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Swa Saw Ke

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Burma c. 1350 For other people named Mingyi Swa, see Mingyi Swa (disambiguation).

Mingyi Swa Saw Ke was king of Ava from 1367 to 1400. He reestablished central authority in Upper Myanmar (Burma) for the first time since the fall of the Pagan Empire in the 1280s. He essentially founded the Ava Kingdom that would dominate Upper Burma for the next two centuries.

When he was elected by the ministers to succeed King Thado Minbya, Swa took over a small kingdom barely three years old, and one that still faced several external and internal threats. In the north, he successfully fought off the Maw raids into Upper Burma, a longstanding problem since the waning days of Sagaing and Pinya kingdoms. He maintained friendly relations with Lan Na in the east, and Arakan in the west, placing his nominees on the Arakense throne between 1373 and 1385. In the south, he brought semi-independent kingdoms of Toungoo (Taungoo) and Prome (Pyay) firmly into Ava's orbit. But his attempts to extend control farther south touched off the Forty Years' War (1385-1424) between Ava and Pegu. After three defeats, Swa had to agree to a truce with King Razadarit of Pegu in 1391.

For the most part, his long reign was peaceful. In contrast to the short reigns by various kings since the fall of Pagan, Swa's 32-year reign brought much needed stability to Upper Burma. He redeveloped the economy of the kingdom by repairing the irrigation system, and reclaiming much of the arable land which had lapsed into wilderness for nearly a century as the result of the Mongol invasions and repeated Maw raids. Under Swa's leadership, Upper Burma centered in Ava, finally achieved stability it had lacked for much of the past hundred years.

Table of contents
  1. Early life
  2. Early career
  3. Accession and coronation
  4. Reign
  5. Administration
  6. Legacy
  7. Family

Early life

The future king was born Saw Ke (?????) on 16 July 1330 in Thayet to the ruling family of the region, which was then a vassal state of Pinya. His father Gov. Min Shin Saw of Thayet was a son of King Kyawswa of Pagan, and his mother Shin Myat Hla was a niece of King Thihathu of Pinya and granddaughter of King Narathihapate of Pagan. The third child of six, Ke had two elder brothers Shwe Nan Shin and Saw Yan Naung, and three younger sisters, Saw Pale, Saw Myat and Saw Omma. Then reigning king Uzana I of Pinya was their paternal half-uncle.

Ke spent his formative years in Launggyet, the capital of Arakan, the kingdom to the west of Thayet. In early January 1334, the Arakanese raided Thayet, and sent the entire family of the governor to Launggyet on 7 January 1334. The family was treated well at the Arakanese court where the children were educated by one of the most learned Arakanese monks of the day. Becoming a scholar in his own right, the young prince conducted himself well, and became popular in court circles and also with common people.

Early career


In 1343/44, the family was allowed to leave Launggyet. They returned to Pinya. At Pinya, the family was well received. His father was reappointed to his old post at Thayet. His two elder brothers became governors of Myinsaing and Prome (Pyay). Ke, still in his early teens, was made governor of a small town called Talok in central Burma, with the title of Tarabya (??????, "Righteous Lord"). When he grew older, circa 1351, he was made governor of Yamethin, a larger town by King Kyawswa I of Pinya, his first cousin once removed.

Defection to Sagaing

In December 1350, King Kyawswa I suddenly died, and was succeeded by his son Kyawswa II. Ke did not get along with Kyawswa II, who was not only his second cousin but also brother-in-law. (Kyawswa II's chief queen was Saw Ke's youngest sister Saw Omma.) Ke defected to Sagaing, whose reigning king Tarabya II was also a second cousin of his. His defection was a second major defection to Sagaing in two years, following an even higher profile defection of Gov. Nawrahta of Pinle in 1349. But the king of Sagaing sent an embassy led by Princess Soe Min and Gov. Thado Hsinhtein of Tagaung to cool the tensions. The embassy was successful, and the peace between the two Burmese-speaking kingdoms was maintained. Tarabya II appointed Ke governor of Amyint, a small region west of Sagaing.

Early Ava

Saw Ke's rise to power began in the mid-1360s. In September 1364, Prince Thado Minbya of Sagaing seized both Sagaing and Pinya capitals, which had been left in ruins by a devastating Maw Shan raid earlier that year, and declared himself king of both Sagaing and Pinya kingdoms. Ke pledged allegiance to the 18-year-old king, who was not only his second cousin once removed but also brother-in-law. The young king had married Ke's sister Saw Omma. On 26 February 1365, Thado Minbya founded the Kingdom of Ava as the successor state of both Sagaing and Pinya.

Despite his proclamation, the young king still had no control over Pinya's southern vassals. Over the next two years, the young king launched repeated campaigns to gain control of the southern regions. By his sudden death in September 1367 from smallpox, the young king had only partially completed the conquests. The southernmost regions Prome, Toungoo (Taungoo) and Sagu (Minbu granary) all remained out of Ava's grasp.

Accession and coronation

Saw Ke became king due to the recommendation of his brother-in-law Gov. Thilawa of Yamethin. After Thado Minbya's death, Queen Saw Omma and Commander Nga Nu tried to seize the Ava throne but the court drove them out. The court initially gave the throne to Thilawa. But the taciturn governor of Yamethin refused, reportedly saying: "I do not open my mouth to speak three or four words a day. You had better choose Saw Ke." The court offered the throne to Ke, who accepted. He became king of Ava on 5 September 1367.

His first job as king was to retake Sagaing where his sister and her lover had been trying to revive the old Sagaing Kingdom. His forces easily retook Sagaing. Over the next few months, he was able to use diplomacy to persuade the southern vassals, whom Thado Minbya could not conquer militarily, to acknowledge him as king. That Gov. Saw Yan Naung of Prome and Gov. Theinkhathu Saw Hnaung of Sagu were his elder brother and brother-in-law, respectively, may have helped. To be sure, his authority was nominal: Pyanchi I of Toungoo offered nominal allegiance to Ava only because he himself was consolidating his power at Toungoo, and would later attempt to revolt.

On 16 March 1368 or on 29 March 1368, the date deemed propitious by his court astrologers, Saw Ke, 37, was crowned king. Now known as Mingyi Swa, ("Exalted Great King"), he made his first wife Khame Mi the chief queen, and raised Thado Minbya's three younger sisters as his principal queens.


Swa shared Thado Minbya's dream of restoring the erstwhile Pagan Empire. He would spend the next two decades gradually reestablishing central authority throughout the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. The king came to rely on the advice of his court, led by Chief Minister Min Yaza, a commoner who joined his service in 1368. Despite the ambition, at his accession his real authority did not exceed outside the immediate core region of Central Burma. He decided to bide his time, and deal with his internal and external issues one at a time. At the top of his list was the Shan state of Maw (Mong Mao), which had been assiduously raiding Upper Burma since 1356.

Establishing borders


In order to deal with the Maw threat, Swa initially pursued a conciliatory policy towards his other neighbors. To be sure, the neighboring states themselves looked at the newly rising power from Central Myanmar, the traditional home of political power in Myanmar, with caution. In 1370, King Binnya U of the southern kingdom of Ramanya proposed friendly relations. The king of the Mon-speaking kingdom wanted a quiet northern border as he had been facing a serious rebellion in Martaban (Mottama) and the Irrawaddy delta since 1363/64. Swa too wanted a quiet border, and in particular Binnya U's assurance that Ramanya would not assist Toungoo. The two kings met later in the year 1370/71 at the frontier, and signed a treaty demarcating the border.


With his rear secure, Swa turned his attention to the north. The situation turned to his favor when the longtime sawbwa Tho Kho Bwa (Si Kefa) died in 1371. Swa took full advantage of the ensuing chaos and infighting between Mohnyin and Kalay states. Following the court's advice, he marched to both Kalay and Mohnyin only after the two states were exhausted from their war. Both states submitted to the rising power. But the Ava-installed sawbwa of Mohnyin was overthrown soon after the Ava forces left. Swa wanted to retaliate but was stopped by the court, which advised that he was not yet strong enough to engage in an extended war. Heeding the court's advice, Swa agreed to re-calibrate his northern border farther south to Myedu, where the court considered defensible. To be sure, the new sawbwa at Mohnyin did not agree with Ava's new border. The Maw forces occupied Myedu in 1372 but Swa drove them out by early 1373. An Ava inscription dated 7 February 1375 triumphantly commemorates the victory over the "heretic Shans".

An uneasy ceasefire of sorts followed for the next 14 years. The Maw state still wanted to regain Kalay and Myedu but stopped its raids into the lowlands now that it faced a more united lowland kingdom in Ava. The next Maw attacks would come in 1387-88 and 1392-93 while Ava was immersed in its ultimately unsuccessful effort to take over Pegu.


His success in containing the Maw threat gave Swa additional leeway to deal with other issues. In 1373, Swa sided with an Arakanese (Rakhine) faction over the recently vacated Arakense throne at Launggyet. Swa's nominee, his uncle Saw Mon II proved an able ruler and ruled Arakan until his death in 1380/81 (or 1383/84). This time, Swa sent Saw Me, governor of Talok and one of his long-serving loyalists, to Arakan. But Saw Me proved to be a tyrant and was driven out of Arakan in 1385/86. Swa chose not respond as his attention was now focused on Pegu. Ava would return to Arakan and finish off the Launggyet dynasty in 1406.


Despite his relative successes in his near abroad, Swa still had little control over his own vassal Toungoo. He never trusted Gov. Pyanchi of Toungoo, who was educated in Pegu and had been contact with Pegu during Ava's brief war with Maw. As a first step, in 1374, Swa asked Toungoo's eastern neighbor Lan Na not to interfere. Chronicles say after he had threatened to send a sizable force to the frontier, Chiang Mai sent an embassy to Ava, and agreed to a peace treaty. But Chiang Mai might have simply let Ava and Pegu fight it out. At any rate, Pyanchi now recognized that Ava was trying to isolate him, and asked Pegu for military aid. Despite the 1370 non-aggression pact, Binnya U sent a sizable force consisting of infantry, cavalry and war elephants to Toungoo.

Ava was not yet willing to go to war with Pegu over Toungoo. Instead, the king sought another way, and enlisted the help of his brother Gov. Saw Yan Naung of Prome. In 1375, Yan Naung proposed a marriage of state between his daughter and Pyanchi's son, Pyanchi II, with the marriage ceremony to be held in Prome (Pyay). Pyanchi understood the proposal of marriage to be the first step toward joint rebellion against Ava. A Toungoo-Prome axis backed by Pegu would form a formidable Lower Burma bulwark against Central Burma-based Ava. Pyanchi I agreed to the proposal, and went to Prome with a small battalion. It was a trap. The Toungoo contingent was ambushed near Prome, and Pyanchi was killed although his son and son-in-law Sokkate both escaped.

Even then, Ava still had little control. The Peguan army led by Commander Ma Sein remained in control of Toungoo before the city was retaken three months later. By then, Ava had sent three expeditions against Toungoo, causing widespread starvation in Toungoo. Swa allowed Pyanchi I's son Pyanchi II to take office in early 1376. But Pyanchi II was assassinated three years later by his brother-in-law Sokkate. Swa initially accepted Sokkate's allegiance in 1379/80 but changed his mind after Sokkate proved to be a tyrant. He had Sokkate assassinated by a spy of his, and appointed the assassin, Phaungga, in 1383. In Phaungga, Swa believed he finally had a trustworthy vassal at Toungoo.

At half-way point

By 1384, at the half way point of his 32-year reign, Swa had successfully consolidated his rule over Upper Burma. He faced no immediate internal or external threats. Lan Na and Arakan, were never a threat to Ava. In the south, King Binnya U of Pegu had died and his teenage son Razadarit was facing two major rebellions. Swa's main concern remained in the north, despite the uneasy truce that had held since 1373. He followed the developments in Yunnan where the Chinese Ming dynasty had been reestablishing Beijing's authority since 1380, and pressuring Shan migrations towards the Irrawaddy valley. According to Ming records, Swa asked China for a joint operation against the border Shan states but Burmese chronicles make no mention of such a request.

At any rate, he had helped restore a semblance of normalcy throughout the country. It was especially true in war-torn northern Burma (former Sagaing Kingdom) which had seen repeated Mongol and later Shan invasions since the late 13th century. Indeed, several paddy fields that had been since the Mongol invasions were restarted only in 1386. By all accounts, he had successfully established some degree of central control over his vassals, including Toungoo, by the eve of the war with Pegu. One notable natural disaster during the first half of his reign was a major earthquake that struck on 30 December 1372.

War with Pegu

Main article: Forty Years' War

Circa April 1385, he appointed his eldest son Min Na-Kye (Tarabya) heir-apparent. In a marriage of state, he married his son to his niece, daughter of Thilawa of Yamethin. Meanwhile, the king received an embassy from Gov. Laukpya of Myaungmya, seeking military assistance in exchange for his submission to Ava. Swa's acceptance of Laukpya's invitation resulted in the Forty Years' War between Ava and Pegu.

Initial invasions

At first, the Ava court, though still concerned about the situation in the north, believed that Lower Burma was winnable. The teenage king at Pegu barely controlled one out of the three Mon-speaking regions of Lower Burma. The southern Martaban province and the entire Irrawaddy delta had been essentially independent since 1363/64, and formally independent since Binnya U's death in 1384. All Ava needed to do, it seemed, was to take the Pegu province (present-day Yangon Region and southern Bago Region). The court advised Swa to accept Laukpya's offer.

In December 1385, Swa launched a two-pronged invasion of Lower Burma down the Irrawaddy and Sittaung rivers, and Laukpya sent in his navy from the delta. The two Ava armies (combined 13,000 men, 1000 cavalry, 40 elephants) were officially led by Swa's young sons, Crown Prince Tarabya, 17, and Prince Minkhaung of Pyinsi, 12; the youngsters were aided by Swa's two best generals, Thilawa and Theinkhathu. The invading armies, assisted by Laukpya's forces, went on to occupy much of the Pegu province but could not break through the Hmawbi-Pegu corridor for over five months. Then, Razadarit made a tactical error. The young king came out of Pegu, and counterattacked the Ava-occupied Fort Pankyaw. Ava forces nearly cornered Razadarit outside Pegu but Razadarit made it inside the capital due to Minkhaung's failure to follow orders.

It turned out to be the best shot Ava had at toppling Razadarit. The Ava armies would not come as close to defeating Razadarit until 1414-15. Swa decided to lead the next invasion in the following dry season himself. What was the largest mobilization yet, nearly 30,000 troops invaded by the Irrawaddy, and by land in late 1386. Swa led the riverborne invasion force (17,000 troops on 1000 small war boats, and 1200 cargo boats) while Tarabya led the army (12,000 troops, 600 cavalry, 40 elephants). Minkhaung stayed behind to guard the capital. This time, Peguan defenses were ready. Although they were outnumbered, Razadarit's over 11,000 troops staved off several Ava attacks at Dagon, Hlaing, Dala (modern Twante) and Hmawbi. The invaders once again had to retreat at the onset of the rainy season.


Swa was stunned by the failures, and paused the war effort to reassess. At any rate, he needed to deal with his northern border, as it was again restive. Perhaps encouraged by Ava's failures in the south, Maw was breaching Kalay's border. Ava had to send an army in 1387-88 to restore order. The situation remained tense until 1389/90 when Ava and Maw agreed to a truce. King Tho Ngan Bwa of Maw sent his daughter Shin Mi-Nauk to Ava in a marriage of state to Swa's second eldest son Minkhaung.

Meanwhile, Razadarit took full advantage of Ava's preoccupation in the north. In 1387-88, Razadarit managed to capture the Martaban province after a long invasion. By 1389, Razadarit felt ready to take on Ava's ally Laukpya, and invaded the Irrawaddy delta. As in Martaban, Razadarit was close to defeat when he pulled out a victory. The Pegu forces went on to occupy the entire delta, including Ava's territory, Gu-Htut (modern Myan-Aung).

Resumption and truce

Razadarit's occupation of Gu-Htut forced Swa's hand. In 1390, he launched another two-pronged invasion, again by the Irrawaddy and land. Just as in the second invasion, Swa himself led the 17,000-strong river-borne invasion forces and Tarabya led the 12,000-strong army by the Toungoo route. But unlike with the second invasion, the invaders faced unified more numerous southern forces. They could not even breach the border forts. The smaller Peguan navy held off repeated charges by the Ava navy near Gu-Htut. Likewise, Tarabya's army could not take Fort Pankyaw. Despite the success, the Pegu command decided to cede Gu-Htut in exchange for peace. It was a face-saving measure, and Swa accepted the deal.

The truce almost broke down the following dry season. Ava sent an army to Tharrawaddy (Thayawadi) in 1391-92 but Pegu sent a sizable force to the front. The fragile peace held.

Resumption of war with Maw

In the meantime, the fragile peace with Maw had broken down. The cause was again Myedu, the territory Ava wrested away from Maw two decades earlier. Maw forces occupied Myedu in 1392. In the dry season of 1392-93, Swa responded with a combined land and naval attack. But the army led by Theinkhathu Saw Hnaung and Tuyin was badly defeated, and chased all the way back to Sagaing. But Maw forces had overextended, and suddenly found themselves deep in central Burma. The Ava counterattack led by Thilawa wiped out all 15 regiments of the Maw army, at Shangon, 30 km northwest of Sagaing. After the crushing defeat, the Maw raids ended for the rest of Swa's reign.

Final years

The rest of his reign saw no more wars. He had successfully built a stable state in Upper Burma. After an impactful reign of 32 years, the king died in April 1400. He was succeeded by Tarabya. His formal royal titles were: Assapati Narapati Bhawa Natitya Pawara Dhamma-Raja and Siri Tiri Pawanaditya Pawara Pandita Dhamma-Raja.


Swa heavily relied on the advice of his court led by Chief Minister Min Yaza. He continued to employ Pagan's administrative model of solar polities in which the high king ruled the core while semi-independent tributaries, autonomous viceroys, and governors actually controlled day-to-day administration and manpower.


Swa left a unified Upper Burma although he could not restore the Pagan Empire. His 32-year reign brought much needed stability to Upper Burma. The stability in turn allowed the populace to repair the irrigation system, and reclaim much of the arable land which had lapsed into wilderness as the result of the Mongol invasions nearly a century earlier. This redevelopment recharged Upper Burma's economic and manpower that would allow Ava to pursue more expansionist policies by its later kings.


The king had several queens and at least 13 issue. Most chronicles say that his successor Tarabya was born to his chief queen consort Khame Mi. But the chronicle Yazawin Thit cites a 1401 inscription by Queen Shin Saw Gyi herself which says she was the mother of Tarabya.

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