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Konbaung Kingdom - Alauangpaya amd His Sons

The Toungoo king, his court, and as many as 20,000 prisoners were brought back to Pep by Binnya Dal's forces in 1752; the contest for royal power seemed decided. A new leader, however, appeared in Upper Burma and within eight short years unified Upper and Lower Burma and extended his power far beyond the borders of his country. This was Maung Aung Zeya, a Burman and district chief at Moksobomyo, a town some 95 kilometers to the northwest of Ava. After Ava's fall he built a stockade around Moksobomyo and organized the surrounding villages into a resistance movement. Defeating a detachment of Binnya Dala's troops, he proclaimed himself king of Burma and assumed the title Alaungpaya, or "embryo Buddha," the name by which he is known in history. Thus, he connected his royal aspirations to the powerful symbol of the Buddhist karmaraja. Renaming Moksobomyo as Shwebo, "Town of the Golden Leader," he built a royal palace and attracted supporters from all over Upper Burma.

Alaungpaya was the third of Burma's great unifiers, after Anawrahta of Pagan and Bayinnaung, and the founder of the Konbaung Dynasty, which ruled the country until the late nineteenth century. His swift successes seemed to validate his claims about the special nature of his karma. He captured Ava at the end of 1753 and defeated a large force sent into Upper Burma by Binnya Dala the following year. In 1755 Alaungpaya brought his forces down the Irrawaddy River in a large flotilla and occupied Dagon, the site of the greatly revered Shwedagon Pagoda.

There he established a new town, naming it Yangon, or Rangoon ("the End of Strife'), the future capital of colonial and independent Burma. He captured Syriam, Lower Burma's main trading port, in 1756 and Binnya Dala's royal capital at Pegu in 1757. Alaungpaya invaded Manipur, a small kingdom on Burma's northwestern border, in 1758; for more than two decades Manipuri horsemen had conducted raids deep into Upper Burma. An insurrection at Pegu, however, drew the king's attent.on back to Lower Burma. Lower Burma Mons, reacting to Alaungpaya's harsh policies, massacred large numbers of Burmans before the revolt was suppressed. Scholars suggest that this marked the beginning of Mon-Burman ethnic polarization.

Alaungpaya demanded that the king of Siam recognize his status as an "embryo Buddha." When the monarch refused, Alaungpaya laid siege to Ayutthaya, the Siamese capital; but the siege was cut short when it was discovered that Alaungpaya was seriously ill with fever. His troops accomplished an orderly retreat back to Burmese territory, but the king died in May 1760.

Hsinbyushin (1763-76), the Konbaung Dynasty's second great king, captured Ayutthaya in April 1767. The city, which had been Siam's capital since 1350, was completely destroyed, and the Siamese king was killed. Thousands of prisoners and vast amounts of booty were taken. In the words of a Siamese historian, Bayinnaung had "waged war like a monarch," but Hsinbyushin conducted himself "like a robber." Siam's ordeal was alleviated, however, by Hsinbyushin's entanglements with a far larger country -- China.

The Chinese were disturbed by Burmese expansion into the Shan states, Chiang Mai, and Laos, which bordered their southwestern province of Yunnan and which were considered, along with the Burmese kingdom itself, to be part of their comprehensive "Tribute System." In 1766, when a dispute arose over the murder of a Chinese merchant at Keng Tung, a Shan state loyal to Hsinbyushin, the Chinese sent an army on a punitive expedition. The Chinese forces were defeated by the Shans with Burmese help. The Chinese emperor sent a second expedition, but this too was defeated; by 1767 two Burmese armies had entered Chinese territory. A third Chinese force, led by the emperor's son-in-law, Ming Rui, managed to get within 48 kilometers of Ava, which Hsinbyushin had restored as his royal capital. Ming Rui had overextended himself, however, and was cut off by Burmese forces. He committed suicide rather than face his father-in-law's wrath. The last Chinese invasion, taking place in 1769, was equally unsuccessful, and the Chinese commander sued for terms.

A peace treaty was signed at Kaungton in 1770, allowing for the withdrawal of Chinese forces, the restoration of trade between the two countries, and the sending of what the Chinese regarded as tribute missions by Burma to Beijing every 10 years. Historians D.G.E. Hall and Maung Htin Aung, who agree little on other things, both cite the wisdom and foresight of the treaty, which was negotiated by Maha Thiha Thura, the general who defeated the Chinese. The provision regarding tribute missions saved face for the Chinese emperor and prevented further threats from that quarter. This policy of moderation laid the foundations for good relations with China through the nineteenth century and served as an example to the leaders of independent Burma, U Nu and General Ne Win, in their relations with their sometimes threatening northern neighbor.

Even the nationalist historian Maung Htin Aung admitted that after the defeat of the Chinese "the Burmese as a nation became drunk with victory and grew arrogant and aggressive." The last six years of Hsinbyushin's reign saw few accomplishments. In Siam, Phraya Taksin, the half-Chinese general who became in his country a hero the equal of Alaungpaya in Burma, led a successful war of national resistance. After Hsinbyushin's death in 1776, his son and successor, Singu Min, ordered the withdrawal of Burmese armies from Siamese territory.

Singu Min ruled until 1781, when he was assassinated. His successor, Maung Maung, was king for only seven days. Badon Min, known better as Bodawpaya (1782-1819), the fourth son of Alaungpaya, seized power and commenced eliminating his opponents, including the old hero Maha Thiha Thura and all his own surviving brothers, save the youngest. A Mon rising in Lower Burma in 1783 was harshly suppressed. King Bodawpaya was ruthless and marked with a streak of megalomania, but he combined these traits with great energy and intelligence -- in the words of one English observer, "a masterful man" who carried out a successful conquest and annexation of the kingdom of Arakan. This country had been in a state of anarchy for at least half a century and was easily subdued; the Arakanese king, his court, and many thousands of prisoners were brought back as captives.

The decision to bring back to Upper Burma the large bronze Mahamuni image of Buddha, the most precious of Arakan's national treasures, aroused considerable resentment. Along with the harshness of Bodawpaya's rule this action sparked rebellions among the Arakanese that would have portentous consequences for Burma's future, for Arakan bordered the Bengal territories of the British East India Company. In 1785 and 1787 unsuccessful expeditions were launched against Siam.

Internally, Bodawpaya's policies expressed both the practical and the more eccentric sides of his nature. Soon after establishing a new capital at Amarapura (near modem Mandalay) in Upper Burma, he initiated a complete survey of his kingdom, including the population, boundaries, and financial resources of each district and village, for taxation purposes. The study of law was encouraged, bandits were suppressed, and irrigation works were expanded. Yet the king used much of his tax revenues for the construction of innumerable pagodas. The largest, which would have been 170 meters high if completed, was started at Mingun near Amarapura. One-third completed, its vast bulk of brick and mortar - split by an earthquake -- still looms over the Irrawaddy. Its bell, cast in bronze, is the world's largest except for the "Tsar of Bells" in Moscow. Bodawpaya became involved in controversies within the sangha between conservative and reformed sects. He sided with the former, defrocking the reformed-sect monk who had been appointed head of the sangha hierarchy (thathanabaing) by Alaungpaya. Bodawpaya also supported the establishment of an orthodox Buddhist sect, the Amarapura sect, in Sri Lanka. He claimed, like Alaungpaya, that he was an "embryo" or "future Buddha," but the saaghe refused to acknowledge this.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:41 ZULU