Southeast Asia

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Much of Southeast Asia is haunted by its colonial past. One example is the divided island of Timor. The Netherlands ruled Western Timor, later part of Indonesia. Portugal ruled East Timor. In 1975, East Timor declared itself an independent state (even though some people living there wanted to join Indonesia). In response, Indonesia invaded the new nation and ruled it for 24 years.

In 1999, Indonesia let East Timor vote on the choice of limited self-rule within Indonesia or independence. When most voters chose independence, pro-Indonesia militias reacted with violence. The United Nations stepped in and helped East Timor prepare for nationhood. In May 2002, the country gained its independence.

The new nation is also one of the poorest. However, the development of a natural gas field in the Timor Sea should help solve East Timor's economic challenges. In fact, the revenue from the sale of the gas is expected to guarantee the new nation a steady income until 2020.

A Long History of Diversity

Since ancient times, many cultures have influenced Southeast Asia, yet it has retained its own character. Today the region includes the nations of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.


China and India influenced ancient Southeast Asia. China ruled northern Vietnam from 111 B.C. to A.D. 939. Chinese art, technology, political ideas, and ethical beliefs shaped Vietnam's culture. Hinduism and Buddhism spread from India and influenced religion and art in much of Southeast Asia. Yet, Southeast Asia kept some of its own traditions, such as more equal roles for women.

Early Southeast Asian states didn't have set borders. Instead, they were mandalas, states organized as rings of power around a central court. Those regions of power changed in size over time. A mandala's region might overlap that of a neighbor, so rulers had to make alliances for a state to survive. The Khmer Empire was a powerful mandala that lasted roughly from the 9th to the 15th centuries in what is now Cambodia.


The years 1300 through 1800 were important to Southeast Asia's development. Five powerful states existed where Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Java, and the Malay Peninsula are now. Those states were similar to mandalas but were larger and more complex. Trade within the region was important to their economies.

During that period, the Burmese, the Vietnamese, the Thai, and the Javanese each began to define their national identities. Urbanization, or the growth of large cities, also took place. For instance, Malacca, on the Malay Peninsula, grew to have about 100,000 people in the early 1500s.

Colonialism and Its Aftermath

Southeast Asian states not only traded with each other but also with merchants from Arabia and India, who brought Islam to Southeast Asia. Islam attracted many followers, especially in the islands.


Large numbers of Europeans began to arrive in Southeast Asia in 1509. At that time, Europeans had little interest in setting up colonies there, except for the Spanish, who took over the Philippines. Instead, the goal of most Europeans was to obtain wealth. Europeans used various business methods to take over much of Southeast Asia's trade. As the region's wealth flowed to Europe, local control in Southeast Asian states declined. By the 20th century, Europeans had made all of Southeast Asia except Siam (now Thailand) into colonies.

Colonialism changed Southeast Asia. First, colonial rulers set up centralized, bureaucratic governments with set routines and regulations.

Second, Europeans forced the colonies to produce commodities that would help Europe's economy. They included rubber, sugar, rice, tea, and coffee. Third, colonialism had the unintended effect of sparking nationalism. Groups that never had been allies united against European rule. And Southeast Asians who gained Western education learned about political ideas such as self-rule.

Colonies in Southeast Asia, 1895


Claiming to take back “Asia for Asians,” Japan occupied Southeast Asia during World War II. Southeast Asians soon realized that Japan was exploiting the region for its own benefit just as Europe had. But unlike the Europeans, the Japanese put Southeast Asians in leadership roles, which gave them valuable experience.

After the war ended, Southeast Asian leaders sought independence. Several Southeast Asian nations gained their freedom peacefully. Indonesia had to fight from 1945 to 1949 to gain independence from the Dutch.

Indochina, a French colony made up of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, suffered decades of turmoil. The Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, winning independence for Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. The United States became involved in South Vietnam to prevent its takeover by Communist North Vietnam. The resulting conflict was the Vietnam War (1957-1975). In 1973, the United States withdrew. In 1975, South Vietnam surrendered, and Vietnam became one country, ruled by Communists. Also in that year, Communists took over both Cambodia and Laos.

An Uneven Economy

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood in Southeast Asia. Several nations began to industrialize in the 1960s, but industry is unevenly distributed across the region.


The people of Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam depend mostly on agriculture for income. Rice is the chief food crop in those countries, as it is in almost every Southeast Asian nation. Myanmar is heavily forested and produces much of the world's teak, a yellowish-brown wood valued for its durability.

The lack of industry has many causes. The Vietnam War destroyed factories and roads. Thousands of refugees fled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the war, reducing the work force. Political turmoil, especially in Cambodia and Myanmar, has continued to block growth.

But some economic growth has occurred. For example, Vietnam has built industry and sought foreign investment and trade.


In general, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand have more highly developed economies than others in the region. Those countries have long been members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an alliance that promotes economic growth and peace in the region. (The other four Southeast Asian countries did not join ASEAN until 1995 or later.)

Although these countries didn't begin to industrialize extensively until the 1960s, manufacturing has grown quickly. The processing of agricultural products is the chief industry. Other industries include the production of textiles, clothing, and electronic products. Service industries are also important. For example, Singapore is a center of finance.

Energy sources and mining are significant. Brunei receives most of its wealth from petroleum and natural gas reserves, but they are expected to run out in the early 2000s. Southeast Asia's mineral resources include tin, which is found mostly in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

A Rich Mosaic of Culture

Although Southeast Asia has absorbed many influences from other regions, it has used them to create a culture that is distinctly its own.


Southeast Asia has much religious diversity. Buddhism is widespread in the region, while the Philippines is mostly Catholic (as a result of Spanish rule), and Indonesia and Brunei are mostly Muslim. In addition, some Southeast Asians practice Hinduism, and others follow traditional local beliefs.


Buddhism and Hinduism have influenced the region's sculpture and architecture. Perhaps the most famous example is the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat in what is now Cambodia. Thailand's Buddhist temples are modern examples of religious architecture.

Southeast Asia is also famous for its performing arts and literature. For example, Thailand and Indonesia have traditional forms of dance, in which richly costumed dancers act out stories. In Vietnam, poetry is highly respected. Nearly all Vietnamese know at least part of the 3,253-line poem “Kim van Kieu,” which is about love and sacrifice.

Changing Lifestyles

Most Southeast Asians live in rural villages and follow traditional ways. However, a growing number of people are moving to cities and leading more modern lives—a trend taking place all around the world.


In many Southeast Asian villages, people live in wood houses built on stilts for protection against floods. Roofs are usually made of thatch, although wealthy families may have a tin roof. In Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, most villages have a Buddhist temple that serves as the center of social life. In Indonesia, most villages have a group of leaders who govern by a system that stresses cooperation.

Some Southeast Asian villagers still wear traditional clothing, such as the longyi—a long, tightly wrapped skirt—of Myanmar. Yet modern conveniences are slowly beginning to change village life. For instance, listening to the radio is common in Indonesia and Thailand.


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Singapore are examples of bustling cities with towering skyscrapers and modern business districts. In Southeast Asian cities, most people live in apartments.

But there is a shortage of housing for the large numbers of people migrating to cities for jobs. Many of them live in makeshift shacks in slums. The dangers of doing that were shown by a disaster in Manila, Philippines. Hundreds of people had built shanties at a city dump. In July 2000, after a typhoon weakened a tower of garbage, it crashed onto those shacks and burst into flames. More than 100 people died.

Another region facing the changes caused by rural-to-urban migration is Oceania. You will read about that region in Section 2.