Southeast Asia, history of

Southeast Asia, history of


      history of the area from prehistoric times to the contemporary period.

Early society and accomplishments

      Knowledge of the early prehistory of Southeast Asia (Southeast Asia, history of) has undergone exceptionally rapid change as a result of archaeological discoveries made since the 1960s, although the interpretation of these findings has remained the subject of extensive debate. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the region has been inhabited from the earliest times. Hominid fossil remains date from approximately 1,500,000 years ago, and those of Homo sapiens from approximately 40,000 years ago. Furthermore, until about 7000 BC the seas were some 150 feet (50 metres) lower than they are now, and the area west of Makassar Strait consisted of a web of watered plains that sometimes is called Sundaland. These land connections perhaps account for the coherence of early human development observed in the Hoabinhian age, which lasted from about 13,000 to 5000 or 4000 BC. The stone tools used by hunting and gathering societies across Southeast Asia during this period show a remarkable degree of similarity in design and development. When the sea level rose to approximately its present level about 6000 BC, conditions were created for a more variegated environment and, therefore, for more extensive differentiation in human development. While migration from outside the region may have taken place, it did not do so in a massive or clearly punctuated fashion; local evolutionary processes and the circulation of peoples were far more powerful forces in shaping the region's cultural landscape.

Technological developments and population expansion
      Perhaps because of a particular combination of geophysical and climatic factors, early Southeast Asia did not develop uniformly in the direction of increasingly complex societies. Not only have significant hunting and gathering populations continued to exist into the 20th century, but the familiar cultural sequences triggered by such events as the discovery of agriculture or metallurgy do not seem to apply. This is not to say that the technological capabilities of early Southeast Asian peoples were negligible, for sophisticated metalworking (bronze) and agriculture (rice) were being practiced by the end of the third millennium BC in northeastern Thailand and northern Vietnam, and sailing vessels of advanced design and sophisticated navigational skills were spread over a wider area by the same time or earlier. Significantly, these technologies do not appear to have been borrowed from elsewhere but were indigenous and distinctive in character.

      These technological changes may partially account for two crucial developments in Southeast Asia's later prehistory. The first is the extraordinary seaborne expansion (human migration) of speakers of Proto-Austronesian languages and their descendants, speakers of Austronesian (or Malayo-Polynesian) languages, which occurred over a period of 5,000 years or more and came to encompass a vast area and to stretch nearly half the circumference of the Earth at the Equator. This outward movement of people and culture was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the result of societal preference for small groups and a tendency of groups to hive off once a certain population size had been reached. It began as early as 4000 BC, when Taiwan was populated from the Asian mainland, and subsequently it continued southward through the northern Philippines (3rd millennium BC), central Indonesia (2nd millennium BC), and western and eastern Indonesia (2nd and 1st millennia BC). From approximately 1000 BC on the expansion continued both eastward into the Pacific—where that immense region was populated in a process continuing to about AD 1000 as voyagers reached the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand—and westward—where Malay peoples reached and settled the island of Madagascar sometime between AD 500 and 700, bringing with them (among other things) bananas, which are native to Southeast Asia. Thus, for a considerable period of time, the Southeast Asian region contributed to world cultural history, rather than merely accepting outside influences, as frequently has been suggested.

      The second development, which began possibly as early as 1000 BC, centred on the production of fine bronze (Bronze Age) and the fashioning of bronze-and-iron (Iron Age) objects, particularly as they have been found at the site in northern Vietnam known as Dong Son (Dong Son culture). The earliest objects consisted of socketed plowshares and axes, shaft-hole sickles, spearheads, and such small items as fishhooks and personal ornaments. By about 500 BC the Dong Son culture began producing the bronze drums for which it is known. The drums are large objects (some weigh more than 150 pounds [70 kilograms]), and they were produced by the difficult lost-wax (lost-wax process) casting process and decorated with fine geometric shapes and depictions of animals and humans. This metal industry was not derived from similar industries in China or India. Rather, the Dong Son period offers one of the most powerful—though not necessarily the only or earliest—examples of Southeast Asian societies transforming themselves into more densely populated, hierarchical, and centralized communities. Since typical drums, either originals or local renditions, have been found throughout Southeast Asia and since they are associated with a rich trade in exotics and other goods, the Dong Son culture also suggests that the region as a whole consisted not of isolated, primitive niches of human settlement but of a variety of societies and cultures tied together by broad and long-extant trading patterns. Although none of these societies possessed writing, some displayed considerable sophistication and technological skill; and, although none appears to have constituted a territorial, centralized state, new and more complex polities were forming.

Influence of China and India
      Between approximately 150 BC and AD 150, most of Southeast Asia was first influenced by the more mature cultures of its neighbours to the north and west. Thus began a process that lasted for the better part of a millennium and fundamentally changed Southeast Asia. In some ways the circumstances were very different. China, concerned about increasingly powerful chiefdoms in Vietnam disturbing its trade, encroached into the region and by the end of the 1st century BC had incorporated it as a remote province of the Han empire. For generations, the Vietnamese opposed Chinese rule, but they were unable to gain their independence until AD 939. From India, however, there is no evidence of conquests, colonization, or even extensive migration. Indians came to Southeast Asia, but they did not come to rule; and no Indian power appears to have pursued an interest in controlling a Southeast Asian power from afar, a factor that may help to explain why only the Vietnamese accepted the Chinese model. Yet, in other ways the processes of Indianization and Sinicization were remarkably similar. Southeast Asia already was socially and culturally diverse, making accommodation easy. Furthermore, indigenous peoples shaped the adaption and adoption of outside influences and, indeed, seem to have sought out concepts and practices that enhanced rather than redirected changes already underway in their own societies. They also rejected some components: for example, some of the vocabulary and general theories related to the Indian notions of social hierarchy were borrowed but much of the specific practices were not, and neither Indian nor Chinese views of women as socially and legally inferior were accepted. In the later stages of the assimilation process—particularly in the Indianized areas—local syncretism often produced exuberant variations, which, despite familiar appearances, were expressions of local genius rather than just inspired borrowings.

      Still, Chinese and Indian influences were anything but superficial. They provided writing systems and literature, systems of statecraft, and concepts of social hierarchy and religious belief, all of which were both of intrinsic interest and pragmatic significance to Southeast Asians of the day. For elites seeking to gain and retain control over larger and more complex populations, the applications of these ideas were obvious; but it would also seem that the sheer beauty and symbolic power of Hindu and Buddhist arts tapped a responsive vein in the Southeast Asian soul. The result was an imposing array of architectural (architecture) and other cultural wonders, at first very much in the Indian image and hewing close to current styles and later in more original, indigenous interpretations. The seriousness and profundity with which all this activity was undertaken is unmistakable. By the 7th century AD Palembang in southern Sumatra was being visited by Chinese and other Buddhist devotees from throughout Asia, who came to study doctrine and to copy manuscripts in institutions that rivaled in importance those in India itself. Later, beginning in the 8th century, temple and court complexes of surpassing grandeur and beauty were constructed in central Java, Myanmar, and Cambodia; the Borobudur of the Śailendra dynasty in Java, the myriad temples of the Burman dynastic capital of Pagan, and the monuments constructed at Angkor during the Khmer empire in Cambodia rank without question among the glories of the ancient world.

Rise of indigenous states
      In the realm of politics, Indian influence accompanied the rise of new political entities, which, since they do not readily fall under the Western rubric of “states,” have been called mandalas. The mandala was not so much a territorial unit as a fluid field of power that emanated, in concentric circles, from a central court and depended for its continued authority largely on the court's ability to balance alliances and to influence the flow of trade and human resources. Such a conception of political organization already had surfaced among Southeast Asians, but Indian civilization provided powerful metaphors for the change underway and for ways of extending it. The mandala was the predominant form of the Southeast Asian state until it was displaced in the 19th century.

      Between approximately the 2nd century BC and the 6th century AD, mandala polities appeared throughout Southeast Asia in the major river valleys and at strategic landfalls for sea traffic—generally, locations where routes for local and international trade crossed. These communities took different forms, depending on their physical setting. For example, walled and moated settlements predominated in much of the mainland but do not seem to have been constructed in insular Southeast Asia. Yet they served similar purposes to and frequently shared characteristics with mandalas in the same immediate region. Mandala sites have been located in the Mekong, Chao Phraya, and Irrawaddy river valleys; along the coasts of central Vietnam, western and northern Java, and eastern Borneo; and on the Isthmus of Kra. One of the most intriguing sites, called Oc Eo, is in the Mekong delta region of southern Vietnam. This port settlement, which flourished between the 1st and 6th centuries AD amid a complex of other settlements connected by canals (some up to 60 miles long), was not only an extraordinarily rich emporium dealing in articles from as far as Rome and inner Asia, but it was also a local manufacturing centre producing its own jewelry, pottery, and other trade goods. Almost certainly it also fed itself from wet-rice agriculture practiced in the surrounding delta. Little is known, however, about the nature of state structure in Oc Eo, although it seems to have been one of—and perhaps was prime among—an assemblage of local mandala-type principalities.

      After the 6th century there emerged a number of larger and more powerful mandala states, principally in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sumatra, and Java. Often designated kingdoms or empires, these states nevertheless functioned and were structured upon the same principles that had governed their predecessors. They were, in some respects, unstable and prone to fluctuation because of shifting relations with outside powers and constant internal struggles for the position of overlordship, but they also were remarkably durable. No two states were exactly alike, each occupying a particular ecological niche and exploiting a particular combination of opportunities to survive by trade, agriculture, and war. The cultural impact of their courts long outlasted their political grasp and continued to inform their societies until modern times. Perhaps the outstanding example of this durability is Śrīvijaya (Śrivijaya empire), the great Sumatran trading “empire” that dominated much of Southeast Asian commerce from about the 7th to the 13th century. Śrīvijaya does not appear to have been heavily urbanized or to have had a continuously occupied capital during its roughly 700 years of existence, nor does it seem to have possessed boundaries and clearly delineated territories. Its armies, while they could be mustered and quickly dispatched overseas, were weapons of limited use. Instead, Śrīvijaya maintained its authority in a shifting and extremely varied trading world largely by means of a shrewd brand of cultural and economic politics that involved, among other things, offering a protective and mutually beneficial trading environment to all comers and maintaining a courtly culture from which the idiom of overlordship issued grandly and convincingly. Śrīvijaya was ruled by a formula supple enough to attract trade from all quarters and to exploit it at the same time.

 Whatever the achievements of Śrīvijaya, the Khmer (Cambodian) state that flourished in the Tonle Sap region roughly between the 9th and mid-13th centuries is widely regarded as the most impressive of the concentrically arranged ancient Southeast Asian states. This admiration largely stems from the state's extensive architectural remains, including the renowned Angkor Thom (see photograph—>) and Angkor Wat temple complexes. In many respects, however, the Angkorian imperial achievement was singular. Though informed by the mandala paradigm, the Khmer carried it further and shaped it more distinctively than other Southeast Asians before or since. Not only was the devarāja (“a god who is king”) cult a Khmer innovation, but the Khmer also uniquely transformed their physical environment to support their state. They created what may be the ancient world's most intricate and capacious system of water catchment and dispersal, making it possible to grow three or even four crops of rice annually in an area not especially hospitable to raising even one. At its zenith, Angkor may have supported a population of one million in a relatively small area, with an elite apparatus and a population of bondsmen far greater than any of Cambodia's neighbours. In achieving this, however, the Khmer state surrendered the flexibility and balance critical to the mandala pattern and eventually fell victim to its own brittleness. Other concentric states in early Southeast Asia rose and fell; the Khmer proved unable to revive theirs once it had fallen.

The Classical period

Components of a new age
      By about 1300 much of Southeast Asia had entered a period of transition from ancient times. No single factor can account for the disruption, which lasted longer in some places than in others. The Mongol attacks of the second half of the 13th century and the disintegration of Khmer and Śrīvijayan power undoubtedly were of significance, but less dramatic changes, such as slowly changing trade patterns and political competition, may also have played an important role. Whatever the case, the shifts were not of a type or severity to bring about major disruptions; they instead paved the way for the coalescing of what can best be termed a classical age. In this period the major civilizations of Southeast Asia achieved a broader influence and greater coherence than before. They integrated rival political and cultural forms into their own, and the patterns they established were widely imitated by smaller powers that were drawn into their orbit. Regional and international trade reached a high level of development, bringing greater well-being to larger numbers of Southeast Asians than ever before. It also was an age of great change and challenges—especially in the form of new and often foreign religious, political, and economic influences—and one of constant warfare. But it was a measure of the confidence and balance of the era that these influences were absorbed and digested with little difficulty, leaving more than a millennium of creative synthesis essentially undisturbed until as late as the end of the 18th century. Many Southeast Asian civilizations can be said to have reached their definitive premodern shape during this “golden” age, which also is modern scholarship's best source of information on the classical cultures of the region before the ravages of 19th- and 20th-century colonialism.

State and society
      There were five major powers in Southeast Asia between the 14th and 18th centuries: Myanmar under the rulers of Ava (1364–1752), especially the Toungoo Dynasty during most of that period; an independent Vietnam under the Later Le Dynasty (1428–1788); the Tai state of Ayutthaya, or Ayudhia (1351–1767); Majapahit (Majapahit empire), centred on Java (1292–c. 1527); and Malacca (Melaka) centred on the Malay Peninsula (c. 1400–1511). Particularly with the waning of Indian influence (the last known Sanskrit inscription dates from the late 13th century), each power had developed in distinctive ways: more than ever, what constituted being “Javanese” or “Burman,” for example, was taking focus, and the Vietnamese, too, sought to clarify what was their own as opposed to what was Chinese. Remarkably enough, the process by which this was accomplished was characterized not by elimination or purification but by absorption. The syncretic powers developed in earlier periods had by no means weakened. The Tai, comparative newcomers, absorbed much of Khmer civilization during this period and, beginning with their written language, shaped it to their requirements. The Burmans absorbed Mon civilization in a similar fashion, and the Javanese of Majapahit could not help but make adjustments with the Malay and other cultures of the archipelago that they came to dominate. Even the Vietnamese, who had decided after several generations of struggle to adopt the outlines of a Confucian state that they had inherited from China, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries not only modified that model but also absorbed important influences from the culture of the Cham, an Indianized people whose kingdom, Champa, they had decisively (though not finally) defeated in 1471. This integrative approach may not have represented a conclusive departure from the behaviour of the ancient mandala states, but it does seem to have sustained larger and more far-reaching states, as well as richer and more complex elite cultures.

      At the same time, however, a galaxy of smaller states appeared, some of them very powerful for their size and all of them ambitious. These states were especially numerous in insular Southeast Asia, where Aceh, Bantam (Banten), Makasar (Macassar), and Ternate were only the most prominent of many such Islāmic sultanates; on the mainland, Chiang Mai (Chiengmai), Luang Prabang, and Pegu at various times during the period were powerful enough to be taken seriously. They both imitated and contributed to the court cultures of their larger neighbours and made alliances, war, and peace with many powers. Above all, these states participated in a dynamic and prosperous trade, not merely in exotics or high-value goods (such as gems and metal items) but in such relatively mundane goods as salted dried fish, ceramics, and rice. While institutions of servitude were structured somewhat differently from those of the West, there was no mistaking that a lively trade in human beings prized for their labour or craftsmanship took place. The proliferation of states and the rapid growth of an accompanying intricate web of local cultural and commodity exchange laid the foundation for both greater local autonomy and increased regional interdependency.

      The dynamics of regional trade brought change to most Southeast Asian societies during this period. These changes were by no means uniform; the effect on hill tribes subject to periodic raiding, for example, was understandably different from that on coastal communities suddenly wealthy from trade. In some instances the alterations must have been dramatic: the native sago diet of many inhabitants of the Moluccas (Maluku) region, for example, was displaced by one based on rice brought from Java, more than 1,500 miles to the west. Yet it does seem that some changes were felt widely, especially in the larger states. Perhaps the most important was that, while old ideas of kingship and sovereignty were cultivated, in reality much power—and in some places critical power—had fallen into the hands of a merchant class. The royal courts themselves often dabbled in trade to an unprecedented degree. It perhaps is not accurate to say that kingship as an institution was weakening, but the courts, particularly in insular Southeast Asia, became more complicated centres of elite power.

      Urbanization was another development of importance. Although some societies, notably that of the Javanese, seem not to have been affected, the growth of large and densely populated centres was a widespread phenomenon. By the 16th century some of these rivaled all but the very largest European cities. Malacca, for example, may have had a population of 100,000 (including traders) in the early 16th century; in Europe only Naples, Paris, and perhaps London were larger at that time. Finally, Southeast Asians during the 16th and 17th centuries appear to have enjoyed good health, a varied diet, and a comparatively high standard of living, especially when compared with most of the population of Europe of the same period.

Religion and culture
      New religions appeared in Southeast Asia, accompanying the currents of trade and often entwined with social changes already underway. Gradually, in most areas, these religions filled the gaps left by weakening local Hindu-Buddhist establishments and beliefs, and by the mid-18th century the region had assumed something much like its modern religious configuration. On the mainland, Theravāda (Theravada) Buddhism, which had been making inroads in Cambodia since the 11th century, underwent revitalization, the result especially of royal patronage and direct contact with Theravāda monasteries in Sri Lanka. Both the general idiom and many precepts of Theravāda already were familiar in Indianized societies, making this a gentle, nearly silent revolution that despite its subtlety was no less important. In Ayutthaya and the other Tai kingdoms and in the Mon-Burman states, Theravāda Buddhism buoyed the kingship and introduced a vigorous intellectual leadership; it also spread broadly among the populace and thus played an important role as a cohesive social and cultural force from which the people of modern Thailand and Myanmar later were to draw much of their sense of identity.

       Christianity made its appearance in the early 16th century, brought by the Portuguese, Spanish, and, somewhat later, the French. It spread easily in the northern Philippines, where Spanish missionaries did not have to compete with an organized religious tradition and could count on the interested support of a government bent on colonization. Unlike the religions with which Southeast Asia had been familiar, Christianity showed no interest in syncretic accommodation of local animist or other beliefs. The Spanish friars rooted out whatever they could find in the way of indigenous tradition, destroying much of cultural value, including, it appears, a native writing system. By the 18th century, most of the Philippines, except the Muslim south, was Roman Catholic, and a society that was both Filipino and Christian had begun to evolve. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, however—with the exception of Vietnam and parts of the Moluccas island group of eastern Indonesia—Christianity attracted little interest. It did not go unopposed and was resisted, for example, by Buddhist monks in Thailand and Cambodia in the 16th century, but Christian doctrines do not appear to have attracted the general populace. There were few conversions, and rulers were not unduly disturbed by the presence of missionaries, except on occasions when they were accompanied by political and economic adventurers; these people were crushed.

      Islām (Islāmic world), however, captured the imagination of Southeast Asians in the archipelago. It was proselytized primarily by Malacca and Aceh after 1400 and by the late 17th century was the dominant faith from the western tip of Sumatra to the Philippine island of Mindanao. The conversion process was gradual, for Muslim traders from the Middle East and India long had traveled the sea route to China; it seems likely that they traded and settled in the port cities of Sumatra and Java as early as the 9th or 10th century. Perhaps as a result of weakening of the Hindu-Buddhist courts and the rise of smaller, independently minded trading states and social classes, Islām made important inroads among both ruling elites and others.

      Conversion was comparatively easy and promised certain practical advantages, especially in trade, to members of the Islāmic community (the ummah). In addition, Islām was itself diverse, offering a spectrum of approaches from mystical to fundamentalist, and in practice Muslim proselytizers often were tolerant of syncretic behaviour. In addition, Islāmic culture, especially poetry and philosophy, was particularly attractive to courts anxious to enhance their status as cultural hubs. While the spread of Islām throughout the archipelago was not entirely peaceful, for the most part it proceeded in evolutionary fashion and without remarkable disturbance. Javanese Muslims, perhaps even members of the court, lived peacefully in the capital of Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit (Majapahit empire), for example, and Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere continued to trade, enter into alliances, and inhabit the same general cultural world. What change there was tended to occur slowly in the face of robust and deeply rooted tradition. In some societies the cultural response was original and lively. Along the northern coast of Java, for example, architecture, batik cloth-dyeing motifs, and the literature and performance of the wayang (shadow-puppet theatre) were deeply affected by Islāmic ideas and produced vital new forms to accompany the old.

Chinese and Western incursions
      Southeast Asia, unlike many other parts of the world on the eve of European expansion, long had been a cosmopolitan region acquainted with a diversity of peoples, customs, and trade goods. The arrival of Europeans in force in the early 16th century (others had made visits earlier, beginning with Marco Polo in 1292) caused neither wonderment nor fear. Long-distance travel (European exploration) by then was no novelty, and already there was impressive precedence for the arrival of foreign delegations rather than of individual trading vessels. A century before the Portuguese first arrived at Malacca in 1509, that port and a number of others in Southeast Asia had been visited by a succession of Chinese fleets. Between 1403 and 1433 Ming-dynasty (Ming dynasty) China had sent several enormous flotillas of as many as 63 large vessels and up to 30,000 people on expeditions that carried them as far as Africa. The purpose of these journeys, led by the Muslim court eunuch Cheng Ho (Zheng He), was to secure diplomatic and trade advantages for the Chinese and to extend the sovereign lustre of the ambitious Yung-lo Emperor. Yet, except for efforts to regain Dai Viet (Vietnam) as a province, these expeditions had no permanent military or colonial ambitions and did not much disturb the Southeast Asian region. Perhaps in part because of the sound defeat the Vietnamese handed a Ming occupying army in 1427, China lost interest in its new and far-flung initiatives, and the voyages came to an abrupt end.

      Europeans (Europe, history of) presented a rather different prospect for Southeast Asia, however, above all because they sought riches and absolute control over the sources of this wealth. The Europeans were few in number, often poorly equipped, and generally could not claim great technological superiority over Southeast Asians, but they were also determined, often well-organized and highly disciplined fighters, and utterly ruthless and unprincipled. Except for the Spanish in the Philippines, they were not interested in colonization but rather in the control of trade at the lowest financial cost. These characteristics made Europeans a formidable—though by no means dominant—new force in Southeast Asia. Except in a few locales and special circumstances, for the better part of 250 years Europeans could accomplish little politically or militarily without strong Southeast Asian allies. Individual adventurers often were useful to a particular Southeast Asian ruler or aspirant to the throne, but they were carefully watched and, when necessary, dispatched. Constantine Phaulkon (Phaulkon, Constantine), the Greek advisor to the Siamese court who was executed in 1688 on charges of treason, was only the most dramatic example. In economic affairs, Europeans soon discovered that they were quite unable, even by the most drastic means, to monopolize the spice trade for which they had come. They generally were forced to engage in commerce by Southeast Asian rules and soon found themselves dependent on the local carrying trade for survival. For these reasons, the celebrated Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511 did not signal the dawn of an age of Western dominance in Southeast Asia. The majority of the population and much of the trading activity deserted the port, the sultan moved his court elsewhere, and by the end of the 16th century Malacca was a backwater; the Malay trade flourished elsewhere into the 18th century.

      Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the Western presence represented nothing more than a minor irritant. European commercial tools, especially the ability to amass large amounts of investment capital, were different and, from a capitalistic point of view, more sophisticated and dynamic than those of the Southeast Asians. The Dutch and British East India companies (Dutch East India Company) often were able to make inroads on certain markets simply by having a large amount of money available, and it was possible for them to adopt long-term strategies by carrying large deficits and debts. Although company directors in Europe warned against the dangers—and costs—of involvement in local affairs, the representatives on the spot often could see no other course. Thus, soon after permanently establishing themselves on Java in 1618, the Dutch found themselves embroiled in the succession disputes of the court of Mataram and, by the late 1740s, virtual kingmakers and shareholders in the realm. Finally, Europeans did bring with them much that was new. Some items shaped Southeast Asian life in unexpected ways: the chili pepper, which the Spanish introduced from the New World, came to hold such an important place in the region's diet that today Southeast Asian cuisine can hardly be imagined without it. Another import, however, was coffee (coffee production), with a more ominous effect. Smuggled into Java in 1695 against Dutch East India Company rules, coffee by the early 18th century had become a company monopoly produced through a unique relationship between the Dutch and the local Javanese elite in a system that prefigured the one adopted by the 19th-century colonial state.

Patterns of a colonial age

Crisis and response
      In the last half of the 18th century, all the major states of Southeast Asia were faced with crisis. The great political and social structures of the classical states had begun to decay, and, although the reasons for this disintegration are not altogether clear, the expanded size of the states, the greater complexity of their societies, and the failure of older institutions to cope with change all must have played a part. It is also likely that European efforts to choke and redirect the region's trade had already done much to destroy the general prosperity that trade previously had provided, though Europeans were neither ubiquitous nor in a position to rule, even in Java. The most serious circumstances were undoubtedly those of Vietnam, where from 1771 to 1802 there raged a struggle—the Tay Son rebellion—over the very nature of the state. This rebellion threatened to sweep away the entire Confucian establishment of Vietnam, and perhaps would have done so if its leader had not attempted to accomplish too much too quickly. Elsewhere, war and confusion held societies in their grip for much shorter periods, but everywhere rulers were compelled to think of changed circumstances around them and what they meant for the future.

      In the mainland states three great rulers of three new dynasties came to the fore: Bodawpaya (ruled 1782–1819) in Myanmar, Rama I (1782–1809) in Siam (Thailand), and Gia Long (1802–20) in Vietnam. All three were fully aware of the dangers, internal as well as external, that faced them and their people, and their efforts were directed at meeting these challenges. As their armies extended their reach beyond earlier limits, these rulers vigorously pursued a combination of traditional and new policies designed to strengthen their realms. Of particular importance were efforts to bring villages under closer state control, curb shifting patron-client relationships, and centralize and tighten the state administrative apparatus. The institution of kingship itself seemed to become more dynamic and intimately involved in the direction of the state. In retrospect, some of these policies had a recognizably modern ring to them, and taken together they represented, if not a revolution, at least a concerted effort at change. Even Gia Long, whose conscience and circumstance both demanded that he give special attention to reviving the classical Confucian past, quietly incorporated selected Western and Tay Son ideas in his government. Nor were the changes ineffectual, for by 1820 the large mainland states stood at the height of their powers. Nevertheless, it was uncertain whether these efforts would be sufficient to withstand the pressures of the immediate future.

      In insular Southeast Asia the Javanese state confronted a similar crisis, but it had far less freedom with which to respond. The Gianti Agreement (1755) had divided the realm and given the Dutch decisive political and economic powers. Though resistance was not impossible, it was difficult, especially since the rulers and their courts were now largely beholden to the Dutch for their positions. The elite's response to these circumstances generally has been interpreted as a kind of cultural introversion and avoidance of reality, a judgment that probably is too harsh. The Javanese culture and society of earlier days was no longer serviceable, and court intellectuals sought to find a solution in both a revitalization of the past and a clear-eyed examination of the present. Neither effort was successful, though not for want of trying. The idea of opposing Dutch rule, furthermore, was not abandoned entirely, and it was only the devastating Java War (1825–30) that finally tamed the Javanese elite and, oddly enough, left the Dutch to determine the final shape of Javanese culture until the mid-20th century.

Western dominance
      Except in Java and much of the Philippines, the expansion of Western colonial (colonialism, Western) rule in most of Southeast Asia was a phenomenon only of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. In the earlier period Europeans tended to acquire territory as a result of complicated and not always desired entanglements with Southeast Asian powers, either in disputes or as a result of alliances. After about 1850, Western forces generally were more invasive, requiring only feeble justification for going on the attack. The most important reasons for the change were a growing Western technological superiority, an increasingly powerful European mercantile community in Southeast Asia, and a competitive scramble for strategic territory. Only Siam remained largely intact and independent. By 1886 the rest of the region had been divided among the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish (who soon were replaced by the Americans), with the Portuguese still clinging to the island of Timor. What were often called “pacification campaigns” were actually colonial wars—notably in Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia—and continued well into the 20th century. More peaceful Western encroachments on local sovereignty also occurred until the 1920s. Full-blown, modern colonial states existed for only a short period, in many cases for not much more than a generation.

      These colonial regimes, however, were not insubstantial, as they put down strong bureaucratic roots and—though often co-opting existing administrative apparatuses—formed centralized, disciplined structures of great power. They were backed by the enormous economic resources of the industrialized Western nations; and by the early 20th century, having effectively disarmed the indigenous societies, they possessed a monopoly on the means of violence. There is no mistaking the impact of Western colonial governments on their surroundings, and nowhere is this more evident than in the economic sphere. Production of tin, oil, rubber, sugar, rice, tobacco, coffee, tea, and other commodities burgeoned, driven by both government and private activity; this brought rapid changes to the physical and human landscape and coupled Southeast Asia to a new worldwide capitalist system.

      Indeed, colonial domination was only a variant condition in a rapidly changing world. Siam, which through a combination of circumstance and the wise leadership of Mongkut (ruled 1851–68) and Chulalongkorn (1868–1910) avoided Western rule, nevertheless was compelled to adopt policies similar to, and often even modeled on, those of the colonial powers in order to survive. Modernization appeared to require such an approach, and the Thai did not hesitate to embrace it with enthusiasm. Bangkok in the late 1920s surpassed even British Singapore as a centre of such modern amenities as electric lighting and medical facilities, and the state itself had achieved an enviable degree of political and economic viability among its colonial neighbours. The Thai may have “colonized themselves,” as some critics have noted, but in so doing they also escaped or diluted some of the more corrosive characteristics of Western rule, among them racism and cultural destruction. They also do not appear to have experienced the same degree of rural unrest that troubled their colonial neighbours in the 1920s and '30s. They were unable, however, to avoid other concomitants of state expansion and modernization.

Transformation of state and society
      It was not the purpose of the new states to effect rapid or broad social change. Their primary concerns were extending bureaucratic control and creating the conditions for success in a capitalist world economy; the chief necessity was stability or, as the Dutch called it, rust en orde (“tranquillity and order”). Boundaries were drawn, villages defined, laws rewritten—all along Western lines of understanding, often completely disregarding indigenous views and practices—and the new structure swiftly replaced the old. Social change (acculturation) was desired only insofar as it might strengthen these activities. Thus, the Thai began early on to send princes to Europe for their education, employing them throughout the government on their return. The Dutch created exclusive schools for the indigenous administrative elite—a kind of petty royalty—and invented ways of reducing social mobility in this group, as, for example, by making important positions hereditary. But the new governments did not provide Western-style learning (education) to most Southeast Asians, primarily because it was an enormous, difficult, and expensive task and also because policymakers worried about the social and political consequences of creating an educated class. Except in the Philippines, by the mid-1930s only a small percentage of indigenous children attended government-run schools, and only a fraction of those studied above the primary-school level. Some Southeast Asian intellectuals soon drew the conclusion that they had better educate themselves, and they began establishing their own schools with modern, secular courses of study. Some, like the Tonkin Free School in Vietnam (1907), were closed by the colonial regimes, their staffs and pupils hounded by police; others, like the many so-called “wild schools” in Indonesia in the 1930s, were much too numerous to do away with altogether, but they were controlled as carefully as possible.

      Nevertheless, during the 1920s and '30s a tiny but thoughtful and active class of Westernized Southeast Asian intellectuals appeared. They were not the first to literally and figuratively speak the language of the colonial rulers and criticize them, for by the turn of the 20th century Java and Luzon, with the longest experience under Western rule, had already produced individuals like the Javanese noblewoman Raden Adjeng Kartini (Kartini, Raden Adjeng) and the Filipino patriot José Rizal (Rizal, José). The newer generation, however, was more certain in its opposition to colonial rule (or, in Siam, rule by the monarchy), clearer and far more political in its conception of a nation, and unabashedly determined to seize leadership and initiative in their own societies. In Burma this group called themselves thakin (Burmese: “master”), making both sarcastic and proud use of an indigenous word that had been reserved for Burmese to employ when addressing or describing Europeans. These new intellectuals were not so much anti-Western as they were anticolonial. They accepted the existing state as the foundation of a modern nation, which they, rather than colonial officials, would control. This was the generation that captained the struggles for independence (in Siam, independence from the monarchy) and emerged in the post-World War II era as national leaders. The best-known figures are Sukarno of Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, and U Nu (Nu, U) of Burma (subsequently Myanmar).

      The chief problem facing the new intellectuals lay in reaching and influencing the wider population. Colonial governments feared this eventuality and worked to prevent it. Another obstacle was that the ordinary people, especially outside cities and towns, inhabited a different social and cultural world from that of the emerging leaders. Communication was difficult, particularly when it came to explaining such concepts as nationalism and modernization. Still, despite Western disbelief, there was considerable resentment of colonial rule at the lower levels of society. This was based largely on perceptions that taxes were too numerous and too high, bureaucratic control too tight and too prone to corruption, and labour too coercively extracted. In many areas there also was a deep-seated hatred of control by foreigners, whether they be the Europeans themselves or the Chinese, Indians, or others who were perceived as creatures of their rule. Most of the new intellectual elite were only vaguely aware of these sentiments, which in any case frequently made them uneasy; in a sense they, too, were foreigners. In the 1930s, however, a series of anticolonial revolts took place in Burma, Vietnam, and the Philippines; though they failed in their objectives, these revolts made it clear that among the masses lay considerable dissatisfaction and, therefore, radical potential. The revolts, and the economic disarray of the Great Depression, also suggested that European rule was neither invulnerable nor without flaws. When the outbreak of war in Europe and the Pacific showed that the colonial powers were much weaker militarily than had been imagined, destroying colonial rule and harnessing the power of the masses seemed for the first time to be real possibilities.

Japanese occupation
      The arrival of the Japanese armed forces in Southeast Asia in 1941–42 did not, however, occasion independence. A few leaders perhaps had been naive enough to think that it might—and some others clearly admired the Japanese and found it acceptable to work with them—but on the whole the attitude of intellectuals was one of caution and, very quickly, realization that they were now confronted with another, perhaps more formidable and ferocious, version of colonial rule. The Japanese had no plans to radicalize or in any way destabilize Southeast Asia—which, after all, was slated to become part of a Tokyo-centred Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere; in the short term they sought to win the war, and in the long run they hoped to modernize the region on a Japanese model. Continuity served these purposes best, and in Indochina the Japanese even allowed the French to continue to rule in return for their cooperation. Little wonder that before long Southeast Asians began to observe that, despite “Asia for the Asians” propaganda, the new and old colonial rulers had more in common with each other than either had with the indigenous peoples.

      Still, for two distinct reasons the period does represent a break from the past. First, the Japanese attempted to mobilize indigenous populations to support the war effort and to encourage modern, cooperative behaviour on a mass scale; such a thing had never been attempted by Western colonial governments. Virtually all of the mobilization efforts, however, were based on Japanese models, and the new rulers were frustrated to discover that Southeast Asians did not behave in the same fashion as Japanese. Frequently the result was disorder, corruption, and, by the end of the war, a seething hatred of the Japanese. It was also the case that, both because the war was going against them and because the response to other approaches was unenthusiastic, the Japanese were compelled before long to utilize local nationalism in their mobilization campaigns, again something quite impossible under European rule. The consequences were to benefit local rather then Japanese causes and, ironically, to contribute handsomely to the building of anti-Japanese sentiments.

      A second difference between Western and Japanese colonialism was in the opportunities the occupation provided the new educated elite. The Japanese were wary of these people because of their Western orientation but also favoured them because they represented the most modern element in indigenous society, the best partner for the present, and the best hope for the future. Often dismissed as “pseudo-intellectuals” by the Western colonial governments and prevented from obtaining any real stake in the state, the new intellectuals under the Japanese were accorded positions of real (though not unlimited or unsupervised) authority. Nor could Southeast Asians who found themselves in these positions easily fault the policies they now accepted responsibility for carrying out or at least supporting, since many of these policies were in fact—if not always in spirit—similar to ones they had endorsed in earlier decades. In short, the Western-educated elite emerged from the Japanese occupation stronger in various ways than they had ever been. By August 1945 they stood poised to inherit (or, given the variety of political conditions at the end of the war, to struggle among themselves over inheriting) the mantle of leadership over their own countries.

      Southeast Asia was changed in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way by the Japanese occupation. Although returning Europeans and even some Southeast Asians themselves complained that Japanese fascism had deeply influenced the region's societies, there is not much evidence that this was the case. Japanese rule, indeed, had destroyed whatever remained of the mystique of Western supremacy, but the war also had ruined any chances that it might be replaced with a Japanese mystique. There was clearly little clinging to Japanese concepts except where they could be thoroughly indigenized; even the collaboration issue, so important to Europeans and their thinking about the immediate postwar era, failed to move Southeast Asians for long. And, if the general population appeared less docile in 1945 than four years earlier, the reason lay more in the temporary removal of authority at the war's end than in the tutelage of the Japanese.

Contemporary Southeast Asia

Struggle for independence
      The swift conclusion of the war in the Pacific made it impossible for the former colonial masters to return to Southeast Asia for several weeks, in some areas for months. During the interim, the Japanese were obliged by the Allies to keep the peace, but real power passed into the hands of Southeast Asian leaders, some of whom declared independence and attempted with varying degrees of success to establish government structures. For the first time since the establishment of colonial rule, firearms in large numbers were controlled by Southeast Asians. Such was the groundwork for the establishment of new, independent states.

      Prewar nationalism had been most highly developed in Vietnam and Indonesia, and the colonial powers there were least inclined to see the new realities created by the war, perhaps because of the large numbers of resident French and Dutch and because of extensive investments. The result in both countries was an armed struggle in which the Western power was eventually defeated and independence secured. The Indonesian revolution, for all its internal complexities, was won in little more than four years with a combination of military struggle and civilian diplomacy. The revolution of the Vietnamese, who had defeated the French by 1954, continued much longer because of an internal political struggle and because of the role Vietnam came to play in global geopolitics, which ultimately led to the involvement of other external powers, among them the United States. In both cases, however, independence was sealed in blood, and a mythologized revolution came to serve as a powerful, unifying nationalist symbol. In the rest of Southeast Asia, the achievement of independence was, if not entirely peaceful, at least less violent. Malaysia and the Philippines suffered “emergencies” (as armed insurgencies were euphemistically called), and Burma, too, endured sporadic internal military conflict. For better or worse, these conflicts were no substitutes for a genuine revolutionary experience.

      Whether by revolution or otherwise, decolonization (colonialism, Western) proceeded rapidly in Southeast Asia. The newly independent states all aspired toward democratic systems more or less on the Western model, despite the lack of democratic preparation and the impress of nationalist sentiment. None expressed a desire to return to precolonial forms of government, and, although some Western observers professed to see in such leaders as Indonesia's Sukarno Southeast Asian societies returning to traditional behaviour, their judgment was based more on ephemeral signs than on real evidence. For one thing, societies as a whole had been too much altered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make it clear what “tradition” really was. For another, the new leadership retained the commitment to modernization that it had developed earlier. They looked forward to a new world, not an old one. The difficulty, however, was that there was as yet little consensus on the precise shape this new world should take, and colonial rule had left indigenous societies with virtually no experience in debating and reaching firm decisions on such important matters. It is hardly surprising that one result of this lack of experience was a great deal of political and intellectual conflict. Often forgotten, however, is another result: an outpouring of new ideas and creativity, particularly in literature. This signaled the beginning of a kind of cultural renaissance, the dimensions and significance of which are still insufficiently understood.

Defining new states and societies
      The first two decades of independence constituted a period of trial and error for states and societies attempting to redefine themselves in contemporary form. During this time, religious and ethnic challenges to the states essentially failed to split them, and (except in the states of former Indochina) both communism and Western parliamentary democracy were rejected. Indonesia, the largest and potentially most powerful nation in the region, provided the most spectacular examples of such developments, ending in the tragic events of 1965–66, when between 500,000 and 1,000,000 lives may have been lost in a conflict between the Indonesian Communist Party and its opponents. Even Malaysia, long the darling of Western observers for its apparent success as a showcase of democracy and capitalist growth, was badly shaken by violence between Malays and Chinese in 1969. The turmoil often led Southeast Asia to be viewed as inherently unstable politically, but from a longer perspective—and taking into account both the region's great diversity and the arbitrary fashion in which boundaries had been set by colonial powers—this perhaps has been a shortsighted conclusion.

      The new era that began in the mid-1960s had three main characteristics. First, the military rose as a force in government, not only in Vietnam, Burma, and Indonesia but also in the Philippines and—quietly—in Malaysia. The military establishments viewed themselves as actual or potential saviours of national unity and also as disciplined, effective champions of modernization; at least initially, they frequently had considerable support from the populace. Second, during this period renewed attention was given by all Southeast Asian nations to the question of unifying (secular and national) values and ideology. Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam had been first in this area in the 1940s and '50s, but the others followed. Even Singapore and Brunei developed ideologies, with the express purpose of defining a national character for their people. Finally, virtually all Southeast Asian states abandoned the effort of utilizing foreign models of government and society—capitalist or communist—and turned to the task of working out a synthesis better suited to their needs and values. Each country arrived at its own solution, with varying degrees of success. By the 1980s what generally had emerged were quasi-military bourgeois regimes willing to live along modified democratic lines—i.e., with what in Western eyes appeared to be comparatively high levels of restriction of personal, political, and intellectual freedom. Whatever their precise political character, these were conservative governments. Even Vietnam, the most revolutionary-minded among them, could not stomach the far-reaching and murderous revolution of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the mid-1970s and by the end of the decade had moved to crush it.

      Tempting as it may be to conclude that greater doses of authoritarian rule (some of it seemingly harking back directly to colonial times) merely stabilized Southeast Asia and permitted the region to get on with the business of economic development, this approach was not successful everywhere. In Burma (called Myanmar since 1989) the military's semi-isolationist, crypto-socialist development schemes came to disaster in the 1980s, revealing the repressive nature of the regime and bringing the country to the brink of civil war by the end of the decade. In the Philippines the assault by President Ferdinand Marcos (Marcos, Ferdinand E.) and his associates on the old ruling elite class brought a similar result, in addition to a spectacular level of corruption and the looting of the national treasury. In Vietnam, where the final achievement of independence in 1975 brought bitter disappointment to many and left the country decades behind the rest of the region in economic development, public and internal Communist Party unrest forced an aging generation of leaders to resign and left the course for the future in doubt as never before.

      The states generally thought to be most successful to date—Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and especially Singapore—have followed policies generally regarded as moderate and pragmatic. All are regarded as fundamentally stable and for that reason have attracted foreign aid and investment; all have achieved high rates of growth since the mid-1970s and enjoy the highest standards of living in the region. Their very success, however, has created unexpected social and cultural changes. Prosperity, education, and increasing access to world media and popular culture have all given rise, for example, to various degrees of dissatisfaction with government-imposed limitations on freedom and to social and environmental criticism. Particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, there has been a noticeable trend toward introspection and discussion of national character, as well as a religious revival in the form of renewed interest in Islām. It appears that the comparatively small and unified middle class, including a generally bureaucratized military, is becoming larger, more complex, and less easily satisfied. That was undoubtedly not the intent of those who framed governmental policy, but it is a reality with which they must deal.

Reappearance of regional interests
      After the end of the 17th century, the long-developed polities of Southeast Asia were pulled into a Western-dominated world economy, weakening regional trade networks and strengthening ties with distant colonial powers. In the early years of independence these ties often remained strong enough to be called neocolonial by critics, but after the mid-1960s these partnerships could no longer be controlled by former colonial masters, and the new Southeast Asian states sought to industrialize and diversify their markets. On the one hand, this meant a far greater role for Japan in Southeast Asia; that country is by far the most important trading partner of most Southeast Asian nations. On the other, it meant that many countries began to rediscover commonalities and to examine the possibilities within the region for support and markets.

      In 1967 the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (ASEAN) was formed by Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore (Brunei joined in 1985). This group's initial interest was in security, but it has moved cautiously into other fields. It played an important role, for example, in seeking an end to the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict and has sought a solution to the civil strife in Cambodia. In economic affairs it has worked quietly to discuss such matters as duplication of large industrial projects, but, perhaps because the economies of most of its members are quite similar and as yet only partially industrialized, ASEAN has not attempted to build a true economic community. Only since the mid-1980s has ASEAN been taken seriously by major powers, or even sometimes by Southeast Asians themselves. It seems likely, however, that the formerly Soviet-dominated states of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia will become part of ASEAN before the end of the 1990s, and Myanmar may be compelled to follow. Such circumstances will undoubtedly open up greater regional markets and give the region as a whole a more imposing world profile. Moreover, modern communications, which have already begun to inform ASEAN populations more closely about each other, cannot help but further this process and draw attention to common strands in an emerging modern culture that is shared, at least to some degree, by all the nations of the region.

William H. Frederick

Additional Reading

A comprehensive historical overview is Nicholas Tarling (ed.), The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, 2 vol. (1992); while Milton Osborne, Southeast Asia, 5th ed. (1990), is a brief survey. John Frank Cady, Southeast Asia (1964), though older and marred by some factual errors, is well-organized. D.G.E. Hall, A History of South-East Asia, 4th ed. (1981), while thorough, is heavily slanted toward colonial topics and views.

Southeast Asia to c. 1750
Peter Bellwood, Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago (1985), is detailed and thought-provoking. Charles Higham, The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia: From 10,000 BC to the Fall of Angkor (1989), complements Bellwood, with more focus on archaeology. Collections of essays include David G. Marr and A.C. Milner (eds.), Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries (1986); and R.B. Smith and W. Watson (eds.), Early South East Asia (1979). Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, 2 vol. (1988–93), provides a broad-based glimpse of the region that previously had not been available. Donald F. Lach, Southeast Asia in the Eyes of Europe: The Sixteenth Century (1968), contains a selection of travel accounts by Europeans. Anthony Reid and Lance Castles (eds.), Pre-colonial State Systems in Southeast Asia (1975), includes several specific treatments. The classic by M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, Asian Trade and European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago Between 1500 and About 1630 (1962), is still useful. Lorraine Gesick (ed.), Centers, Symbols, and Hierarchies (1983), is a collection of essays on the region's classical states.

Southeast Asia since c. 1750
David Joel Steinberg et al., In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History, rev. ed. (1987), is a sophisticated treatment, but its focus shifts from era to era. John Bastin and Harry J. Benda, A History of Modern Southeast Asia: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Decolonization (1968), although dated, is still worthy of careful attention. Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos, and Javanese From the 16th to the 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism (1977), is a convincing attack by a Southeast Asian intellectual on colonialism and colonial scholarship in the region. D.J.M. Tate, The Making of Modern South-East Asia, 2 vol. (1971–79), treats the middle portion of the colonial age in detail. David K. Wyatt and Alexander Woodside (eds.), Moral Order and the Question of Change (1982), explores social and intellectual history. Fred R. von der Mehden, South-East Asia, 1930–1970: The Legacy of Colonialism and Nationalism (1974), although dated, is a well-illustrated, useful introduction to the postwar region. Ronald D. Palmer and Thomas J. Reckford, Building ASEAN (1987), offers a basic introduction to the organization's first 20 years. Each essay in Alfred W. McCoy (ed.), Southeast Asia Under Japanese Occupation (1974), has its own locale and slant, although it cannot substitute for a general history of the occupation. Jan Pluvier, South-East Asia from Colonialism to Independence (1974), is the most thorough treatment of the period 1942–c. 1965. Clark D. Neher, Southeast Asia in the New International Era (1991), has a political-science emphasis.William H. Frederick

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Universalium. 2010.

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