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History of South East Asia

Southeast Asia represents a region of countries, each with unique characteristics but also having a shared set of experiences, influences, and struggles. These external influences, mainly from India (except for Vietnam which was influenced by China), have had a profound impact on culture and religious beliefs in this region. In the 19th Century through the Second World War, they all endured similar struggles as European colonies (with the exception of Thailand). Afterwards, they have wrestled with revolution, gaining independence, and attempting to establish new government administrations. Throughout its history, one can see that Southeast Asia has wrestled with holding to its traditions while adopting new ideas for a sustainable and brighter future, seeing that it can no longer maintain its old ways of doing things. It is remarkable to think that many countries have been independent for less than 100 years, so more transformation is expected as they each try to find their way forward.

The influence of India on Southeast Asia, sometimes called “Indianization”, began in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as Indian traders and priest-scholars brought various forms of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.1 This influence was not uniform across the region, and Indian culture was not completely adopted (such as the caste system), but it was significant as territories adopted different practices and incorporated doctrines into their own cultures. For example, while Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were adopted by the kings, courts, and priests, the peasants continued to believe in animism. Indian culture provided an already-developed set of doctrine and knowledge for Southeast Asians seeking new ideas that promised greater religious and secular power.1 China was another country that influenced Southeast, although not to a comparable extent as India. China had established tributary relationships with various Southeast Asian states. The states would act in Chinese interests and, in return, China would protect their interests against those who challenged them. China did have tremendous on one nation, Vietnam, which gained independence from China in 939. Vietnam copied much from China, such as Confucian values and administrative system, but maintained its own identity as well. It should also be noted that, by the 13th century, there was a spread of Islam into various parts of Southeast Asia from Arabia and India. As with Buddhism and Hinduism, it took hold in certain areas when adopted by a ruler and adapted to fit into local customs.2 It is the most widely practiced religion in Southeast Asia, with majorities in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand.3

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In its early history through to the 18th Century, Southeast Asia still had greater than 40 states - kingdoms, principalities, and sultanates. Various kingdoms rose and fell, expanded and contracted. Kingdoms of note include Nam-Viet (modern Vietnam), Khmer (modern Cambodia), and the Thais (modern Thailand). Warfare between these various kingdoms was an almost continual reality.4 Up until that time, there was very little colonial presence in Southeast Asia, limited to the Philippines and Java. Although it seems as though it happened early, more predominant colonization of Southeast Asian territories did not occur until the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) came under the Dutch government in 1800. Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore and Burma (now Myanmar) came fully under British rule in 1824. Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos came under French rule in 1863, 1887 and 1893, respectively. Brunei came under British rule in 1888. The major exception to this timeline were the Philippines, which came under Spanish rule in the 1500’s. The other exception is Thailand, which was never colonized by a Western power. Colonization caused three significant developments in this region. First, the European countries began to create borders that, for the most part, continue to be utilized today. Secondly, with the European powers gaining control of the majority of Southeast Asia, this called into question the locals’ traditional values and government administrations which proved inadequate in stemming back the European advance.1 Thirdly, it caused drastic changes to the economy. Southeast Asia changed from being a region in which exports played a very minor role, with subsistence farming being the predominant occupation, to being a major player in the world economy. The Industrial revolution caused a need by Europe and America for raw materials from SE Asia. This also caused significant migration to cities and its influence penetrated almost every part of SE Asia societies, except for most remote regions and populations

It must be noted that these economic changes in Southeast Asia were very imbalanced in Europe’s favor, and upon entering the 1920’s and 1930’s, energy and passion for independence increased. This was driven not just be a desire to be free from foreign rule, but also to establish a new nation where none had previously existed. This opened groups in each territory to unify not just by rejecting colonialism, but by embracing new political values. Some of these were from their past, but also some were received and adapted from Europe. For example, some saw Communism as the apparent answer to gaining independence, particularly by underprivileged and disadvantaged groups. The 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia caused great excitement and momentum in various parts of Southeast Asia.1 The hope for revolution and independence was further buoyed by Japanese advance in the second World War, by seeing that Asians could quickly and emphatically defeat colonial powers. With the end of World War II, revolution and revolt became a predominant feature in much of Southeast Asia but for different reasons, with difference circumstances, and at different times. For example, the Indonesia nationalist revolution shows that revolutions were not mounted only by Communists. Another example is that only Vietnam and Indonesia were forced to fight protracted wars in order to achieve independence.

In recent times, many countries in Southeast Asia have undergone major political changes and significant economic development in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty. Challenges continue, such as sustainable development, political stability, and policies and attitudes towards ethnic minorities. It is without a doubt that Southeast Asia will continue to be influenced by ideas brought from both insiders and outsiders, but will adapt these ideas and concepts to their own context and culture.


  1. Osborne, Milton, Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013

  2. https://asiasociety.org/education/introduction-southeast-asia

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Southeast_Asia

  4. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=2603&HistoryID=ac37&gtrack=pthc