History, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya
Chakri dynasty, western outpost, Thon Buri, English East India Company, Lopburi
Beginning in about 1220 a number of states, most of them Buddhist, arose in the region. In general, the southernmost states tended to assimilate the broadest range of cultures and languages, while those to the north tended to be more heavily Thai. By the end of the 1200s the most important such states were Sukhothai, Phayao, Chiang Mai, and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Of these, Sukhothai was the largest. Under King Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled in the late 1200s, Sukhothai prospered, gaining tributary territories that extended the kingdom’s territory to the Andaman Sea to the west, into present-day Laos to the east, and to the southern Malay Peninsula to the south. The acquisitions were opposed by the kingdom of Angkor, whose western outpost at Lopburi (the preeminent Khmer city of the central plain) contested control of the Chao Phraya valley and seaborne international trade.
The Thai people continued moving southward onto the central plain. This movement brought about the establishment of a new center of Thai power, the kingdom of Ayutthaya, founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1351. Ayutthaya was on an island in the Chao Phraya, located at a point reachable by seagoing vessels. Thus the kingdom was visited regularly by trading ships from Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, China, India, and Persia. International trade was a significant source of Ayutthaya’s strength, but so was its relative cosmopolitanism—the fact that its people were so varied and their skills and outlooks so diverse.
The first century of Ayutthaya’s existence was filled with warfare, which culminated in its defeat of its main rivals, Angkor (in 1434) and Sukhothai (in 1438). When Ayutthaya’s next ruler, King Borommatrailokanat, or Trailok, came to the throne in 1448, he focused his efforts on reforming the kingdom’s laws and strengthening his administration. Trailok also extended the wars of conquest farther afield, beginning a long series of wars with the kingdom of Lan Na, centered on Chiang Mai in the far north.
The Burmese kingdom (present-day Myanmar) conquered Ayutthaya in 1569 after virtually annexing Lan Na in 1558, inaugurating a period of warfare that persisted throughout the century. Ayutthaya did not reestablish its independence until the 1590s, under the great warrior king Naresuan. Naresuan and subsequent kings worked to strengthen the state by further developing its international trade with the Dutch East India Company, the English East India Company, and, somewhat later, with China. Meanwhile, Ayutthaya increasingly became known to visitors as Siam.
In the mid-1700s the Burmese monarchy under King Alaunghpaya became jealous of Ayutthaya’s wealth and its success in attracting the sympathies of the Mon populations of Burma’s southeast coast. In 1760 Burma launched an invasion against Ayutthaya. The military effort lasted until 1767, when the Thai capital finally fell following a two-year siege that resulted in many deaths and widespread famine and destruction.
The Burmese might have remained to colonize Siam, but a series of Chinese invasions of Burma forced them to beat a hasty retreat. In the immediate aftermath of Ayutthaya’s fall, a competition ensued for the Siamese throne. The prize fell to a former governor who came to be known as Taksin. Taksin was an excellent general who had fled Ayutthaya to the southeast and built up an army. After defeating his kingly rivals, he abandoned the ruined Ayutthaya and established a new capital farther south at Thon Buri, on the western shore of the Chao Phraya. Taksin sent his forces far afield, south along the Malay Peninsula, east to Cambodia and Laos, and north against Lan Na. In the last years of his reign, Taksin’s successes went to his head. He became arbitrary and dictatorial, even requiring Buddhist monks to pay homage to him. Such actions infuriated Taksin’s contemporaries, who deposed him and brought to the throne his chief general, known as the Chakri (in reference to his function) or as Chaophraya Mahakasatsuk (his title, meaning “Great King of Warfare”). This marked the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, which continues to rule the Thai state.
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