Short History of Southeast Asia

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,


The history of Southeast Asia has been characterized as interaction between regional players and foreign powers. Though 11 countries currently make up the region, the history of each country is intertwined with all the others. For instance, the Malay empires of Srivijaya and Malacca covered modern day Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore while the Burmese, Thai, and Khmer peoples governed much of Indochina. At the same time, opportunities and threats from the east and the west shaped the direction of Southeast Asia. The history of the countries within the region only started to develop independently of each other after European colonialisation was at full steam between the 17th and the 20th century.


Evidences suggest that the earliest non-aboriginal Southeast Asians came from southern China and were Austronesian speakers. Contemporary research by anthropologists, linguists (and archaeologists suggests that the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago migrated from southern China to islands of the Philippines around 2,500 BC and later spread to modern day Malaysia and Indonesia.

The earliest population of Southeast Asia was animist before Hinduism and Buddhism were exported from the Indian subcontinent. Islam arrived mostly through Indian Muslims and later dominated much of the archipelago around the 13th century while Christianity came along when European colonization started around the 16th century. During the classical age, the existence of Southeast Asia had been known to the Greeks. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy in his Geographia named the Malay Peninsula as Aurea Chersonesus (Golden Peninsula) while Java was called Labadius. Labadius was probably a corruption of Sanskrit Yavadvipa which refers to the same island. An ancient Hindu text may have earlier referred to Southeast Asia as Suvarnabhumi which means land of gold.

The region has been an important source of spices and this was one of the reasons European explorers were attracted to the Far East. During the colonization period, states of the region became important assets to the British, the Dutch and the French. British Malaya for instance was the world’s largest producer of tin and rubber while the Dutch East Indies was the source of Dutch’s wealth.

During the 1990s, Southeast Asia emerged as the fastest growing economy in the world. Its successes have caused some to call Southeast Asia an economic miracle and Singapore one of the "Four Asian Tigers". Though the Asian Financial Crisis struck in the late 1990s and left many crippled, the economy of the region has started to pick up again at a more sustainable rate as demand from the United States and People’s Republic of China soar.

Ancient and classical kingdoms

Southeast Asia has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The communities in the region evolved to form complex cultures with varying degrees of influence from India and China.

The ancient kingdoms can be grouped into two distinct categories. The first is agrarian kingdoms. Agrarian kingdoms had agriculture as the main economic activity. Most agrarian states were located in mainland Southeast Asia. Examples are the Ayutthaya Kingdom, based on the Chao Phraya River delta and the Khmer Empire on the Tonle Sap. The second type is maritime states. Maritime states were dependent on sea trade. Malacca and Srivijaya were maritime states.

A succession of trading systems dominated the trade between China and India. First, goods were shipped through Funan to the Isthmus of Kra, portaged across the narrow, and then transhipped for India and points west. Around the sixth century, BC merchants began sailing to Srivijaya where goods were transhipped directly. The limits of technology and contrary winds during parts of the year made it difficult for the ships of the time to proceed directly from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. The third system involved direct trade between the Indian and Chinese coasts.

Very little is known about Southeast Asian religious beliefs and practices before the advent of Indian merchants and religious influences from the second century BC onwards. Prior to the 13th century, Buddhism and Hinduism were the main religions in Southeast Asia.

The first dominant power to arise in the archipelago was Srivijaya in Sumatra. From the fifth century BC, the 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. Srivijaya’s wealth and influence faded when changes in nautical technology in the tenth century CE 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.

In the Philippines, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription dating from 900 BC relates a granted debt from a Maharlika caste nobleman named Namwaran who lived in the Manila area. This document shows strong Srivijayan influence, and mentions a leader of Medan, Sumatra.

Java was dominated by a kaleidoscope of competing agrarian kingdoms including the Sailendras, Mataram,Singosari, and finally Majapahit.

European colonization

Europeans first came to Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century. It was the lure of trade that brought Europeans to Southeast Asia while missionaries also tagged along the ships as they hoped to spread Christianity into the region.

Portugal was the first European power to establish a bridgehead into the lucrative 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. The Dutch took over Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641 while Spain began to colonize the Philippines (named after Phillip II of Spain) from 1560s. Acting through the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch established the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) as a base for trading and expansion into the other parts of Java and the surrounding territory.

Britain, in the form of the British East India Company, came relatively late onto the scene. Starting with Penang, the British began to expand their Southeast Asian empire. They also temporarily possessed Dutch territories during the Napoleonic Wars, 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. From the 1850s onwards, the pace of colonization 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, although, Thailand itself was also greatly affected by the power politics of the Western powers.

By 1913, the British occupied Burma, Malaya and the 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, Filipino revolutionaries declared independence from Spain in 1898 but was handed over to the United States despite protests as a result of the Spanish-American War.

Colonial rule 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. 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.

Japanese colonization

During World War II, the region was invaded by the Japanese Imperial Army and included in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Thailand was the only country to maintain a nominal independence by making a political and military alliance with the Empire of Japan.


With the rejuvenated nationalist movements in wait, the Europeans returned to a very different Southeast Asia after World War II. Indonesia declared independence in 17 August 1945 and subsequently fought a bitter war against the returning Dutch; the Philippines were granted independence in 1946. Burma secured their independence from Britain in 1948, and the French were driven from Indochina in 1954 after a bitterly fought war against the Vietnamese nationalists. The newly-established United Nations provided a forum both for nationalist demands and for the newly demanded independent nations.

During the Cold War, countering the threat of communism was a major theme in the decolonization 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 Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

The United States intervention against communist forces in Indochina during a conflict commonly referred to in the United States as the Vietnam War meant that Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had to go through a prolonged and protracted war in their route to independence.

In 1975, Portuguese rule ended in East Timor. However, independence was short-lived as Indonesia annexed the territory soon after. 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 characterized 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 recognized 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 August 8, 1967, 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 cooperation 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.

Short History of Southeast Asia

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