South East Asia

South‐East Asia is largely the product of external cultural influences. It was formed in the intersection of Indian and Chinese cultures and it became the easternmost extension of the spread of Islam. Beginning with the 15th century, the Europeans arrived and colonized the region. During the 20th century, the rise of the Japanese Empire ended European domination, and in the aftermath of World War II, the countries of the region gained independence. Their confidence and economic strength are growing: the last 50 years saw an unprecedented economic expansion. ASEAN was created with the intention to build a single market. The region now has 650 million people and solid economic growth above 5%.

Published October 9, 2017-Updated February 18, 2020

I became interested in South East Asia in recent years, and I traveled through the region during the summer of 2017. I live in the Bay Area of California, which is increasingly influenced not only by China, but also by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. America’s identity is deeply intertwined with Asia: The American defeat in the Vietnam war changed America’s political consciousness, and from then on, the US was perceived as the “bad” superpower by many people in the rest of the world.

Political Overview

Since the Vietnam war ended, America has attempted to redefine its role in the Pacific. The rise of China has the potential to end American hegemony in the region. Obama tried to shift American foreign policy away from Europe and the Middle East, and towards Asia. He knows the region well because he grew up in Hawaii and spent 5 years of his childhood in Indonesia. For most of his presidency, he worked on a massive trade agreement (Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP.) It would have included the US, all South East Asian States, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Canada, and thus also superseded the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) The Trans-Pacific Partnership was meant to create a huge common market comprising 40% of the total world economic output. If China is the emerging counterweight to the American superpower, the countries of South East Asia are natural allies for the US.

The region is very diverse in terms of culture and religion. The interactions between different religions are not always peaceful, as the recent example of ethnic cleansing in Burma demonstrates: During the summer of 2017, more than 500,000 Rohingya were forcefully expelled from their villages and fled to Bangladesh. The reason is clear: they are a Muslim group in a Buddhist country, and the Burmese government wants to avoid Islamic insurgencies (See: Washington Post: The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya, Sept 18, 2017.) Thailand has a massive political problem for the last 40 years with its 3 southernmost provinces, which are predominantly Muslim.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, with approximately 225 million Muslims (87% of the population.). Bangladesh has a Muslim population of approximately 147 million. Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma are Buddhist, and the Philippines are Catholic (74 million, or 80% of the population.) Communist countries like Vietnam or China are secular. Learning how to live together peacefully is a challenging task, and the political classes are afraid that Islam could become more and more politized, as it happened in Europe and the Middle East. Strangely enough, Buddhism also seems to blend well with nationalism, as in Thailand .or Burma.

The region has undergone much political upheaval during the last century. Colonialism was replaced by communism, military dictatorships were superseded by democracies, and Thailand still has a monarchy that seems to be widely accepted by the population. How do the various countries of South East Asia integrate their histories, and what is the outlook for them? Will they unite and become a major player on the global political stage?

History of South East Asia

South East Asia consists of Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The history of the region is largely determined by its geography, and the following survey summarizes the main influences. I think it demonstrates how deeply world history influences the history of any region and vice versa; it also shows how intertwined our cultures really are.


The peoples of maritime South East Asia – present-day Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – migrated southwards from southern China sometime between 2500 and 1500 B.C. The connection to the Chinese civilization was never disrupted, but the influence of the other long-established civilization of India gradually became more predominant in the region. Indian traders, entrepreneurs, teachers, and priests continued to influence South East Asia until about 1500 CE, and Indians often ruled the earliest states in these regions. “Indianised” early states existed in Cambodia (Angkor Wat, 12th Century), Sumatra, and Java. Hinduism and Buddhism both spread from India and for many centuries existed there with mutual toleration. Eventually, the states of mainland Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma) became Buddhists.

The Mongol Conquest

Mongolian armies conquered China in the 13th century; this had deep repercussions for the various kingdoms that existed in South East Asia. More Thai people from Southern China moved southwards; in 1238 CE the kingdom of Sukothai in west-central Thailand was created. Eventually, King Ramkamhaeng adopted the Khmer alphabet and gave the Thais a written language. He introduced Buddhism, and his kingdom became the precursor of the state of Thailand. The Khmer Kingdom in Cambodia began to decline, and Angkor Wat was abandoned in 1431. In 1279, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan completed the conquest of China and established the Yuan dynasty. The Mongols then demanded tributes and continued to push further south, which had ripple effects throughout the region. The Mongols tried but failed to conquer the kingdoms of present-day Vietnam. They also invaded Burma in 1287, and stayed there for 30 years. The following centuries were characterized by warfare and political tensions between Thailand and Burmese kingdoms.

Arrival of Islam

Islam arrived in the region from the South; through Indian and Arab traders. The islands of Indonesia and Malaysia had been in contact with Islam for many centuries. Their traditional cultural dependence on India prevented Islam from being acceptable to them until Islam was firmly established under Muslim rulers in Northern India. This occurred towards the end of the 12th century, and during the 13th century, Indian merchants from Gujerat (in north-western India) converted some of the ports of northern Sumatra to Islam. From there Islam spread to the Malay peninsula, Java, and the Philippines. Malacca, an independent port on the west coast of Malaysia, was on the main trading route to India, and it became the center of Islam in South East Asia during the 15th Century. In today’s Indonesia, the Majapahit empire centered on the island of Java, broke up into a number of small and weak Muslim states. The island of Bali alone remained Hindu in religion, and it still is. Many of the Philippine islands were also converted to Islam during the 13th to the 15th centuries. Islam made little impact on the mainland of South East Asia, which remained overwhelmingly Buddhist.

European Colonialism

The Portuguese were first: towards the end of the 15th century they launched a series of great explorations aimed at establishing trade routes to the East, particularly to India and to the “Spice Islands.” (Moluccas – Indonesian Islands) 1 In 1488 Bartholomew Diaz rounded the south end of Africa. Ten years later Vasco de Goma reached India by this route. In 1505 the Portuguese conquered most of Ceylon, and in 1510 they founded the trading settlement of Goa on the west coast of India. They quickly realized the importance of Malacca on the West Coast of Malaysia, and in 1511, they captured it from the Muslim rulers and established themselves in South East Asia.

Spain followed soon: In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Spain in an effort to find a western sea route to the rich Spice Islands of Indonesia. 2 Magellan reached the island of Cebu in today’s Philippines, and he was killed there in an encounter with the inhabitants. Some of his ships continued to the Moluccas and eventually, one ship continued to sail further west and reached again Spain in 1522 – the first to circumnavigate the globe. The rivalry of Spain and Portugal in the Moluccas ended with the Portuguese in control of the sea routes. Eventually, the Portuguese extended their reach to mainland China, and in 1557, Macao became a Portuguese colony and trading post. 3 Subsequently, Spain turned its attention to the Philippines, and between 1564 and 1600 the Spaniards conquered most of the Philippine islands from the local Muslims. The islands were named the Philippines in honor of King Philip II of Spain. Spanish priests began to convert the population to Roman Catholicism; and in the following centuries, the Filipinos became almost completely Christianized and westernized. Spanish rule lasted for over three centuries, until 1898.

The Dutch: The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1601, and soon displaced the Portuguese as the dominant trading power in the East. 4 Between 1595 and 1620 the Dutch set up trading posts in Java, the Moluccas, Celebes, Timor, Sumatra, and Borneo, which was later abandoned. Their main settlement was Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java. In 1641 they drove the Portuguese from Malacca, and in 1658 from Ceylon. Portuguese possessions in the East were reduced to Goa in India, Macao in China, and some of the island of Timor in the East Indies. The purpose of the Dutch was trade, but they eventually acquired territory by treaty or conflict with the local Moslem states. The Dutch East India Company gradually gained partial political control of much of Indonesia. From 1650 to 1713 Holland was involved in a series of wars against England, and then against France. Holland survived only in a very weakened condition. Naval superiority passed on to England, and the Dutch focused on consolidating their possession of Indonesia.

With the French Revolution in 1789 and then the rise of Napoleon, Europe entered a period of turmoil that also reshaped SouthEast Asia. Holland was overrun by the French and was under French domination for nearly twenty years starting from 1795. During this period the British took Malacca, Sumatra, Java, and Ceylon, from the Dutch, but returned them (except Ceylon) to Holland after the Napoleonic Wars. Singapore was created in 1819 and came under British control in an Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824. 5

The British also occupied Hong Kong during the first Opium War in 1841 and kept it until 1997.

France: The French became a major player in South East Asia only in the second half of the 19th century. They established colonies in Vietnam (1859), Cambodia (1861), and Laos (1893.) The only country that remained relatively independent of colonial influence was Thailand, due to a smart policy of Westernization and some trade concessions. The United States became a colonial power in South East Asia when they took the Philippines from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century virtually the whole of South East Asia, except for Thailand, was controlled by the British, the Dutch, the French and the Americans. Under this colonial rule the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a period of rapid development – railways, roads, irrigation projects – and expansion of the production of indigenous goods for export. The new ‘Western type’ market-oriented economy was somewhat alien to the subsistence economy of the traditional Asian way of life; and the native populations often tended to be sidelined in the emerging commercial and trading enterprises, often run by Chinese and Indian immigrants.

Japan: The decline of Western domination began when Japan started to emerge from over 200 years of isolation from the outside world and quickly rose to the status of a world power. The Japanese defeated China in 1894, and Russia in 1904/05. The Manchu dynasty in China (also called the Qing Dynasty) fell and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 led to the establishment of a republic that did not last very long. The chaos in China in the years before and after the Revolution brought Chinese immigration waves to the countries of South East Asia; the success of Communism in China spread socialist ideas throughout the region. Japan’s rise and its defeat of Russia awakened nationalism in the countries under colonial rule, and independence movements emerged or became stronger.

WWII: When World War II started in 1939, Germany originally overran most of Western Europe, which weakened the colonial powers to a point that Japan could conquer most of South East Asia relatively easily. The tide turned when the United States entered the war in the Pacific after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Japan capitulated in 1945 and remained under American rule for the next 7 years. All conquered territories were initially returned to the former rulers. China unified after a bloody Civil War in 1949 and became a Communist country. Independence movements started everywhere: The Philippines (1946), Burma (1947), Indonesia (1949), Malaysia (1957), and Singapore (1959). Independence was accompanied by many bloody struggles, and in some cases, it took years of internal conflicts before the countries of South East Asia settled into their current political structures.

Vietnam: The main example for these post-colonial wars is Vietnam: After the Japanese left in 1945, the French returned, but a Communist independence movement fought them with support from China and Russia. The French were defeated in 1954, but the US stepped in to stop the spread of Communism through South East Asia. America was also defeated after a long and painful war and finally withdrew in 1975. Subsequently, Cambodia and Laos came under Communist control as well. This had devastating consequences for Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge attempted a radical political experiment which led to the Cambodian Genocide between 1975 and 1979, when 2 to 3 million people perished.

In the last 40 years, the region has undergone enormous economic development, and the population has grown alongside. There is still a struggle for democracy and social justice everywhere, and the influence of China looms large. South East Asia has united in the block of ASEAN countries, which slowly seems to gain more political traction with the increasing prosperity of the region.


  1. These islands had been described by Marco Polo after his return from China nearly two centuries earlier, so everyone was searching for them.

  2. In command of five ships and 270 men, Magellan sailed to West Africa and then to Brazil, where he searched the South American coast for a strait that would take him to the Pacific. He succeeded and was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic.

  3. It was returned to China only in 1999.

  4. The English also formed their East India Company, in 1600. At first the English company showed an interest in South East Asia, but they were prevented by the Dutch from establishing themselves there and withdrew to concentrate on trade with India.

  5. Also called the “Treaty of London.” See also: Straits Settlement.This treaty defined spheres of influence between the British and the Dutch.