Siam, ruled by two remarkable, English speaking monarchs, ushered the country peacefully into the occidental world. The Bowering Treaty signed in 1856 virtually ensured that Siam became an honorary member of the British Empire, with banks and companies leading the economy. It is true that Britain nibbled at the southern provinces and France encroached from Cambodia and Laos, but they managed to agree that Siam should be a buffer state between them.

King Mongkut opened the musty medieval doors of his country, allowing to breeze in such colourful characters as Anna Leonowens, governess to his children and the missionaries. Later King Chulalongkorn brought in many foreigners to run departments and train Thais; he even became involved with the daughters of Knox, the British Consul-General.

By contrast the Burmese kings at Mandalay, which was founded in 1859, (there was a strong move to bury farang alive under the foundations), slammed the bloodstained royal door firmly shut in the face of all the representatives of British India who refused to take off their shoes and did not even speak on behalf of their Empress. By the loss of lower Burma, the economy of Mandalay was drastically hurt, dacoits were on the rampage and the royal bloodbath arranged by Queen Supayalat of some eighty members of the royal family in 1879 was the last straw. The whole of Burma was occupied in 1885 and the royal family exiled to India.

The British Raj set about ruling India beyond the Ganges as they had ruled India and exploiting the rich resources of the country. Burma was rich in minerals ranging from jade and rubies to oil and tin, and in agricultural products. She became the largest exporter of rice and teak, potatoes were supplied to the army in India and tea was planted. Big British companies dominated and below were a host of Indian money lenders and petty traders.

What does all this tell us about Myanmar today and the military regime which runs the country?

The ruling junta is paranoid about China, India and all foreigners, the ex-colonial British in particular.

They consider themselves the successors of past royal rulers. Hence the new capital 300 km. north of Rangoon at Pyinmana on the way to Mandalay, far from the hated Anglo-Indian port of Rangoon.

They have no understanding of, or interest in, democracy.

They are highly superstitious, believing in such manifestations as the 37 nats (one of whom was Mekuti King of Lanna).

They have no knowledge of finance. On a whim they chopped three 0’s off the value of the kyat and the riots last year were caused by the draconian increase in the price of fuel. They rely heavily on income from drugs which goes straight into their own pockets.

They do not believe in free enterprise. Rice exports in 1930 were 7 million tons; in 1967 400,000 tons.

They nurture the 300,000 army as their sole support and interest.

They wish to create a pure Burman state at the expense of the nearly 40% of minority people.

It is difficult to see what can be done to change the present situation, Yet there is always hope as Burma’s people and their world wide network of supporters continue to fight the cause.