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Thailand - Ayutthaya and the World

In the last year of his reign, Ramathibodi had seized Angkor during what was to be the first of many successful Thai assaults on the Khmer capital. Thai policy was aimed at securing Ayutthaya's eastern frontier by preempting Vietnamese designs on Khmer territory. The weakened Khmer periodically submitted to Thai suzerainty, but efforts by Ayutthaya to maintain control over Angkor were repeatedly frustrated. Thai troops were frequently diverted to suppress rebellions in Sukhothai or to campaign against Chiang Mai, where Ayutthaya's expansion was tenaciously resisted. Eventually Ayutthaya subdued the territory that had belonged to Sukhothai, and the year after Ramathibodi died, his kingdom was recognized by the emperor of China's newly established Ming Dynasty as Sukhothai's rightful successor. By the end of the fourteenth century, Ayutthaya was regarded as the strongest power in Southeast Asia, but it lacked the manpower to dominate the region.

During much of the fifteenth century Ayutthaya's energies were directed toward the Malay Peninsula, where the great trading port of Malacca contested Thai claims to sovereignty. Malacca and other Malay states south of Tambralinga had become Muslim early in the century, and thereafter Islam served as a symbol of Malay solidarity against the Thai. Although the Thai failed to make a vassal state of Malacca, Ayutthaya continued to control the lucrative trade on the isthmus, which attracted Chinese traders of specialty goods for the luxury markets of China.

The sixteenth century witnessed the rise of Burma, which, under an aggressive dynasty, had overrun Chiang Mai and Laos and made war on the Thai. In 1569 Burmese forces, joined by Thai rebels, captured the city of Ayutthaya and carried off the royal family to Burma. Dhammaraja (1569-90), a Thai governor who had aided the Burmese, was installed as vassal king at Ayutthaya. Thai independence was restored by his son, King Naresuan (1590-1605), who turned on the Burmese and by 1600 had driven them from the country. Throughout his reign there were wars with Burma until finally Burma became weaker and no longer was strong enough to invade Thailand. Ayutthaya grew stronger and expanded its authority to nearby towns, once more becoming a prosperous kingdom.

In 1511 Ayutthaya received a diplomatic mission from the Portuguese, who earlier that year had conquered Malacca. These were probably the first Europeans to visit the country. Five years after that initial contact, Ayutthaya and Portugal concluded a treaty granting the Portuguese permission to trade in the kingdom. A similar treaty in 1592 gave the Dutch a privileged position in the rice trade.

In the history of the Siam, the first part of 17th century saw the unrest of the internal power struggle in the court in every ascending of each king. The foreign powers and merchants penetrated in Siam from Japanese court official, body guards, Portuguese priests to Dutch, English agents spreading from Ayuthaya to Pattani, Singola (Songkhla) in the southern territory of Siamese power. Siam has long established trade with many countries including powers from the west. The Siamese King granted west powers with trading privilege and often hoped of the returned support in needs of military campaign. But they were usually unsuccessful in the reign of King Somtam and King Prasat Tong the two previous kings before the reign of King Narai (1656-1688). The Dutch and the English were themselves involved in their power struggle in an ambition of gaining more military and trading privilege from Siam. At the end of King Prasat Tongs reign, the tension between Siamese and Dutch was not an easy one.

Foreigners were cordially welcomed at the court of Narai (1657-88), a ruler with a cosmopolitan outlook who was nonetheless wary of outside influence. In the internal political scene, King Narai spent much of the energy and time to ensure the stability of his reign. In the early years of the reign the violence had unsettle the country and his safety was not always assured. Important commercial ties were forged with Japan. When King Narai ascended on the throne, the Englishmen of East India Company were allowed to re-establish factory at Ayuthaya after they had narrowly escaped to Siam from Cambodia civil war. Dutch and English trading companies were allowed to establish factories, and Thai diplomatic missions were sent to Paris and The Hague. By maintaining all these ties, the Thai court skillfully played off the Dutch against the English and the French against the Dutch in order to avoid the excessive influence of a single power.

In early 1664 the Dutch, who had had almost the whole trade of Siam in their hands for about forty years, demanded various special commercial privileges. On failing to the demand, they sent a fleet to blockade the mouth of the Chao Phraya River for a considerable time. Siam was forced to grant Dutch the sole monopoly of the trading in hides as well as extraterritorial rights in August 1664. The content of the treaty opened up the way to the extra-territorial jurisdiction which was the key characteristic in the politics of modern Siam.

At the urging of his foreign minister, the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, Narai turned to France for assistance. French engineers constructed fortifications for the Thai and built a new palace at Lop Buri for Narai. In addition, French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into the country. Louis XIV's personal interest was aroused by reports from missionaries suggesting that Narai might be converted to Christianity.

The French presence encouraged by Phaulkon, however, stirred the resentment and suspicions of the Thai nobles and Buddhist clergy. When word spread that Narai was dying, a general, Phra Phetracha, killed the designated heir, a Christian, and had Phaulkon put to death along with a number of missionaries. The arrival of English warships provoked a massacre of more Europeans. Phetracha (reigned 1688-93) seized the throne, expelled the remaining foreigners, and ushered in a 150-year period during which the Thai consciously isolated themselves from contacts with the West. The Siamese revolution of 1688 AD, practically closed the country to the European foreigner for many years, a few missionaries alone persisting there, and commerce with the West being entirely broken off.

After a bloody period of dynastic struggle, Ayutthaya entered into what has been called its golden age, a relatively peaceful episode in the second quarter of the eighteenth century when art, literature, and learning flourished. Ayutthaya continued to compete with Vietnam for control of Cambodia, but a greater threat came from Burma, where a new dynasty had subdued the Shan states.

In 1765 Thai territory was invaded by three Burmese armies that converged on Ayutthaya. After a lengthy siege, the city capitulated and was burned in 1767. Ayutthaya's art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed, and the city was left in ruins. The country was reduced to chaos. Provinces were proclaimed independent states under military leaders, rogue monks, and cadet members of the royal family. The Thai were saved from Burmese subjugation, however, by an opportune Chinese invasion of Burma and by the leadership of a Thai military commander, Phraya Taksin. Ayutthaya kingship seems to be the model for later period's kings, the Chakri Dynasty.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:21 ZULU