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date: 11 April 2021

Warfare in Premodern Southeast Asiafree

  • Michael W. CharneyMichael W. CharneySchool of Oriental and African Studies


Warfare in premodern Southeast Asia, roughly that fought up until the end of the 19th century, was shaped by the environment across the region. Maritime trade connections brought the introduction and circulation of external models of warfare that would help to frame the way warfare in the region was depicted in some of the indigenous literature and art (including the influence of the Indian epics on shadow puppet theater). Firearms played a more direct role in determining the development of warfare in the region over the course of the early modern period. As a result of better firearms, the elephant declined in battlefield importance and was increasingly replaced by cavalry. In the 18th century, Southeast Asians fielded some of their best-organized armies, and in the early 19th century there was a temporary revival of naval strength in parts of the region, particularly in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the introduction of the steamship and better European military technology from the 1820s ushered in the decline of the remaining Southeast Asian armies by the end of the 19th century. Although indigenous states would attempt to modernize and catch up with Europe militarily, all of Southeast Asia, save for Thailand, fell under European control.

What scholars include in the category of warfare in the Southeast Asian region varies considerably given that most are country specialists and that true generalists for the region are rare. The result is that extrastate, stateless, or small-scale warfare that might be officially recorded as banditry—including piracy, raiding, and even conflicts between villages—often escape the historiography of one country but play a prominent role in the historiography of another. Recent collections produced by scholars working on the precolonial history of warfare in the region have demonstrated the complexity of what we mean by “warfare” and the importance of giving each example its due in developing an understanding of warfare or, better put, warfares, in the region.1 One consequence is that our understanding of warfare increasingly blurs the lines between the precolonial and colonial periods and between the premodern and modern periods of the region’s history, on the one hand, and the formerly neat line drawn between the mainland and maritime areas of the region, on the other.

Archaeology and the Environmental Context

Little has been known about the evolution of Southeast Asian warfare before the first epigraphic records appear from the 6th century. The nature of the region, most commonly characterized by moist, tropical environments, does not encourage the preservation of records until the emergence of inscriptions. The lack of a firm evidentiary basis on which to reconstruct the history of warfare led the first scholar to produce a study of indigenous warfare across the region as a whole, H. G. Quaritch-Wales, to turn to anthropology and the study of small-scale headhunting societies in the Indonesia of his own time (the 1950s) to balance out the very grand representations of warfare that were available in the literary texts from the precolonial period.2 Fortunately, archaeological research is uncovering more information on the nature of prehistorical societies, such as what they may have fought over (e.g., control of trading commodities), the weapons that they used, and how they died. By the Iron Age, settlements in the Khorat Plateau and northern Vietnam were strategically located to control access to important resources and surrounded by ramparts and moats. The remains of boats used as coffins have been found, and the skeletons of many of the dead show evidence of wounds inflicted by weapons, suggesting that this period was dominated by warfare.3 Archaeological finds have also pushed back the emergence of complex societies and conflict in the Philippines to the 6th century bce.4 In Vietnam, archaeological work has shown that Co Loa Thanh, said to be the seat of the legendary 3rd-century ruler of the Au Lac kingdom, An Duong Vuong, was surrounded by concentric rings of earthen ramparts.5 Alongside such archaeological findings, the stories of the rulers and the weapons they were said to have used, such as An Duong Vuong’s mystical crossbow, suggest that warfare was important and valued in prehistorical societies in the region.

It would be difficult to understand the limitations of and the opportunities available to warfare in the region without considering the impact of nature, climate, and geography on warfare practices, technology, and culture. Certainly, early Southeast Asia’s environment played an important role in shaping how different groups fought. Whereas Southeast Asia’s larger and more populous neighbors, the Indian subcontinent and China, would experience periods in which they focused almost exclusively on land-based plains warfare, this kind of exclusive orientation of warfare in one or another direction was never possible in Southeast Asia. The region is generally characterized by small concentrations of people scattered across a landscape that is divided into highland and lowland areas, on the one hand, and maritime and interior zones, on the other. Until the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia in modern times (1942–1945), geographical particularism had never allowed a single political entity to dominate the entire region, even for a brief time. As a result, indigenous states and the armies they raised or the armed groups that formed against them oriented their warcraft toward what suited the environmental context of their corner, big or small, of the region.

Nevertheless, certain constraints existed across the region that helped to provide a degree of commonality to the kinds of warfare that emerged. First, low population levels meant that controlling people remained more significant than policing fixed territorial boundaries. As a result, before the 19th century, transgressions of territorial claims did not necessarily lead to war. Taking war captives would also remain a very big part of war everywhere because people were such an important and valuable resource. Older historiography had held for some time that Southeast Asian warfare tended to avoid bloodshed wherever possible.6 This view drew in part on the accounts of 17th-century European visitors, such as Simon de la Loubère, who were surprised by the outcomes of warfare that were less violent than what they had witnessed in the Europe of their own time, which was being torn apart by the wars of the Reformation.7 Increasing research in indigenous sources, however, which often supports other European accounts of what is more commonly viewed as a violent 16th century in the region, suggest that Southeast Asia generally could witness bloodshed as great as anything found in Europe or elsewhere at the worst of times. In many parts of Southeast Asia, small-scale communities engaged in headhunting that led to enemy villagers being decapitated and “fed” to ancestors at the shrine in the village longhouse. Even populations in larger societies took the heads of dead enemies in warfare and would offer them in tribute to the king. Those who survived the fighting were carried off to form new communities of war captives, where they would become sedentary agriculturalists, skilled craftsmen, or even soldiers fighting on behalf of their conquerors, or they would be sold as slaves, in particular after the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.

Animals and Warfare

Southeast Asian cavalry played a role in indigenous warfare throughout the region, including the larger islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The relatively small size of the Southeast Asian pony meant that the cavalry did not deliver the range or speed of its European, Arabian, or Mongol counterparts. Research on the actual application of cavalry in battle remains weak, and it is unclear whether the pony was meant merely to carry warriors into battle or was for elite riders, on the one hand, or whether ponies could be mobilized and used tactically in battle as cavalry in a decisive way prior to the 18th century, when larger, faster mounts become available from Manipur and elsewhere.

The rugged topography that separated many kingdoms and the fragmentary nature of lands in deltaic areas meant that the Southeast Asian elephant played an important role in actual combat, at least before the introduction of more effective firearms in the 17th century. The elephant’s imposing size and biological phases, including for the male periods of near insanity brought on by musting, meant that the animals needed to be carefully managed; hence a class of mahouts who managed each elephant became a central part of combat in the region. Any elite rider who wished to successfully leave a battle alive needed one mahout and sometimes two, one at the head and one at the rear, to manage the elephant while he (and, on occasion, she) concentrated on wielding the weapons that were required to bring elephant-mounted opponents down.

Figure 1. Bas-relief from the Bayon temple at Angkor depicting a battle including a war elephant.

Photo by the author.

A mounted elephant also afforded a high line of sight in battle due to superior elevation (see Figure 1). Southeast Asian armies mastered the means of taking advantage of this fact early. They extensively used castles on the elephant’s back and filled them with archers, who could fell opponents from above with ease. This advantage was only broken by the Mongols, whose horse-mounted archers were able to frighten Burmese and Vietnamese elephants. In the Burmese case, as reported by Marco Polo, after the Mongols fired swarms of arrows at the beasts, the latter turned on their own army and bashed the castles against the trees in order to free themselves to run away more quickly.8 But elephants would remain important in battle against other Southeast Asians for centuries. Sometimes the desire to steal from another court an auspicious white elephant, a sign of a superior claim to the kingship in Buddhist societies, prompted courts to go to war. The need to keep armies supplied with elephants for battle required regular hunting in forested areas, where wild elephants congregated, and these hunts in themselves imparted skills that contributed to martial prowess more generally.

Weapons and the Supernatural

The weapons used by Southeast Asian warriors reflected the diversity of cultures that covered the region. But across the region, some kind of bladed weapon, usually a sword or a dagger (the keris in the case of the Malay world), was used. Spears, lances, and halberds are all recorded in the chronicles and other sources. Bows and arrows and blowpipes and darts, the latter often first dipped in poison, were also relied upon. Those with elite status might wear armor or chain mail, but in general, the climate was too hot and humid for most to seek protection with anything more than a helmet and a shield or target.

Southeast Asians would also rely on a number of different extramaterial devices to ensure their protection in battle. A warrior band or army might engage in a mock version of the fight to come, victory in this ensuring victory in the actual engagement ahead. Weapons might also be made of certain metals that would provide invulnerability. Charms were everywhere. One might seek the aid of ancestor spirits or to propitiate hostile spirits more generally. As universal salvation religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and, later, Christianity spread throughout the region, these rites increasingly took the form of prayers. In headhunting societies, women would engage in ritual activities in the village while the men were away fighting, wherein correct observance was essential to maintain the balance in nature and with the spiritual world that would ensure victory. At the same time, participating in battle was a major means by which the men in these societies proved their manhood and earned a mate.9

Early States and the Emergence of Large-Scale Warfare

The first major states emerged in the classical period between the 7th and 14th centuries. This period experienced remarkable cultural and religious circulation across Southeast Asia, when it was part of a broader field of intellectual exchange that has been labeled the “Sanskrit cosmopolis.”10 In Southeast Asia, rulers gained a rich new array of Sanskrit terms and political concepts. Rulers became rajas and identified with or became seen as intermediaries between the population as a whole and one or another Brahmanic god. Brahman priests introduced court rituals and astrology that would determine which days kings choose to begin campaigns. New forms of recording historical events came with Sanskrit scripts that allowed accounts to be written down. Sanskrit concepts of warfare, including the four classical war arms (infantry, elephants, cavalry, and chariots), would provide a template for how chroniclers would represent local Southeast Asian battles. Temple iconography, drawing heavily on Indian ideas, would represent the four Indian war branches on the walls of temples, such as that of Angkor Wat, even though in practice, chariots were unsuited to the Southeast Asian climate and topography and hence were little used. The great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, provided the materials for Southeast Asian stories and theater, providing models for how people should think about warfare and their roles in it. Kings now became Kshatriyas (warriors), world conquerors, and, later, Kings of the Law (dhammarajas), whose duty it was to protect the well-being of the religion.

Indianization was a phenomenon across large parts of Southeast Asia, both in the archipelago, where Sumatra became one of the major centers of Buddhism, and on the mainland, where even northern Vietnam was influenced. Islam, which followed, did not have the impact on reshaping regional war to the same degree Indianization had on the mainland, but it did do three things. First, it introduced the often poorly understood concept of jihad, which has continued to provide an additional justification for going to war in the region. Second, it complicated slave raiding in the archipelago because Muslims were not supposed to enslave other Muslims. Third, it introduced new connections and sources of firearms to the region, in particular the Ottoman Turks, who played a role in introducing firearms and mercenaries to Sumatra (see Figure 2) and the eastern Bay of Bengal similar to that played by the Portuguese on the mainland. Islam also provided the equivalent moral justifications for war that Buddhism provided to mainland rulers. The chronicles and treatises that have survived imply that Southeast Asian rulers generally waged war less for their own benefit than because of the necessity of saving the religion from one or another threat.

The rise of maritime trade from the 14th century on also changed the geographical orientation of military campaigning. In the past, mainland states had concentrated on interior trade and the production of agricultural surplus. As maritime trade expanded in the mid-14th century, there was increasing competition among states for control of access nodes along the coasts. Certainly, controlling hinterlands remained important, but the main prize was now the port on the coast that would connect the court with the vast potentialities of the rise in global trade. The center of political gravity in Cambodia shifted from Angkor to Lovoek, and then to Phnom Penh. In Burma, the First Toungoo Dynasty moved south and took Pegu, making it their new capital. Ayudhya would win out in the political rivalry with Sukothai and other inland capitals at Chiengmai and Luang Prabang.

Firearms and the Gunpowder Kingdoms

Firearms were common in the region and plentiful at Melaka in 1511 when the Portuguese took the city. Although the local guns impressed the Portuguese at first, newer and better firearms sourced from the Portuguese helped speed the emergence and expansion of a number of what might be called “gunpowder kingdoms.” These states found a way to balance agricultural and manpower resources with the new maritime supplies of firearms, trade, and mercenaries that expanded very rapidly over the course of the 16th century.11 The largest political entity to emerge in the precolonial period was the Peguan Empire under the First Toungoo Dynasty, which through military conquest, in the mid-century came to rule the lands from Burma to Laos and Cambodia. The limited development of political institutions that could sustain this expansion led these states to collapse by the end of the century, but their brief experience of success meant that firearms would remain a regular feature of warfare from that point on. Southeast Asia would not give up the gun as the Japanese did to a limited extent under the Tokugawa Shogunate.12

Figure 2. Acehnese and Ottoman guns captured by the Dutch in Sumatra in 1874.

Source: The London Illustrated Times,1874.

In the middle decades of the 17th century, the importance of firearms that had driven Southeast Asian political expansion and consolidation in the 16th century and early 17th century began to decline.13 This owed partly to the realization that firearms were no longer as decisive a factor as they had been in the past. Most states now had firearms, and all were of comparable quality. In the early 17th century, the Dutch and Portuguese had begun supplying the opponents of whichever side one or the other had begun to aid. This led to a situation in Vietnam, for example, in which the Trinh in the north and Nguyen in the south were each supported by a different European arms supplier, prolonging the division between them. This situation would be seen again from the mid-18th century involving the British and the French.

Moreover, for other states, the main enemies to deal with now were internal, and royal courts easily held an advantage on the basis of existing stocks against relatively poorly armed domestic threats. More importantly, the European trading companies that arrived now were less politically, religiously, and even criminally driven than their 16th-century Portuguese counterparts had been. They expected more concessions in exchange for arms than many courts were willing to contemplate. Finally, the 17th century increasingly ushered in an age in which the large indigenous war fleets, which required so many cannons, were increasingly a thing of the past as the Dutch and, later, the British took command of the seas.

As political frontiers stabilized to a degree they had not for centuries, royal elites regressed from being field warriors to being gentlemen skilled in the arts of combat, but not in their application in the field. A range of indigenous manuals showed how to fight an enemy by sword, how to hit a dummy in the field with a lance while mounting a pony, and how to conduct target practice with a bow and arrows, but the manuals that had driven the last century and a half of warfare, such as those on how to make gunpowder, were lost or forgotten. Battles in Southeast Asia included elite riders mounted on elephants less often, until elephants ceased to be a battlefield weapon altogether, although they would remain important for logistical support; and they still are among some rebel armies in the region.14

Some courts assigned all of their artillery, firearms, and skills in marksmanship to hereditary artillerymen and musketeers. The Burmese court is the example par excellence of this. Because large field formations of firearm-bearing troops were no longer needed or affordable, it was considered more cost-effective, and politically safer, to keep them in the hands of foreign war captives who had few religious or other connections with the general population. At first, Portuguese war captives taken at Syriam in 1613 were dragged off into the Burmese interior to settle in small villages in the isolated and rural north. Their numbers expanded slightly when they were joined by additional French war captives taken in Lower Burma in 1756. Temple murals indicate that these captives retained their European identity in terms of material culture, dress, and religion at least into the 1820s, when they were depicted wearing European-style clothing, sporting European-style beards of the day, and bearing banners sporting the Christian Cross. Not all courts had European war captives with whom they could form such contingents, but broadly, there was an emphasis on finding social, cultural, or religious mechanisms that would keep the small numbers of firearms in the region as much out of reach of the general population as possible.

Firearms also improved. In the 16th century, firearms made only a minor challenge to the use of the elephant in warfare on the mainland. These weapons were slow to load, difficult to aim, inaccurate, and liable to misfire or to not fire at all. The force of the shot was often not enough to fell an elephant. But over the 17th and 18th centuries, firearms had improved to such a stage of refinement, range, accuracy, and reliability that they effectively removed the elephant from battle. In its stead, the cavalry became much more important. The horse afforded a nimbler, faster-moving, and smaller target, and horses were harder to hit. This meant also that smaller firearms, which could be fired with one hand from atop a moving horse, began to be used in larger numbers.

Fighting at Sea

Until recently, historiography has attributed a decisive role in the end of Southeast Asia’s predominance in its own waters to the new European vessels from the 16th century that were structurally better able to accommodate larger numbers of cannons and thus won the day against weaker indigenous craft. This was a particularly dramatic change in the western archipelago, where a very large Acehnese fleet had frequently blockaded Melaka in the 16th and early 17th centuries, until its shocking destruction at the hands of the Portuguese and the Sultan of Johor in 1629. This view has been challenged by evidence from both the mainland and the eastern archipelago that indigenous vessels were often better suited to local, coastal, and riverine fighting than European ships.15 The Spanish, in particular, proved unable to subdue the Iranun fleets in the late 18th century and bring a stop to their predatory raids. Indeed, in the early 19th century, the Dutch, recognizing the limitations of European vessels, ordered the construction large numbers indigenous-style prahus to target piracy along the coasts.16

Nevertheless, additional, not European-inflicted factors weighed in against Southeast Asia in the 17th century. First, political consolidation in East Asia and South Asia also weakened Southeast Asian shipping. The Mughals, for example, had expanded their control over Northern India in the 16th century, and by the mid-17th century, they had defeated the Arakanese kingdom and ejected Southeast Asian raiders from the Lower Burma Delta. In the 1660s, the Arakanese kingdom lost control of Chittagong, a shipbuilding center and a major power center on the northeast Bay of Bengal, limiting the kingdom’s reach to a position south of the Naf River. At the same time, Ming China, which had turned away from the sea after the many voyages of Zheng He (1371–1433), was replaced in the mid-17th century by the mighty Qing Empire, which developed substantial maritime fleets that crushed the maritime pirates who were operating out of the coastal waters of Vietnam.

Moreover, land-based kingdoms found that they did better when they drew on domestic overland trade for revenues than when they tried to compete for control of shrinking maritime resources. Beginning in the 17th century, Burma relied more heavily on the growing overland commerce that followed the Qing consolidation of power in China, whereas Vietnam and Siam turned to the lands along the Mekong and, in the early decades of the 19th century, found themselves competing for control of what remained of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Even as naval warfare declined in parts of the mainland, in other parts of the region, coastal warfare, largely in the form of piracy and raiding, continued into the 20th century.

The mainland states would see a huge naval build-up in the late 18th century and the early 19th century to strengthen their external security along their coasts. Nguyen Ahn’s war to defeat to Tayson witnessed major fighting between the naval forces of both sides. Burma and Thailand, along with various Malay tributaries and their navies, would go to war over Junk Ceylon Island (Ujung Salang, Phuket) in the Straits of Melaka in 1809.17 But the domination of traditional naval craft in coastal waters and rivers, where the shallow depths worked against the heavier European war vessels, was coming to an end. Burmese vessels were swept aside by the British on the Lower Burmese coast in 1824. The key was partly the Diana, the first warship to be powered by steam, and the Vietnamese themselves would try but fail to build their own steamship in the 1830s. Southeast Asian states were falling behind Europe in the development of military technology, feeling the growing gap first in the area of naval warfare. In other parts of the region, forms of Southeast Asian warfare, particularly those related to the sea would prove much more reluctant to give way to European (and American) colonial efforts to control the seas.

Representations of Warfare

Warfare was represented in many ways through different media. The end of the construction of temples from stone brought to a close the great age of bas-reliefs, but these left behind a permanent visual record of Southeast Asian warfare seen through the lens of the Indian epics. As a result, Southeast Asian rulers who came after, in particular the kings of Angkor’s successor states, Ayudhya and Cambodia, could not be portrayed as having any less martial prowess, nor could their armies be seen as anything less magnificent. Chronicles, court art, and popular puppet theater emerged, which continued the art of portraying battles and wars as something larger and greater than they often were.18 With dynastic turnover came the need to demonstrate that the new ruler’s command of manpower, a reflection of his prowess and thus his store of merit in Buddhist societies, was greater than that of his predecessor, whose lesser store of merit was presumably the reason for the latter’s fall. Thus there was an inflation of numbers to reflect the greater merit of the sitting king or the ruling dynasty at the time a chronicle was written.19 Sanskrit paradigms continued to shape the description of movements of armies, which were recorded to move in a particular order through the countryside that reflected the order and universal balance of the arrangement of the palace, but which would in fact have been difficult to do in practice. Sanskrit tactical formations were attributed to battles in which they would have been impossible to apply. Artistic representations provided the same kinds of understandings. In both cases, those of written and visual media, the producers, both scribes and artists, likely never witnessed the battles they were representing.

With the arrival of Europeans in large numbers from the early 16th century on, it becomes possible to test indigenous representations of warfare in the region because Europeans were often directly involved as participants. Certainly, European sources came with their own biases. But the Europeans were never limited to a view from the deck of a ship, as is sometimes claimed.20 European accounts cover the full sweep of Southeast Asia. These were more common in some decades than in others and perhaps more conspicuous on the coasts than the interior. But European accounts of early modern Southeast Asia were common enough to challenge the grand descriptions of the chronicles and, on occasion, to confirm particular accounts of battles that had slipped into chronicles through the inclusion of a first-hand account.

From the 17th century on, European company records in English, Dutch, and French vastly increased the amount of material available on Southeast warfare. This is partly because as traders (and often suppliers of arms) they made a record of everything. But it is also because they courted different Southeast Asian interests as potential military allies in their power struggles with other Europeans or against other Southeast Asians. Some Southeast Asians became mercenaries in European employ, such as the Bugis from South Sulawesi, who fought on behalf of the Dutch; others became allies, such as the Thais, who helped the English East India Company invade Burma in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). It was partly their own role in helping indigenous Southeast Asians in their power struggles that led the Dutch to acquire so much of Java by the end of the 18th century. This increasingly intimate involvement in interior, indigenous warfare makes the records they left invaluable for understanding late-18th-century military struggles in the region.

One aspect of precolonial Southeast Asian warfare that is rarely touched upon in indigenous sources, emerging only in the European accounts, is the fact that Southeast Asians, in particular the Burmese, were adept at sapping and mining. Perhaps because Burma was a conquest kingdom, a state that aggressively raided and conquered its neighbors, it may have had special reason to develop so much skill in raising sieges through engineering. This is especially well documented for the early 17th century when the Burmese tunneled up to the walls of the Portuguese fortress at Syriam and used gunpowder to breach them. But they were also excellent at erecting stockades, for which they were admired by the British. Engineering, however, did not suit the ways in which warfare was conventionally represented in indigenous sources and thus did not figure into them.

By the late 18th century, the range of independent indigenous states in the region had been reduced to a small number. This was partly due to the expansion of Dutch power in the Indonesian archipelago, which brought those states under differing degrees of Dutch control, but it was mostly due to the political integration of the major river valleys on the mainland under three major empires, Burma, Siam, and Vietnam.21 They became locked into a struggle with each other for control of smaller march states between them, highland polities that had not yet been fully integrated culturally, economically, or religiously into the lowlands, a process that remains incomplete in the 21st century. In the meantime, Europeans had begun to take an interest in acquiring the mainland as well. Nevertheless, the armies that the Europeans would find there had reached a high state of development through their engagement in military contests. These armies were organizationally and in terms of training perhaps the strongest Southeast Asia had ever known. Yet the wars that followed would be determined by other factors.

Resistance to the European Advance

When the Europeans first arrived in Southeast Asia in the early 16th century, they came in pursuit of controlling maritime trade, which led later to an attempt by the Dutch to monopolize pepper production in the region. By the mid-19th century, Europe was undergoing the Industrial Revolution and needed raw materials, agricultural produce, and markets; security for other colonies; and colonies for national prestige. Harassment of British traders in Rangoon and transgressions of its frontiers in Bengal led British India to go to war with Burma in 1824; the treatment of Catholic missionaries and military adventurism would lead the French into Vietnam in the 1850s; and both countries would begin to eat away at the edges of Siam, on one or another pretext, by the end of the century.

The scientific advances gave European armies new kinds of military technology that quickly outstripped the ability of Southeast Asian armies to compete. As the century progressed, steamships were introduced, which enabled Europeans to aggressively ascend for the first time in history both the Irrawaddy and Mekong Rivers. European artillery could be fired offshore from some distance and destroy some of the most formidable of Southeast Asian defenses. New command structures provided the Europeans with the flexibility to adapt more quickly to Southeast Asian combat than was possible vice versa. The telegraph allowed for rapid communications across vast distances. As the end of the 19th century approached and Western medicine became more effective, hospital ships and field hospitals allowed many Europeans to survive their wounds to fight another day, while wounded Southeast Asians bled to death on the battlefield.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the Southeast Asian states that remained would launch considerable military reform to try to catch up with Europe. Italian engineers built fortifications for the Burmese court on the middle section of Irrawaddy River (Burma had lost control of the river up to a point north of Prome to the British in 1852), and the Siamese did the same at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. Burma purchased Italian steamers, and when the British reached Mandalay, in 1885, they found a Burmese steamer fleet larger than their own on the Irrawaddy and promptly sank it. The Burmese had introduced a telegraph service by the 1870s. Nevertheless, it was the Siamese, who were modernizing their military at the same time, who would outpace both the Burmese and the Vietnamese, saved in part by their position between the British and the French and a more successful diplomatic posture. Thailand would be one of the only non-Western states, alongside Japan and a handful of others, to avoid colonial rule.

The Europeans fought a series of wars with many of the remaining Southeast Asian states in the last half of the 19th century. The Europeans found themselves stymied in asymmetrical warfare, as their better technology meant less against a decentralized enemy fighting in small groups in unconventional ways than it did against conventional armies. Fighting against the Burmese and the Vietnamese went on for years, and the Aceh War that broke out in Sumatra in 1874 carried on for over three decades. Southeast Asians would come to consider these final wars not as the last wars of precolonial Southeast Asia but as the first wars of their independence struggles against colonialism. Many areas of Southeast Asia never fell under direct European control, and some would continue to resist such efforts for the remainder of the colonial period. In such cases, which often involved highlanders on the mainland or outer islanders in the maritime world, Europeans allowed a substantial degree of autonomy under terms of indirect rule and under such conditions that they maintained the methods, practices, and even the technology with which they had always waged war.

The imagery, texts, and stories of precolonial Southeast Asian military heroes, often kings, would be revived by nationalists as part of national literary reawakenings in the early decades of the 20th century. Just as the Japanese would encourage the use of precolonial Southeast Asian soldiers as the model for indigenous soldiers mobilized as defense armies under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Southeast Asian military leaders who seized power from the 1960s on would use the precolonial warrior-kings as models for political leadership.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on precolonial warfare in Southeast Asia has been largely dominated by national studies that reflect the linguistic expertise of the scholars undertaking the research. Very few broad studies that deal with the region as a whole have been conducted. The range and depth of local studies will continue to call general assumptions into question and require new revised regional overviews.

A number of scholars, such as Michael Charney, Sun Laichen, and Victor Lieberman have looked at warfare in Southeast Asia in a broader Asian context, including the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Southeast Asia experienced the same range of international visitors, the same timeline for the introduction of firearms, the emergence of the same kinds of states, and so on, as its neighbors. However, much of Southeast Asia did not change in tandem with the rest of the larger Asian region. That older forms of warfare should linger for so long in various corners of Southeast Asia indicates the continuing importance of local culture and methods of waging war and the geographical particularism that plays such an important role in shaping that warfare.

The relationship between indigenous warfare and statecraft in the region tends to lead back to questions of the impact of firearms and the suggestion of gunpowder states. Certainly, gunpowder played an important role, but its decisiveness was contravened by the ubiquity with which it became available very quickly. The literature thus frequently becomes bogged down in a circular argument that is driven more by how firearms were demonstrably important in China and India than why they were so in Southeast Asia per se.

Scholarship on warfare in the region is also very interested in gender and culture. This represents in part the unusual importance of anthropology in the historiography of Southeast Asia; and the fact that so many societies in the highland parts of the mainland and in the outer islands of the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos rely on oral traditions for their historical memory and culture helps to close the gap in knowledge. Nevertheless, many of the features of warfare in these societies can be discerned from the chronicles, which suggest that these features are shared more generally across the region. One such feature is the importance of the role of women, at least in the ritual aspects of warfare. The role of “warrior women,” on occasion riding elephants and leading troops into battle, as in the case of the famous Trung Sisters in the mid-1st century ce Vietnamese resistance against the invading Chinese, or serving as palace guards in early modern Islamic states in the archipelago is a recurring theme in the history of the region. Another is the importance of taking heads in battle.

Primary Sources

Primary source material on precolonial warfare in the region is relatively abundant, but it is uneven and availability depends on the period and society in question. Inscriptions and other epigraphic materials say very little about anything regarding warfare. Archaeological work promises to reveal more about warfare in the preclassical period.

The most useful sources for the classical period are bas-reliefs and temple murals. If one is unable to view the temples in person, these materials can be accessed through various art historical publications. The Bayon temple in Angkor bears some of the most useful representations of warfare and armies in the classical period and has been the main source for several scholars who have treated this subject. The best and most recent of these studies is Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h’s Armies of Angkor: Military Structure and Weaponry of the Khmers.22 Murals afford the next best source of material on the technology and arrangement of armies and warfare for the early modern period. Upper Burma and central Thailand have a number of Buddhist temples with bas-reliefs that are useful to students of warfare in the region.

Regarding actual battles and campaigns, their timing and results, but often recast according to Sanskrit paradigms, are the chronicles. The value of the statistics, for they contain is the subject of debate among scholars; some treat the statistics as an accurate rendering, for others they depict other kinds of data. There are also poetic accounts that contain considerable detail. A good example of this is Cyril Skinner’s translations of the Malay account, The Battle for Junk Ceylon and of the Syair Perang Mengkasar.23 Such accounts are especially important in emphasizing the religious and cultural aspects of conflicts and the intellectual framework through which indigenous societies would have viewed and interpreted a conflict. Other Asian accounts have begun to emerge, often in translation, in recent decades, although Chinese and Indian accounts do not provide the range or depth of coverage of European sources over the course of the same period.

European records and travel accounts cover the whole region for much of the early modern period and are extensive. The destruction of the Portuguese archives in an 18th-century earthquake and the late arrival of the French in the region mean that the British and Dutch archives are the most significant archival collections for researchers of indigenous warfare prior to the mid-19th century. The activities of the English and Dutch East India Companies were so varied and extensive, covering the entire region, that materials useful to studying premodern warfare in the region are not confined to a limited range of files, but permeate to one degree or another a very large range of files. The British Library in London has the most extensive collection of English- language primary source materials in the world. Official India Office Records are kept in the Asia and Africa Studies Collection. Additional diaries and reports are kept in the European Manuscripts Collection. VOC materials covering the Dutch Company’s relations throughout the region can be found in the Nationaal Archief at The Hague. Especially important for researching indigenous warfare will be the Daghregisters for Batavia and the correspondence with and diaries by the Company’s Agents. Other collections of value regarding particular countries in the region for the premodern period would include the national archives of the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as the National Archives of Spain, which ruled the Philippines until the end of the 19th century. Regarding the latter, some of the most useful reports on the Philippines, dating from the 15th century, were translated into English and published in the fifty-five- volume collection, The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, by Emma Blair and James Alexander Robertson, which has now been digitized and is available online.24

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Andaya, Barbara Watson. “History, Headhunting and Gender in Monsoon Asia: Comparative and Longitudinal Views.” South East Asia Research 12.1 (2004): 13–52.
  • Antony, Roger J. “Turbulent Waters: Sea Raiding in Early Modern South East Asia.” Mariner’s Mirror 99.1 (2013): 23–38.
  • Beemer, Bryce. “The Creole City in Mainland Southeast Asia: Slave Gathering Warfare and Cultural Exchange in Burma, Thailand and Manipur, 18th–19th c.” PhD diss., University of Hawai’i, 2013.
  • Charney, Michael W. Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300–1900. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic, 2004.
  • Charney, Michael W., and Kathryn Wellen, eds. Warring Societies of Precolonial Southeast Asia: Local Cultures of Conflict within a Regional Context. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017.
  • Dutton, George. The Tayson Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.
  • Hagerdahl, Hans. Lords of the Land, Lords of the Sea: Conflict and Adaptation in Early Colonial Timor, 1600–1800. Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV, 2012.
  • Junker, Laura Lee. Raiding, Trading, and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.
  • Lieberman, Victor. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 1800–1300. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Pinto, Paulo Jorge de Sousa. The Portuguese and the Straits of Melaka, 1575–1619: Power, Trade and Diplomacy. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2012.
  • Quaritch-Wales, Horace G. Ancient South-East Asian Warfare. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1952.
  • Sun, Laichen. “Military Technology Transfers from Ming China and the Emergence of Northern Mainland Southeast Asia (c. 1390–1527).” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.3 (2003): 495–517.
  • Warren, James Francis. The Sulu Zone: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2007.


  • 1. The Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient published one such collection in 2003, edited by Barbara Watson Andaya, and South East Asia Research published another in 2004, edited by Michael W. Charney. In 2017, another collection was published, edited by Charney and Kathryn Wellen, Warring Societies of Precolonial Southeast Asia: Local Cultures of Conflict within a Regional Context (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017).

  • 2. Horace G. Quaritch-Wales, Ancient South-East Asian Warfare (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1952).

  • 3. Charles Higham, Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia (New York: Art Media Resources, 2002).

  • 4. Laura Lee Junker, Raiding, Trading and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2000).

  • 5. Nam C. Kim, Origins of Ancient Vietnam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015): 5–7.

  • 6. Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, vol. 1, The Lands below the Winds (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).

  • 7. Simon de la Loubère, Du Royaume de Siam (Amsterdam: A. Wolfgang, 1691).

  • 8. Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian (London: John Murray, 1875).

  • 9. Barbara Watson Andaya, “History, Headhunting and Gender in Monsoon Asia: Comparative and Longitudinal Views,” South East Asia Research 12.1 (2004): 13–52.

  • 10. Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

  • 11. Laichen Sun, “Military Technology Transfers from Ming China and the Emergence of Northern Mainland Southeast Asia (c. 1390–1527),” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.3 (2003): 495–517.

  • 12. Noel Perrin, Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543–1879 (New York: David R. Godine, 1979).

  • 13. Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  • 14. Michael W. Charney, Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300–1900 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic, 2004).

  • 15. For the mainland, see Michael W. Charney, “Shallow-Draft Boats, Guns, and the Aye-ra-wa-ti: Continuity and Change in Ship Structure and River Warfare in Precolonial Myanma,” Oriens Extremus 40.1 (1997): 16–63.

  • 16. James Francis Warren, The Sulu Zone: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2007): 164–169.

  • 17. Cyril Skinner, trans. and ed., The Battle for Junk Ceylon: The Syair Sultan Maulana; Text. Translation and Notes (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris, 1985).

  • 18. See the chapter “Violence and Beauty” on the depiction of violence through wayang representations of the Indian epics in Tony Day, Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), 228–284.

  • 19. Charney, Southeast Asian Warfare.

  • 20. Reid, Southeast Asia, vol. 1.

  • 21. Lieberman, Strange Parallels.

  • 22. Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Armies of Angkor: Military Structure and Weaponry of the Khmers (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2007).

  • 23. Skinner, Battle for Junk Ceylon; and Cyril Skinner, Sjaʻir perang Mengkasar: The Rhymed Chronicle of the Macassar War (Jakarta: KITLV–Jakarta, 2008).

  • 24. Emma Blair and James Alexander Robertson, The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898 (Cleveland: A. H. Clark, 1903–1909). Available from the University of Michigan, United States and Its Territories Collection,