The local art of war

Michael Vatikiotis

Broken Buddhas of Wat Phra That Muang in Vientiane. Photo: Michael Vatikiotis

Warring Societies of Pre-colonial Southeast Asia: Local Cultures of Conflict Within a Regional Context
Michael W. Charney and Kathryn Wellen (Eds)
NIAS Press: 2017
The outer walls of the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai are a good place to contemplate the art of war in Southeast Asia. There’s not much left of them: a few mounds of ochre-coloured mud along a quiet side street. The remnants mostly serve as crumbling perimeters for houses and shops that line the street. Yet, the story goes that these walls were built with the bones of invading Burmese soldiers.

War in the modern period is mostly viewed through the lens of invading colonial powers and, later, conflicting ideologies. But as this collection of essays edited by Michael W. Charney and Kathryn Wellen shows, Southeast Asia was more or less perpetually at war long before the arrival of 10,000 English troops and Indian sepoys at the mouth of Burma’s Irrawaddy river in 1824.

The objective of traditional warfare on mainland Southeast Asia was to kill as few people as possible; it was “mainly about deportation and depopulation.” In the islands, raids were conducted to capture slaves, but also to pursue personal grudges and establish personal authority in a context where power was shaped by personality and a culture of display. “While warfare was a regular feature of Bugis political life,” writes Kathryn Wellen about civil war in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, “the small scale, even the personal level, on which it was sometimes fought, suggests that it fulfilled a cultural role as well.”

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