History of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia can be studied as two distinct sub-regions: Mainland Southeast Asia (or Indochina), which comprises the modern states of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and West Malaysia, and Maritime Southeast Asia (or Insular Southeast Asia), which comprises the modern states of Indonesia, East Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, East Timor, Brunei, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and Christmas Island.[1][2]

The earliest Homo sapiens presence in Mainland Southeast Asia can be traced back to 50,000 years ago and to at least 40,000 years ago in Maritime Southeast Asia. As early as 10,000 years ago, Hoabinhian settlers had developed a tradition and culture of distinct artefact and tool production. During the Neolithic, Austroasiatic peoples populated Indochina via land routes and sea-borne Austronesian immigrants preferably settled in insular Southeast Asia. The earliest agricultural societies that cultivated millet and wet-rice emerged around 1700 BCE in the lowlands and river floodplains of Indochina.[3]

The Phung Nguyen culture (modern northern Vietnam) and the Ban Chiang site (modern Thailand) account for the earliest use of copper by around 2,000 BCE, followed by the Dong Son culture, who by around 500 BCE had developed a highly sophisticated industry of bronze production and processing. Around the same time the first Agrarian Kingdoms emerged where territory was abundant and favourable, such as Funan at the lower Mekong and Van Lang in the Red River delta.[4] Smaller and insular principalities increasingly engaged in and contributed to the rapidly expanding sea trade.

The history of Southeast Asia has been greatly influenced by its wide topographical diversity. Maritime Southeast Asia is apart from exceptions like Borneo and Sumatra a patchwork of recurring land-sea patterns on widely dispersed islands and archipelagos. A discontinuity,[5] that admitted moderately sized thalassocratic states indifferent to territorial ambitions where growth and prosperity was associated with sea trade. Mainland Southeast Asia with a continuous, but rugged and difficult terrain provided the basis for the early Khmer and Mon civilisations. However, an extensive coastline and the south—and south-eastbound major river systems of the Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong, and Red River always have directed focus, local trade, socio-cultural and economic activities towards the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.[6][7]

Since around 100 BCE the Southeast Asian archipelago occupied a central position at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea trading routes which immensely stimulated the economy and the influx of ideas promoted societal organisation and advance. Most local trading polities selectively adopted Indian Hindu elements of statecraft, religion, culture and administration during the early centuries of the common era, which marked the beginning of recorded history and the continuation of a characteristic cultural development. Chinese culture diffused more indirectly and sporadic as trade was based on land routes like the Silk Road. Long periods of Chinese isolationism and political relations that were confined to ritualistic tribute procedures prevented deep acculturation.[8][9]

Buddhism, particularly in Indochina began to affect the political structure beginning in the 8th to 9th centuries. Islam ideas arrived in insular Southeast Asia as early as the 8th century, where the first Muslim societies[10] emerged by the 13th century.[11][12]

The era of European colonialism, early Modernity and the Cold War era revealed the reality of limited political significance for the various Southeast Asian polities. Post-World War II national survival and progress required a modern state and a strong national identity.[13] Most modern Southeast Asian countries enjoy a historically unprecedented degree of political freedom and self-determination and have embraced the practical concept of intergovernmental co-operation within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.[14][15]


There are numerous ancient historic Asian designations for Southeast Asia, none are geographically consistent with each other. Names referring to Southeast Asia include Suvarnabhumi or Sovannah Phoum (Golden Land) and Suvarnadvipa (Golden Islands) in Indian tradition, the Lands below the Winds[16] in Arabia and Persia, Nanyang (South Seas) to the Chinese and Nanyo in Japan.[17] A 2nd-century world map created by Ptolemy of Alexandria names the Malay Peninsula as Avrea Chersonesvs, (Golden Peninsula).[18]

The term Southeast Asia has been coined to designate the area of operation (the South East Asia Command, SEAC) for Anglo-American forces in the Pacific Theater of World War II from 1941 to 1945.[19]



Anatomically modern human hunter-gatherer migration into Southeast Asia before 50,000 years ago has been confirmed by the combined fossil record of the region.[20] These immigrants might have, to a certain extent, merged and reproduced with members of the archaic population of Homo erectus, as the fossil discoveries in the Tam Pa Ling Cave suggest.[21] Data analysis of stone tool assemblages and fossil discoveries from Indonesia, Southern China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and more recently Cambodia[22] and Malaysia[23] has established Homo erectus migration routes and episodes of presence as early as 120,000 years ago and even older isolated finds date back to 1.8 million years ago.[24][25] Java Man (Homo erectus erectus) and Homo floresiensis attest for a sustained regional presence and isolation, long enough for notable diversification of the species' specifics.

Ocean drops of up to 120 m (393.70 ft) below the present level during Pleistocene glacial periods revealed the vast lowlands known as Sundaland, enabling hunter-gatherer populations to freely access insular Southeast Asia via extensive terrestrial corridors. Modern human presence in the Niah cave on East Malaysia dates back to 40,000 years BP, although archaeological documentation of the early settlement period suggests only brief occupation phases.[26] However, author Charles Higham argues that, despite glacial periods modern humans were able to cross the sea barrier beyond Java and Timor, who around 45,000 years ago left traces in the Ivane Valley in eastern New Guinea "at an altitude of 2,000 m (6,561.68 ft) exploiting yams and pandanus, hunting, and making stone tools between 43,000 and 49,000 years ago."[27]

The oldest habitation discovered in the Philippines is located at the Tabon Caves and dates back to approximately 50,000 years BP. Items there found such as burial jars, earthenware, jade ornaments and other jewellery, stone tools, animal bones, and human fossils date back to 47,000 years BP. Unearthed human remains are approximately 24,000 years old.[28]

Signs of an early tradition are discernible in the Hoabinhian, the name given to an industry and cultural continuity of stone tools and flaked cobble artefacts that appears around 10,000 BP in caves and rock shelters first described in Hòa Bình, Vietnam, later also documented in Terengganu, Malaysia, Sumatra, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Yunnan, southern China. Research emphasises considerable variations in quality and nature of the artefacts, influenced by region-specific environmental conditions and proximity and access to local resources. Remarkable is nonetheless that the Hoabinhian culture accounts for the first verified ritual burials in Southeast Asia.[29][30]

The descendants of these earliest Homo sapiens immigrants, loosely identified as "Australo-Melanesians", include the Negritos, Papuans, Indigenous Australians and Hill Tribes (most of them have Austronesian admixture in modern times). They are associated with the occupation of caves, rock shelters and isolated upland regions in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines or on remote islands, such as the Andaman Islands and although displaced from the coasts and plains they are present in all regions for at least 30,000 years.[31]

Neolithic Migrations

The Neolithic was characterized by several migrations into Mainland and Island Southeast Asia from southern China by Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Kra-Dai, and Hmong-Mien-speakers.[34]

The most widespread migration event, was the Austronesian expansion, which began at around 5,500 BP (3500 BC) from Taiwan and coastal southern China. Due to their early invention of ocean-going outrigger boats and voyaging catamarans, Austronesians rapidly colonized Island Southeast Asia, before spreading further into Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Madagascar, and the Comoros. They dominated the lowlands and coasts of Island Southeast Asia, intermarrying with the indigenous Negrito and Papuan peoples to varying degrees, giving rise to modern Islander Southeast Asians, Micronesians, Polynesians, Melanesians, and Malagasy.[35][36][37][38]

The Austroasiatic migration wave centred around the Mon and the Khmer, who originate in North-Eastern India arrive around 5000 BP and are identified with the settlement on the broad riverine floodplains of Burma, Indochina and Malaysia.[39]

Early agricultural societies

Territorial principalities in both Insular and Mainland Southeast Asia, characterised as Agrarian kingdoms[41] had by around 500 BCE developed an economy based on surplus crop cultivation and moderate coastal trade of domestic natural products. Several states of the Malayan-Indonesian "thalassian" zone[42] shared these characteristics with Indochinese polities like the Pyu city-states in the Irrawaddy river valley, Van Lang in the Red River delta and Funan around the lower Mekong.[4] Văn Lang, founded in the 7th century BCE endured until 258 BCE under the rule of the Hồng Bàng dynasty, as part of the Đông Sơn culture eventually sustained a dense and organised population, that produced an elaborate Bronze Age industry.[43][44]

Intensive wet-rice cultivation in an ideal climate enabled the farming communities to produce a regular crop surplus, that was used by the ruling elite to raise, command and pay work forces for public construction and maintenance projects such as canals and fortifications.[43][42]

Though millet and rice cultivation was introduced around 2000 BCE, hunting and gathering remained an important aspect of food provision, in particular in forested and mountainous inland areas. Many tribal communities of the aboriginal Australo-Melanesian settlers continued the lifestyle of mixed sustenance until the modern era.[45]

Two layer hypothesis

Between around 1,700 and 1,000 BC people settled in the Southeast Asian lowlands as wet-rice and millet farming techniques from the Yangtze River valley were adopted. Author and archaeologist Charles Higham suggests in his work "Hunter-Gatherers in Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to the Present" "the indigenous hunter-gatherers integrated with intrusive Neolithic communities and, while losing their cultural identity, contributed their genes to the present population of Southeast Asia." or alternatively the "hunter-gatherers withdrew to rainforest refugia and, through selective pressures inherent in such an environment, survived as the small-bodied, dark-skinned humans found to this day in the Philippines, Peninsular Malaysia and Thailand, and the Andaman Islands."[27] Unfortunately the Two layer hypothesis, based on the human occupation of mainland Southeast Asia during two distinct periods by two separate racial groups is only applicable when you know who really was involved in this integration process.[46] Immigration from China alongside the introduction of farming occurred and DNA testing calls for revision of Neolithic migrations.

Bronze Age Southeast Asia

Earliest known copper and bronze production in Southeast Asia has been found at the site of Ban Chiang in North-east Thailand and among the Phung Nguyen culture of northern Vietnam around 2000 BCE.[47]

The Dong Son culture established a tradition of bronze production and the manufacture of ever more refined bronze and iron objects, such as plows, axes and sickles with shaft holes, socketed arrow and spearheads and small ornamented items.[48] By about 500 BCE large and delicately decorated bronze drums of remarkable quality, that weighed more than 70 kg (150 lb) were produced in the laborious lost-wax casting process. This industry of highly sophisticated metal processing has been developed locally bare of Chinese or Indian influence. Historians relate these achievements to the presence of well organised, centralised and hierarchical communities and a large population.[49]

Pottery Culture

Between 1,000 BCE and 100 CE the Sa Huỳnh culture flourished along the south-central coast of Vietnam.[50] Ceramic jar burial sites, that included grave goods have been discovered at various sites along the entire territory. Among large, thin-walled, terracotta jars, ornamented and colourised cooking pots, glass items, jade earrings and metal objects had been deposited near the rivers and at the coast.[51]

The Buni culture is the name given to another early independent centre of refined pottery production that has been well documented on the basis of excavated burial gifts, deposited between 400 BCE and 100 CE in coastal north-western Java.[52] The objects and artefacts of the Buni tradition are known for their originality and remarkable quality of incised and geometric decors.[53] Its resemblance to the Sa Huỳnh culture and the fact that it represents the earliest Indian Rouletted Ware recorded in Southeast Asia are subject of ongoing research.[54]

Early historical era

Indianised kingdoms

Since around 500 B.C. Asia's expanding land and maritime trade had led to socio-economic interaction and cultural stimulation and diffusion of mainly Hindu beliefs into the regional cosmology of Southeast Asia.[55] Iron Age trade expansion caused regional geostrategic remodelling. Southeast Asia was now situated in the central area of convergence of the Indian and the East Asian maritime trade routes, the basis for economic and cultural growth. The concept of the Indianised kingdoms, a term coined by George Coedès, describes Southeast Asian principalities that since the early common era as a result of prolonged interaction had incorporated central aspects of Indian institutions, religion, statecraft, administration, culture, epigraphy, writing and architecture.[56][57]

The earliest Hindu kingdoms emerged in Sumatra and Java, followed by mainland polities such as Funan and Champa. Selective adoption of Indian civilisation elements and individual suitable adaption stimulated the emergence of centralised states and development of highly organised societies. Ambitious local leaders realised the benefits of Hindu worship. Rule in accord with universal moral principles represented in the concept of the devaraja was more appealing than the Chinese concept of intermediaries.[58][59][60]

The exact nature, process and extent of Indian influence upon the civilisations of the region is still fiercely debated by contemporary scholars. Debated are most claims over whether it was Indian merchants, Brahmins, nobles or Southeast Asian mariner-merchants who played a central role in bringing Indian conceptions to Southeast Asia. Debated is the depth of the influence of traditions for the people. Whereas early 20th-century scholars emphasised the thorough Indianisation of Southeast Asia, more recent authors argued that this influence was very limited and affected only a small section of the elite.[61][62]

Sea trade from China to India passed Champa, Funan at the Mekong Delta, proceeded along the coast to the Isthmus of Kra, portaged across the narrow and transhipped for distribution in India. This trading link boosted the development of Funan, its successor Chenla and the Malayan states of Langkasuka on the eastern and Kedah on the western coast.

Numerous coastal communities in maritime Southeast Asia adopted Hindu and Buddhist cultural and religious elements from India and developed complex polities ruled by native dynasties. Early Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia are 4th century Kutai that rose in East Kalimantan, Tarumanagara in West Java and Kalingga in Central Java.[63]

Early relations with China

Earliest attested trading contacts existed between Southeast Asia and the Chinese Shang dynasty (around 1600 BCE to around 1046 BCE), when cowry shells served as currency. Various natural products, such as ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoise shells, pearls and birds’ feathers found their way to Luoyang the capital of the Zhou dynasty, that lasted from 1050 to 771 BCE. Although knowledge about port localities and shipping lanes is very limited, it is assumed that most of this exchange took place on land routes and only a small percentage was shipped "on coastal vessels crewed by Malay and Yue traders".[64]

Military conquests during the short lived Han dynasty brought a number of foreign peoples within the Chinese empire when the Imperial Chinese tributary system began to evolve under Han rule. This tributary system was based on the Chinese worldview, that had developed under the Shang dynasty, in which China is deemed the center and apogee of culture and civilization, the Middle kingdom (Zhōngguó), surrounded by several layers of increasingly barbarous peoples.[65] Contact with Southeast Asia steadily increased by the end of the Han period.[64]

Spread of Buddhism

Local rulers have most benefited from the introduction of Hinduism during the early common era as it greatly enhanced the legitimacy of their reign. Historians increasingly argue, that the process of Hindu religious diffusion must be attributed to the initiative of the local chieftains. Buddhist teachings, that almost simultaneously arrived in Southeast Asia developed during the subsequent centuries an exalted distinction and eventually came to be perceived as more appealing to the demands of the general population, a belief system and philosophy that addresses concrete human affairs. Emperor Ashoka initiated the tradition to send trained monks and missionaries abroad who spread Buddhism, that includes a sizeable body of literature, oral traditions, iconography, art and offers guidance as it seeks to solve central existential questions with emphasis on individual effort and conduct.[66][67][68]

Between the 5th and the 13th century Buddhism flourished in Southeast Asia. By the 8th century the Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom emerged as a major trading power in central Maritime Southeast Asia and around the same period the Shailendra dynasty of Java extensively promoted Buddhist art that found its strongest expression in the vast Borobudur monument.[69] After the establishment of a new royal dynasty of provincial origin in the Khmer Empire the first Buddhist kings emerged during the 11th century.[70] Mahayana Buddhist ideas from India where the original Theravada Buddhism had already been replaced centuries ago took hold first in Southeast Asia. However, a pure form of Theravada Buddhist teachings had been preserved in Sri Lanka since the 3rd century. Pilgrims and wandering monks from Sri Lanka introduced Theravada Buddhism in the Pagan Empire of Burma, the Siamese Sukhothai Kingdom in Laos, the Lower Mekong Basin during Cambodia's dark ages and further into Vietnam and Insular Southeast Asia.[71]

Medieval history

Srivijaya on Sumatra island had developed into the dominant power of Maritime Southeast Asia by the 5th century. Its capital Palembang became a major seaport and functioned as an entrepot on the Spice Route between India and China. Srivijaya was also a notable centre of Vajrayana Buddhist learning and influence.[72] Around the 6th century CE, Malay merchants began sailing to Srivijaya where goods were transhipped directly on Sumatran ports. The winds of the Northeast Monsoon during October to December prevented sailing ships to proceed directly from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. The third system involved direct trade between the Indian and Chinese coasts during the Southwest Monsoon season. Srivijaya's wealth and influence faded when changes in nautical technology in the 10th century enabled Chinese and Indian merchants to ship cargo directly between their countries and also enabled the Chola state in southern India to carry out a series of destructive attacks on Srivijaya's possessions, ending Palembang's entrepot function.

From the 7th to 15th centuries Sumatra was ruled by kaleidoscope of Buddhist kingdoms, from Kantoli, Srivijaya, Malayu, Pannai and Dharmasraya kingdom. Most of its history from the 6th to 13th centuries, Sumatra was dominated by Srivijaya empire.

After the fall of Tarumanagara, West Java was ruled by Sunda Kingdom. While Central and Eastern Java was dominated by a kaleidoscope of competing agrarian kingdoms including the Sailendras, Mataram, Kediri, Singhasari, and finally Majapahit. In the 8th to 9th centuries, the Sailendra dynasty that ruled Medang i Bhumi Mataram kingdom built numbers of massive monuments in Central Java, includes Sewu and Borobudur temple.

In the Philippines, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription dating from 900 CE relates a granted debt from a Maginoo caste nobleman named Namwaran who lived in the historic Tondo which is now part of Manila area. This document mentions a leader of Medang in Java.

The Khmer Empire effectively dominated all Mainland Southeast Asia from the early 9th until the 15th century, during which time they developed a sophisticated monumental architecture of most exquisite expression and mastery of composition at Angkor. The distinct culture of the kingdom of Dvaravati first appeares in records around the 6th century. By the 10th century, Dvaravati had come under the influence of the Khmer Empire and by the 12th century Thai tribes had conquered the Chao Phraya River valley of modern-day central Thailand and established the local Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th century and the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 14th century.[73][74]

According to the Nagarakertagama, around the 13th century, Majapahit's vassal states spread throughout much of today's Indonesia, making it the largest empire ever to exist in Southeast Asia. The empire declined in the 15th century after the rise of Islamic states in coastal Java, Malay peninsula and Sumatra.

Spread of Islam

By the eight century, less than 200 years after the establishment of Islam in Arabia, the first traders and merchants who adhered to Mohammad's prophecies reportedly appeared in Maritime Southeast Asia. Certain is also, that Islam did not play a notable role anywhere in the archipelago or Indochina before the 13th century.[75] As it happened, widespread and gradual replacement of Hinduism by Theravada Buddhism reflected a popular desire for a more personal, introvert spirituality acquired through individual ritual activities and effort.[76][77]

In addressing the issue of how Islam was introduced into Southeast Asia, most historians have elaborated various scenarios along an Arabia to India and India to Southeast Asia sequence. Opinions vary on the identity and method of the agent. Either Arabian traders and scholars, who did not live or settle in India arrived directly in island Southeast Asia, or Arab traders, that had been settling in coastal India and Sri Lanka for generations. Muslim traders from India (Gujarat), converts of South Asian descend and ethnicity are variously considered as to have played a major role.[78][79]

A number of sources propose the South China Sea as another "route" of Islam introduction. Arguments for this hypothesis include:

  • Extensive trade between Arabia and China before the 10th century is well documented and has been corroborated by archaeological evidence (see: Belitung shipwreck).[80][81]
  • During the Mongol conquest and the subsequent rule of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) hundreds of thousands of Muslims entered China. In Yunnan Islam was propagated and commonly embraced.[82]
  • The Kufic Grave Stones in Champa are indices of an early and permanent Islamic community in Indochina.[83][84][85] The founder of the Demak Sultanate was of Sino-Javanese origin.[86][87]
  • Hui mariner Zheng He proposed ancient Chinese architecture as to be the stylistic basis for the oldest Javanese mosques during his 15th-century visit of Demak, Banten and the Panjunan Masjid in Cirebon.[75]

In a 2013 EU publication of the European Commission Forum an inclusive attitude is being maintained: "Islam spread in Southeast Asia via Muslims of diverse ethnic and cultural origins, from Middle Easterners, Arabs and Persians, to Indians, and even Chinese, all of whom followed the great commercial routes of the epoch."[88]

Research has several answers as to what caused the distinct syncretic (its modern expression is cultural Islam, as opposed to Middle Eastern and North African political Islam) Islam in Southeast Asia, that allowed the continuation and inclusion of elements and ritual practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and ancient Pan-East Asian Animism. Most principalities had developed highly distinctive cultures as a result of centuries of active participation in the cultural interchange and by borrowing from the flow of ideas that criss-crossed the archipelago, coming from across the Indian Ocean in the west and the South China Sea in the east. Cultural and institutional adoption was a creative and selective process, in which foreign elements were incorporated into a local synthesis.[89]

Unlike some other "Islamised" regions like North Africa, Iberia, the Middle East and later northern India, Islamic faith in Southeast Asia was not enforced in the wake of victorious territorial conquests, but followed trade routes as with the Islamisation of Turkic Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, southern India, north west China.

The idea of equality (before God) for the Ummat (the people of God) and a personal religious effort through regular prayer was more appealing to the average person than the perceived fatalism[90] of the Hindu pandemonium. However, Islam also taught obedience and submission, which guaranteed that the social structure of a converted people or political entity hardly saw any fundamental changes.[64]

There are various records of lay Muslim missionaries, scholars and mystics, particularly Sufis who were most active in bringing about a peaceful proselytisation. Java, for example "received Islam by nine very active men", who were referred to as "Wali Sanga" (Nine Saints), although the historical identity of such people is almost impossible to determine. The foundation of the first Islamic kingdom in Sumatra, the Samudera Pasai Sultanate took place during the 13th century.

Nagore Shahul Hamid (1504–1570), the "Qadir Wali" was a popular protector of sailors and seafarers. A simple ritual practice was maintained by Tamil Muslims in his shrine on the coast south of Madras. He attracted pilgrims from Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and anyone else who sought his aid.

Islam and its notion of exclusivity and finality is incompatible with all other religions and the Chinese concept of heavenly harmony and the Son of Heaven as the enforcer. The integration in the traditional East Asian tributary system with China at the centre Muslim Malays and Indonesians exacted a pragmatic approach of cultural Islam in diplomatic relations with China.[64]

The conversion of the remnants of the Buddhist Srivijaya empire, that once controlled trade in much of Southeast Asia and in particular the Strait of Malacca, marked a strategic turning point as this act turned the Strait into an Islamic water. With the fall of Srivijaya the way was open for effective and widespread proselytisation and the establishment of Muslim trading centres. Modern Malays view the Sultanate of Malacca, which existed from the 15th to the early 16th century as the first political entity of contemporary Malaysia.[91]

Chinese treasure voyages

By the end of the 14th century Ming China had conquered Yunnan in the South, yet had lost control of the Silk Road after the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. The ruling Yongle Emperor resolved to focus on the Indian Ocean sea routes seeking to consolidate the ancient Imperial Tributary System, establish greater diplomatic and military presence and widen the Chinese sphere of influence. He ordered the construction of a huge trade and representation fleet that, between 1405 and 1433, undertook several voyages into Southeast Asia, to India, the Persian Gulf and as far as East Africa. Under the leadership of Zheng He hundreds of naval vessels of then unparalleled size, grandeur and technological advancement and manned by sizeable military contingents, ambassadors, merchants, artists and scholars repeatedly visited several major Southeast Asian principalities. The individual fleets engaged in a number of clashes with pirates and occasionally supported various royal contenders. However, pro-expansionist voices at the court in Peking lost influence after the 1450s and the voyages were discontinued. The protraction of the ritualistic ceremonies and scanty travels of emissaries in the Tributary System alone was not sufficient to develop firm and lasting Chinese commercial and political influence in the region especially during the impending onset of highly competitive global trade.[92][93]

Early modern era

European colonisation

The earliest Europeans to have visited Southeast Asia were Marco Polo during the 13th century in the service of Kublai Khan and Niccolò de' Conti during the early 15th century. Regular and momentous voyages only began in the 16th century after the arrival of the Portuguese, who actively sought direct and competitive trade. They were usually accompanied by missionaries, who hoped to promote Christianity.[94][95]

Portugal was the first European power to establish a bridgehead on the lucrative maritime Southeast Asia trade route, with the conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511. The Netherlands and Spain followed and soon superseded Portugal as the main European powers in the region. In 1599, Spain began to colonise the Philippines. In 1619, acting through the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch took the city of Sunda Kelapa, renamed it Batavia (now Jakarta) as a base for trading and expansion into the other parts of Java and the surrounding territory. In 1641, the Dutch took Malacca from the Portuguese.[note 1] Economic opportunities attracted Overseas Chinese to the region in great numbers. In 1775, the Lanfang Republic, possibly the first republic in the region, was established in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, as a tributary state of the Qing Empire; the republic lasted until 1884, when it fell under Dutch occupation as Qing influence waned.[note 2]

The British, in the guise of the East India Company led by Josiah Child, had little interest or impact in the region, and were effectively expelled following the Anglo-Siamese War. Britain later turned their attention to the Bay of Bengal following the Peace with France and Spain (1783). During the conflicts, Britain had struggled for naval superiority with the French, and the need of good harbours became evident. Penang Island had been brought to the attention of the Government of India by Francis Light. In 1786, the settlement of George Town was founded at the northeastern tip of Penang Island by Captain Francis Light, under the administration of Sir John Macpherson; this marked the beginning of British expansion into the Malay Peninsula.[96][note 3]

The British also temporarily possessed Dutch territories during the Napoleonic Wars; and Spanish areas in the Seven Years' War. In 1819, Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a key trading post for Britain in their rivalry with the Dutch. However, their rivalry cooled in 1824 when an Anglo-Dutch treaty demarcated their respective interests in Southeast Asia. British rule in Burma began with the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826).

Early United States entry into what was then called the East Indies (usually in reference to the Malay Archipelago) was low key. In 1795, a secret voyage for pepper set sail from Salem, Massachusetts on an 18-month voyage that returned with a bulk cargo of pepper, the first to be so imported into the country, which sold at the extraordinary profit of seven hundred per cent.[97] In 1831, the merchantman Friendship of Salem returned to report the ship had been plundered, and the first officer and two crewmen murdered in Sumatra. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 obligated the Dutch to ensure the safety of shipping and overland trade in and around Aceh, who accordingly sent the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army on the punitive expedition of 1831. President Andrew Jackson also ordered America's first Sumatran punitive expedition of 1832, which was followed by a punitive expedition in 1838. The Friendship incident thus afforded the Dutch a reason to take over Ache; and Jackson, to dispatch diplomatist Edmund Roberts,[98] who in 1833 secured the Roberts Treaty with Siam. In 1856 negotiations for amendment of this treaty, Townsend Harris stated the position of the United States:

The United States does not hold any possessions in the East, nor does it desire any. The form of government forbids the holding of colonies. The United States therefore cannot be an object of jealousy to any Eastern Power. Peaceful commercial relations, which give as well as receive benefits, is what the President wishes to establish with Siam, and such is the object of my mission.[99]

From the end of the 1850s onwards, while the attention of the United States shifted to maintaining their union, the pace of European colonisation shifted to a significantly higher gear.

This phenomenon, denoted New Imperialism, saw the conquest of nearly all Southeast Asian territories by the colonial powers. The Dutch East India Company and British East India Company were dissolved by their respective governments, who took over the direct administration of the colonies. Only Thailand was spared the experience of foreign rule, though Thailand, too, was greatly affected by the power politics of the Western powers. The Monthon reforms of the late 19th Century continuing up till around 1910, imposed a Westernised form of government on the country's partially independent cities called Mueang, such that the country could be said to have successfully colonised itself.[100] Western powers did, however, continue to interfere in both internal and external affairs.[101][102]

By 1913, the British had occupied Burma, Malaya and the northern Borneo territories, the French controlled Indochina, the Dutch ruled the Netherlands East Indies while Portugal managed to hold on to Portuguese Timor. In the Philippines, the 1872 Cavite Mutiny was a precursor to the Philippine Revolution (1896–1898). When the Spanish–American War began in Cuba in 1898, Filipino revolutionaries declared Philippine independence and established the First Philippine Republic the following year. In the Treaty of Paris of 1898 that ended the war with Spain, the United States gained the Philippines and other territories; in refusing to recognise the nascent republic, America effectively reversed her position of 1856. This led directly to the Philippine–American War, in which the First Republic was defeated; wars followed with the Republic of Zamboanga, the Republic of Negros and the Republic of Katagalugan, all of which were also defeated.

Colonial rule had had a profound effect on Southeast Asia. While the colonial powers profited much from the region's vast resources and large market, colonial rule did develop the region to a varying extent. Commercial agriculture, mining and an export based economy developed rapidly during this period. The introduction Christianity bought by the colonist also have profound effect in the societal change.

Increased labour demand resulted in mass immigration, especially from British India and China, which brought about massive demographic change. The institutions for a modern nation state like a state bureaucracy, courts of law, print media and to a smaller extent, modern education, sowed the seeds of the fledgling nationalist movements in the colonial territories. In the inter-war years, these nationalist movements grew and often clashed with the colonial authorities when they demanded self-determination.

20th-century Southeast Asia

Japanese invasion and occupations

In September 1940, following the Fall of France and pursuant to the Pacific war goals of Imperial Japan, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Vichy French Indochina, which ended in the abortive Japanese coup de main in French Indochina of 9 March 1945. On 5 January 1941, Thailand launched the Franco-Thai War, ended on 9 May 1941 by a Japanese-imposed treaty signed in Tokyo.[103] On 7/8 December, Japan's entry into World War II began with the invasion of Thailand, the only invaded country to maintain nominal independence, due to her political and military alliance with the Japanese—on 10 May 1942, her northwestern Payap Army invaded Burma during the Burma Campaign. From 1941 until war's end, Japanese occupied Cambodia, Malaya, and the Philippines, which ended in independence movements. Japanese occupation of the Philippines led to the forming of the Second Philippine Republic, formally dissolved in Tokyo on 17 August 1945. Also on 17 August, a proclamation of Indonesian Independence was read at the conclusion of Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies since March 1942.

Post-war decolonisation

With the rejuvenated nationalist movements in wait, the Europeans returned to a very different Southeast Asia after World War II. Indonesia declared independence on 17 August 1945 and subsequently fought a bitter war against the returning Dutch; the Philippines was granted independence by the United States in 1946; Burma secured their independence from Britain in 1948, and the French were driven from Indochina in 1954 after a bitterly fought war (the Indochina War) against the Vietnamese nationalists. The United Nations provided a forum for nationalism, post-independent self-definition, nation-building and the acquisition of territorial integrity for many newly independent nations.[104]

During the Cold War, countering the threat of communism was a major theme in the decolonisation process. After suppressing the communist insurrection during the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, Britain granted independence to Malaya and later, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 1957 and 1963 respectively within the framework of the Federation of Malaysia. In one of the most bloody single incidents of violence in Cold War Southeast Asia, General Suharto seized power in Indonesia in 1965 and initiated a massacre of approximately 500,000 alleged members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

Following the independence of the Indochina states with the battle of Dien Bien Phu, North Vietnamese attempts to conquer South Vietnam resulted in the Vietnam War. The conflict spread to Laos and Cambodia and heavy intervention from the United States. By the war's end in 1975, all these countries were controlled by communist parties. After the communist victory, two wars between communist states—the Cambodian–Vietnamese War of 1975–89 and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979—were fought in the region. The victory of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia resulted in the Cambodian genocide.[105][106]

In 1975, Portuguese rule ended in East Timor. However, independence was short-lived as Indonesia annexed the territory soon after. However, after more than 20 years of fighting Indonesia, East Timor won its independence and was recognised by the UN in 2002. Finally, Britain ended its protectorate of the Sultanate of Brunei in 1984, marking the end of European rule in Southeast Asia.

Contemporary Southeast Asia

Modern Southeast Asia has been characterised by high economic growth by most countries and closer regional integration. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have traditionally experienced high growth and are commonly recognised as the more developed countries of the region. As of late, Vietnam too had been experiencing an economic boom. However, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and the newly independent East Timor are still lagging economically.

On 8 August 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded by Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Since Cambodian admission into the union in 1999, East Timor is the only Southeast Asian country that is not part of ASEAN, although plans are under way for eventual membership. The association aims to enhance co-operation among Southeast Asian community. ASEAN Free Trade Area has been established to encourage greater trade among ASEAN members. ASEAN has also been a front runner in greater integration of Asia-Pacific region through East Asia Summits.

See also


  1. For fifty or sixty years, the Portuguese enjoyed the exclusive trade to China and Japan. In 1717, and again in 1732, the Chinese government offered to make Macao the emporium for all foreign trade, and to receive all duties on imports; but, by a strange infatuation, the Portuguese government refused, and its decline is dated from that period. (Roberts, 2007 PDF image 173 p. 166)
  2. Other experiments in republicanism in adjacent regions were the Japanese Republic of Ezo (1869) and the Republic of Taiwan (1895).
  3. Company agent John_Crawfurd used the census taken in 1824 for a statistical analysis of the relative economic prowess of the peoples there, giving special attention to the Chinese: The Chinese amount to 8595, and are landowners, field-labourers, mechanics of almost every description, shopkeepers, and general merchants. They are all from the two provinces of Canton and Fo-kien, and three-fourths of them from the latter. About five-sixths of the whole number are unmarried men, in the prime of life : so that, in fact, the Chinese population, in point of effective labour, may be estimated as equivalent to an ordinary population of above 37,000, and, as will afterwards be shown, to a numerical Malay population of more than 80,000! (Crawfurd image 48. p.30)


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