In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Precolonial Southeast Asian Military History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Military Organization
  • Warfare on River and Sea
  • Edged Weaponry
  • Emerging Topics

Military History Precolonial Southeast Asian Military History
Michael Charney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0018


While there is a rich colonial literature on the record of European conflict in the region, interest in indigenous warfare was always second to preserving the record of the European experience, and what was written about indigenous warfare was usually specifically interested in putting a particular European campaign into perspective. Research after colonial rule tends to overcompensate the other way, putting overwhelming focus on what indigenous warfare consisted of. Attempts to reconstruct a region-wide history of warfare often present an artificial uniformity to practices and technologies which were in actuality quite varied five hundred years or so ago. In many of the wars Europeans fought against Southeast Asians, Southeast Asians were significant and willing collaborators against other Southeast Asians. More importantly, national warfare cultures are anachronisms that have virtually no meaning for the cultures of war as they existed several hundred years ago. Scholarly research on warfare in the region has usefully contributed frameworks, in which their publications have been divided up below, through which difficult data drawn from battles and campaigns that make understanding historical conflict in the region easier. However, new researchers should keep in mind the artificiality of these divisions in considering new avenues for research. Our first major glimpses of major Southeast Asian battles come from depictions of warfare at Angkor, although archaeological evidence yields some evidence of weaponry and fortifications used in earlier periods. With the breakdown of the classical empires and the emergence of smaller, competitive states across the region, intense warfare became more commonplace. Chinese armies were especially active in Burma from the late 13th century and Vietnam from the early 15th century. The next century saw the arrival of the Portuguese and the conquest of Melaka in 1511. With the Spanish taking of Manila in 1565, the advance of the Dutch from 1600, the Mughal expansion in the northwest a half-century later, the French military adventure in Siam in the 1680s and again in Indochina in the 19th century, and British military involvement in the Straits of Melaka from the late 18th century, detailed foreign accounts multiply, providing large data on the martial cultures of nearly every society and most large-scale conflicts in the region. On the other hand, some historians feel that more durable cultural understandings inform indigenous accounts in a way they do not external accounts. It is this precarious balance between foreign and indigenous accounts that every historian has to consider when undertaking their study of warfare in the region.

General Overviews

Colonial scholarship on Southeast Asian military history focused almost entirely on the histories of local dynasties, the warfare conducted by individual states, and the weapons of particular cultures and societies. Burmese warfare and Vietnamese warfare, for example, might be treated, but rarely did scholars attempt a region-wide view of warfare in Southeast Asia. Often this fragmentation was encouraged both by indigenous sources which were similarly circumspect and by the language barrier in which secondary research on particular colonial societies was confined to the local language(s) and a particular European language. Later, national histories that were dominant after independence encouraged the continuity of a fragmented view of the region’s past. Although an early start was made in Quaritch Wales 1952, it would be decades before other historians tried to identify commonality in warfare across the region as a whole. An important step was Reid 1988, which attempted to identify aspects of warfare common to the region as part of a larger project to understand the early modern period in the region’s history. Building on the author’s work on warfare in South Sulawesi, Andaya 1994 contributed another survey that moved beyond Reid’s work by directing more attention to the cultural importance of warfare technology and the unity of the spiritual and earthly terrains. A decade later, different aspects of warfare across the region began to receive in-depth attention in the collections Andaya 2003, Goscha 2003, and Charney 2004a, followed by the general survey Charney 2004b, as well as a new examination of the region’s entire premodern history, including the place of warfare in it, in Lieberman 2004. Although numerous articles and chapters have appeared on warfare in parts of Southeast Asia in the decade following, no new overall survey of warfare in the region has emerged. The works in this section should thus be treated as entry paths into the field rather than as guides to where the field now stands.

  • Andaya, Leonard Y. “Interactions with the Outside World and Adaptation in Southeast Asian Society, 1500–1800.” In Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. Vol. 1. Edited by Nicholas Tarling, 345–401. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    This chapter highlights the unique cultural dimensions of warfare and firearms technology in the region, but also a more sophisticated rendering of the importance of the ancestral spirit world on the human domain during conflict than that offered four decades earlier by Quaritch Wales. This piece stands as a study intermediary to the pioneering work of Quaritch Wales and where we stand today in the field.

  • Andaya, Barbara, ed. Special Issue: Aspects of Warfare in Premodern Southeast Asia. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 46.2 (2003).

    DOI: 10.1163/156852003321675718

    This special issue consists of papers presented at a panel organized by Andaya and held at the Asian Studies Association meeting in 2002. In addition to Charney 2003 (cited under War in Art and Literature), Knaap 2003 (cited under Emerging Topics), and Rodriguez 2003 (cited under The Iberians), the issue included an introduction by Andaya (pp. 139–142) and concluding observations by Victor B. Lieberman, “Some Comparative thoughts on Premodern Southeast Asian Warfare,” (pp. 215–225).

  • Charney, Michael W., ed. Special Issue: Warfare in Early Modern South East Asia. South East Asia Research 12.1 (2004a).

    This special issue of the journal South East Asia Research includes selected papers from the “Precolonial Warfare in Monsoon Asia” workshop that was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2003. These papers include contributions by Barbara Watson Andaya (Andaya 2004, cited under Emerging Topics), Leonard Andaya (Andaya 2004, cited under Indigenous Wars of the Indonesian and Philippine Archipelagoes), Hans Hägerdal (Hägerdal 2004, cited under War in Art and Literature), and John Whitmore (Whitmore 2004, cited under Meaning of War)

  • Charney, Michael W. Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300–1900. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004b.

    This history of warfare in Southeast Asia between 1300 and 1900 was published a half century after the last region-wide monograph to focus on indigenous warfare: Quaritch Wales 1952. Its treatment of regional patterns, cultures, and technology of warfare provides topically focused chapters.

  • Goscha, Christopher E., ed. “Foreign Military Transfers in Mainland Southeast Asian Wars: Adaptations, Rejections and Change.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.3 (2003): 491–493.

    This special issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, published in 2003, includes Sun 2003 and Mantienne 2003 (both cited under Impact and Circulation of Firearms), as well as an introduction by the original panel organizer and editor of the special issue, Christopher Goscha (pp. 491–493).

  • Lieberman, Victor B. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830. Vol. 1, The Mainland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    This gargantuan study of early modern Southeast Asian states, societies, and economies, and their precolonial integration into a handful of states that presaged modern Southeast Asia in comparison to similar patterns of development elsewhere in Eurasia, is the latest and most expansive account that provides the context for understanding the historical role of warfare in the region.

  • Quaritch Wales, H. G. Ancient South-East Asian Warfare. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1952.

    This was the seminal history of premodern Southeast Asian warfare, because it was the first and because Quaritch Wales was able to approach the topic with an imagination and ability to move outside the boundaries of a single discipline to reconstruct a view of warfare in Southeast Asia’s past that was coherent and insightful. For its time and in its field, this was a landmark achievement that made later work on warfare in the region possible and still remains essential reading today.

  • Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce. Vol. 1, The Lands Below the Winds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

    Asserts that Southeast Asians warfare tended to be bloodshed-averse. Southeast Asians of the time chose to flee rather than fight, as the main goal of warfare, it was suggested, was not killing the enemy but enslaving them. Scholarship now demonstrates that this was not the case for the region as a whole, but rather of limited parts of the island world only.

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