The Cassay Horse trails and opening of the Eastern Gate: Undying memories and shadows
- Part 2 -

Puyam Nongdrei *

'Save Manipuri Pony Awareness Procession' at Lamphelpat on 28 September 2014
Manipuri Pony with Arambai at an exhibition in November 2011 :: Pix - Jinendra Maibam

Rise of the Konbaung Dynasty

The invasion of Manipur by Burma in 1755 was the beginning of the period of the First Devastation (1755-58). The invasion led by King Alaungpaya in was marked by a large number of Manipuri people taking settlement in Burma. These settlements and the war captives from Manipur during the successive invasions till the First Anglo-Burmese War supplied a huge number of war conscripts especially the cavalry.

The Cassay Horse was a main battle formation of Burmese army from the Burmese-Siamese War (1759-60). The cavalry also took part in the suppression of rebellion in Lanna during 1761-63. Preparation for a major invasion of Siam began in 1764 when Thihapate and Maha Nawrahta were appointed as commanders by King Hsinbyushin after Alaungpaya's death in May 1760.

The northern army led by Ne Myo Thihapate took control of Chiang Mai and marched to Vientiane (Vieng Chan) and Luang Prabang. The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang broke up into Luang Prabang, Vieng Chan and Champassak after the death of King Suriya Vongsa in 1694. When the Burmese army attacked Vieng Chan in 1764, its King Ong Bun (Siribunyasan) surrendered to Burma without a fight. Instead, he joined the invading Burmese army to sack the rival Laotian Kingdom of Luang Prabang. King Sotika Koumane of Luang Prabang resisted the invaders but was defeated in March 1765.

After controlling these areas, the Burmese were successful in cutting Siam from any possible assistance from Lanna and Laotian states. The invasion of Ayutthaya by the northern army led by Thahapate from Lampang and the southern army attacked Siam from the Three Pagoda Pass, Tenasserim and Kanchanaburi via the Myitta pass. The two army columns merged in Ayutthaya and the capital was destroyed completely in April 1767.

The four successive waves of Chinese forces attacking Burma from 1765 to 1769 were strongly resisted and the Treaty of Kaungton was signed in 1769 putting an end to the Qing expansion. The role of the Cassay Horse in these offensives would be well known to the Burmese historians. Maha Thiha Thura and his officers dared not return to the capital for fear of the Burmese King's anger after the signing of the Kaungton Treaty. Instead, his army marched to Manipur to check the resistance force of Manipur under King Beigyachandra (Chingthangkhomba). The war booty and captives collected from Manipur could not cool down the anger of King Hsinbyushin.

Decline of the Konbaung Dynasty

The rebellion in Lanna against the Burmese authority and the rise of Siam during the Thonburi period under King Taksin marked the decline of the Konbaung in relation to Thailand. King Hsinbyushin dispatched an army under the command of Ne Myo Thihapate consisting of 500 horse and 7000 men, of whom half were Kathes (Manipuris) and half Burmese to check the disquiet in Lanna in 1773. The Burmese Governor of Chiang Mai (called Zinme in Burmese), Thado Mindin and his differences with the local chiefs were the major issue. Some differences also cropped up between Thadon and Thihapate.

Communication channels were established between King Taksin of Siam and chiefs of Lanna to take advantage of the situation to attack the Burmese-controlled areas. In 1775, Lanna revolted against the Burmese with encouragement from Siam Kingdom. The Burmese-Siamese Wars of 1775-76 and 1785-86 ended in Burmese failures to establish control over Lanna and Siam. The combined forces of Lanna and Siam successfully fought back against the Burmese invasion in 1775.

Adrien Launay's "Histoire de la mission de Siam, 1662-1811" recorded the capture of about 2000 Burmese by the Siamese forces in 1775. The prisoners were made to labour on public works projects. Again, hundreds of Burmese prisoners were taken to the Siamese capital in 1786. Some of these prisoners from Burma would be Manipuris as narrated by the Meeteis from Mandalay.

The Burmese Governor Thado Mindin was said to be a repressive ruler showing little respect to the local chiefs of Lanna. This led to the beginning of Prince Kawila's rise in the history of Thailand. His army with forces from Siam captured Chiang Mai on 15 January 1775 ending more than 200 year long Burmese rule in Chiang Mai.

Prince Kawila of Lampang, Phraya Chabaan of Chiang Mai and Phraya Vaiwongsa of Lamphun played major role in overthrowing the Burmese rule in Lanna with the support of King Taksin of Siam. Siam King Taksin sent Chao Phraya Chakri and Chao Phraya Surasi to invade Chiang Mai by joining hands with the three chiefs of Lanna.

In 1775, King Hsinbyushin of Burma ordered an invasion of Lanna led by Ne Myo Thihapate as commander of northern army under the overall command of General Maha Thiha Thura. The Burmese army based in Chiang Saen swept down to Chiang Mai but faced tough resistance. The Burmese force retreated when Maha Thiha Thura ordered a pullout following Hsinbyushin's death in June 1776.

Chiang Mai became a Burmese tributary again in 1757 to the Konbaung Dynasty. However, the 1775 war marked the end of Burmese supremacy in Lanna as Siam took control of the region. The rise of Taksin during the Thonburi period in Siam was the beginning of Thailand's ascendancy in Southeast Asia. Again, after the Thonburi period, the Chakri Dynasty under Rama I (formerly Chao Phraya Chakri) made Thailand a powerful force. Both Taksin and Rama I became well-known for their acquisition of modern European arms and ammunitions through English traders.

Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company became an important figure in the history making of Southeast Asia. He is believed to have arrived in Phuket in 1772 during the reign of King Taksin after the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese power. Thalang was an important centre of tin production and arms trade. He was conferred the noble title of Phraya by King Taksin. The East India Company was keen to acquire Phuket as its trading base. Francis made every attempt to get Phuket for the East India Company but failed. He was known as Phraya Ratcha Capitan in many Thai Chronicles.

English country traders including Francis Light sold arms and ammunitions to Siam. The Danish Royal Asiatic Company also sold thousands of cannons to Siam in exchange for tin. Tin produced in Thalang (modern Phuket) was the principle medium of exchange to acquire the arms. The Phuket Mining Museum located in Kathu has indirect historical connections with the fate of thousands of Meeteis who died fighting on the side of the Burmese. Phuket (formerly Thalang) was a major tin producing centre in Thailand.

The mining of tin in Thalang attracted the French, British, Dutch, Chinese and other nationalities. It helped Thailand to buy more European arms in exchange for the mineral. These European arms bought by Thailand were used to repel the invading Burmese forces including the Meeteis. People like Francis Light, Taksin, Hsinbyushin, Ne Myo Thihapate and Kawila deserve a place in the history books of Manipur.

Heritage of the Cassay Horse

Many of the Meeteis who joined the Cassay Horse were made to settle in Nandawse on the eastern side of the Mandalay Capital. They are said to be the only Burmese war prisoners to be settled near the capital. The loyalty and sacrifices made by the forefathers of the Nandawse villagers could have won that position in the history of Burma. Will they find a respectable place in Myanmar in future? Most importantly, the Cassay Horse trails will one day take us to the neighbouring countries for tourism, education, cultural exchange, investment, business and other activities. This the most shining heritage of the Manipuri pony in the history of the Manipur people.

The Cassay Horse was established after Alaungpaya's successful campaign against Manipur in 1758. Of 3000 cavalrymen who joined the forces of Alaungpaya to attack Thailand in 1759-60, 2000 are recorded to be Meeteis. The long chapter of this cavalry in Burma began with Alaungpaya, the founder of the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma and thousands continued to serve Burma till the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War.

An extract of the "Narrative of the Burmese War: Detailing the Operations of Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell's Army…" by Major John James Snodgrass runs as follows:
The Muniporeans, or people of Cassay, in particular, abound in great numbers, and they are much prized as clever workmen. Owing to their superior skill in the management of the horse, the Burmese cavalry is almost exclusively composed of them; and they are distinguished by the national appellation of "The Cassay Horse".

What made Snodgrass to write it? Were the Manipuris prized possessions of the Burmese? These lines about the people of Cassay (Manipur) put the worthiness of the children of Manipur without any room for doubt. The Burmese authorities rejected the idea of handing over the Cassay (Kathe) prisoners of war after the First Anglo-Burmese War. They were adopted as useful subjects of the Burmese empire.

Dreaming the Asia-Pacific Dream

The "singular oasis of comparative civilisation and organised society" in the words of C. J. Lyall to describe the valley of Manipur should not be suppressed. The fair workmanship and quick learning capabilities of the people must be there in the blood of the Manipuris as mentioned in "The Meitheis" by T.C. Hodson. Innovative skills, quick learning, inventiveness and creativity are not rare among the people. Are we waiting for the right foundation? Can we make the foundation ourselves?

In the 21st century, Burmese are coming to Manipur in recognition of our achievements in the medical infrastructure and competency. There are other sectors where the Manipuris can excel and contribute to mutually beneficial cooperation provided the policy-makers do not ignore them. The Myanmar Permanent Residence System for Foreigners would make room for some of the talented Manipuris to become citizens of Myanmar in the 21st century. The POMO living in Myanmar and Bangladesh can also play their respective roles in the OEG policy or Act East policy.

There are some factors which can shape a successful policy of Opening of the Eastern Gate. A successful opening of Myanmar to the outside world especially India is the crucial issue. The political and economic reforms and success of the peace process will make Myanmar a great neighbour of India. The following points need attention of the stakeholders.

1) The first and foremost important factor is developing close and friendly relations with Myanmar government and people.

2) Promotion and preservation of Meetei cultural heritage in Mandalay Region is the second most important factor in Manipur's OEG (Nongpok Thong Hangba) policy.

3) Rakhine State, Magwe Region, Mandalay Region, Sagaing Region, Kachin State, Shan State are the most important areas in Myanmar for successful opening of the Eastern Gate.

4) Myanmar is the main gate but there are four other gates which can be opened only through Myanmar. First is the gate to the Indian Ocean through Rakhine state or through Yangon. Other three remaining gates are to make land links between Manipur and three neighbouring countries of Myanmar namely China (Yunnan Province), Laos (Luang Namtha Province) and Thailand (Chiang Rai Province). Moreh to Mae Sot Trilateral Highway project is another way. Thus Myanmar is a country having multiple gates to the world outside for Manipur.

5) Myanmar government's support and official recognition of the Meetei (Kathe/Kathe-Ponna) community is also very important. The opening of the Meetei Library at Minde- Ekin with government's support is one good step.

6) Manipur can sell the Samlongpha trail for tourism to Tai/Shan/Lao/Thai peoples living in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China.

7) Manipur can attract World War II tourists as the Battle of Imphal is very significant among all other battles. The Kwai River Bridge should be connected with Battles of Imphal and Kohima.

8) English speaking Meeteis who can also read and write Myanmar languages such as Bamar, Shan/Tai can contribute a lot to the cultural enrichment of Manipur and widen our worldview.

9) The war prisoners who were employed as skilled human resources and cavalry force by the Burmese Kings could be repeated in a different way now. Meeteis in Myanmar can take part in economic development of Myanmar and act as human bridge to connect Northeast India with Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia.

10) The permanent resident system that would be introduced in Myanmar could be used to enhance people-to-people interaction and cultural exchanges. This will allow Manipuris from India to take part in Myanmar's economic development as medical experts, English language teachers, IT professionals and other skilled workers. Yadanabon Cyber City can attract the IT loving Manipuris.

11) Myanmar can become the best destination for many educated unemployed youths living in Manipur to find economic opportunities in the resource rich neighbouring country. They can live happily in Myanmar sharing the bond of love with the Meeteis in Myanmar who can provide them the Leikais and Khuls as micro Manipur in Myanmar.

12) Opening through Myanmar will create more opportunities for the Manipuris in Northeast India, Bangladesh and also to take part in economic development and community building process of the ASEAN.

13) Jade and other precious stones found in Myanmar can make Manipur a good centre of gemstones and jewellery market. Many Manipuris were taken to Mogok to work as mine workers by King Bodawpaya. Mogok, Kathe and Kyatpayen could also be another area having Manipuri descendants in Myanmar. Imphal can attract high budget shoppers looking for Bu

rmese ruby and other gemstones. 14) Myanmar will be safer place for business without frequent blockades as the Government of Myanmar will not stay quite when the roads blockades are imposed for months.

15) Immigration systems in China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar should facilitate exchange of people across the borders for constructive interactions of the Manipuris with the peoples of the neighbouring countries. The Berlin Wall, Bamboo Curtain and Iron Curtain have fallen. New Delhi should remove the Gun Curtain on the Indo-Myanmar border and start talking to China, Thailand and Laos for immigration facilities to allow limited people-to-people flow as the first step.

To be continued ...

* Puyam Nongdrei wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at khuman_mei(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on January 19, 2015.

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