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A Brief History of Southeast Asia

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What is commonly known as modern day “Southeast Asia” has shared a common history characterized by numerous foreign occupations and takeovers that have influenced the cultures and countries that thrive within its boundaries today. The countries that currently comprise the region are now Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo, the Philippines, and Singapore. All of these have intermingled in one form or another throughout the past century in a way that has created many borrowed cultural aspects. What is now Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore used to comprise the once great Malay empires of Srivijaya and Malacca. The Vietnamese, Burmese, and Khmer people used to comprise the three main kingdoms that governed those in mainland Southeast Asia, or what is commonly referred to as Indochina. The Hindu kingdom of Champa also played a dominate role in the middle of the century. The region was a hub of activity for trade between China and India, which also influenced the region.

Due to its geographic ‘wedging’ between India and China, these two dominant foreign powers have inevitably had a huge impact on its culture and religion over the centuries. From the 1st Century BC through the 6th century AD, these regions were occupied by Neolithic communities. The kingdom of Nam-Viet was the greatest empire established in the 2nd century AD, out of the seat of Hanoi, but with the expansion of the Han Chinese empire, it too became listed as a territory of China as opposed to maintaining its own independent status. The influence of India is more greatly seen along the trade routes marked along the sea. Ports such as Singapore and through the Straits of Malacca and into the South China Sea show heavy influence from India.

The introduction and influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in the regions can likely be attributed to the heavy trade presence of India and China in this period of history. Several royal dynasties established themselves (some Hindu, some Buddhist) in the region over the next few centuries. The Cham Kingdom inhabited what is modern day south Vietnam, the Khmer Empire established themselves in Angkor in central Indochina, or what is now Cambodia. In modern day Thailand and south Mynamar we see influence of the Mon dynasty. The Burmese and Thai (two tribes) eventually pushed the Mon out and took control of the region. In the 13th century, yet again as a result of influence by India, Islam is introduced into the region, resulting in the creation of Muslim nations along the trade routes in the Strait of Malacca. This results in the eventual spread of Islam throughout the Malay peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. The only surviving area that retains its Hindu origin is the small island of Bali. This remains to this day the only remaining overtly Hindu outpost in Southeast Asia, as Buddhism eventually overtook Hinduism in the mainland nations.

In the mid 1600s Europeans began an influx to the region, largely drawn as well by the trade opportunities, which then led to a period of colonial occupation and then domination. By early 1900s, the British occupied what is now modern day Myanmar, Malaysia, and northern Borneo territories, while the French controlled “French Indochina”, or what is mostly comprised of modern day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Only Thailand (which was at the time the Kingdom of Siam) was spared foreign colonial control. Colonial rule had a profound effect on the region, bringing changes that resulted in major development to the region in agricultural, mining and creating an export based economy.  The creation of components of a modern nation state, education, and exposure to print media also laid the groundwork for the following nationalistic movements experienced in each. During WWII Imperial Japan invaded the region and occupied most of the area, save Thailand which again was spared due to her own prowess in forming a loose alliance with Japan. A flurry of declarations of new nation states followed the end of WWII with many ‘anti-colonialist’ sentiments and heavy US interference in the region leading to Communist party rule in a number of the countries. The countries are now characterized by large economic growth and an enhanced spirit of cooperation among the independent nations in the region.

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