Southeast Asian history

What can we learn about Southeast Asian history from works of literature such as This Earth of Mankind?
WoSEA – Dutch Colonial Policy in the 20th c_32
WoSEA – Dutch Colonial Policy in the 20th c_33



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From temporary wife to prostitute: Sexuality and economic change in early modern Southeast Asia
Barbara Watson Andaya
Journal of Women’s History; Winter 1998; 9, 4; ProQuest
pg. 11
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Southeast Asia: A Very Short Introduction
VERY SHORT INTRODUCTIONS are for anyone wanting a stimulating and
accessible way into a new subject. They are written by experts, and have been
translated into more than 45 different languages.
The series began in 1995, and now covers a wide variety of topics in every
discipline. The VSI library now contains over 500 volumes—a Very Short
Introduction to everything from Psychology and Philosophy of Science to American
History and Relativity—and continues to grow in every subject area.
Very Short Introductions available now:
ACCOUNTING Christopher Nobes
ADVERTISING Winston Fletcher
AFRICAN HISTORY John Parker and Richard Rathbone
AGEING Nancy A. Pachana
AGNOSTICISM Robin Le Poidevin
AGRICULTURE Paul Brassley and Richard Soffe
ALGEBRA Peter M. Higgins
AMERICAN SLAVERY Heather Andrea Williams
ANCIENT WARFARE Harry Sidebottom
ANGELS David Albert Jones
ANXIETY Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman
ARCHITECTURE Andrew Ballantyne
ARISTOTLE Jonathan Barnes
ART THEORY Cynthia Freeland
ATHEISM Julian Baggini
AUGUSTINE Henry Chadwick
AUSTRALIA Kenneth Morgan
AUTISM Uta Frith
THE AVANT GARDE David Cottington
THE AZTECS Davíd Carrasco
BABYLONIA Trevor Bryce
BACTERIA Sebastian G. B. Amyes
BANKING John Goddard and John O. S. Wilson
BARTHES Jonathan Culler
THE BEATS David Sterritt
BEAUTY Roger Scruton
BESTSELLERS John Sutherland
THE BIBLE John Riches
BIG DATA Dawn E. Holmes
BIOGRAPHY Hermione Lee
BLACK HOLES Katherine Blundell
BLOOD Chris Cooper
THE BLUES Elijah Wald
THE BODY Chris Shilling
BORDERS Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen
THE BRAIN Michael O’Shea
BRANDING Robert Jones
THE BRICS Andrew F. Cooper
BUDDHA Michael Carrithers
BUDDHISM Damien Keown
BYZANTIUM Peter Sarris
CALVINISM Jon Balserak
CANCER Nicholas James
CAPITALISM James Fulcher
CATHOLICISM Gerald O’Collins
CAUSATION Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum
THE CELL Terence Allen and Graham Cowling
THE CELTS Barry Cunliffe
CHAOS Leonard Smith
CHEMISTRY Peter Atkins
CHOICE THEORY Michael Allingham
CHRISTIAN ART Beth Williamson
CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman
CITIZENSHIP Richard Bellamy
CLASSICS Mary Beard and John Henderson
CLAUSEWITZ Michael Howard
CLIMATE Mark Maslin
CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY Susan Llewelyn and Katie Aafjes-van Doorn
THE COLD WAR Robert McMahon
COMEDY Matthew Bevis
COMMUNISM Leslie Holmes
COMPLEXITY John H. Holland
CONFUCIANISM Daniel K. Gardner
THE CONQUISTADORS Matthew Restall and Felipe Fernández-Armesto
CONTEMPORARY ART Julian Stallabrass
COPERNICUS Owen Gingerich
CORAL REEFS Charles Sheppard
CORRUPTION Leslie Holmes
CRIME FICTION Richard Bradford
CRITICAL THEORY Stephen Eric Bronner
THE CRUSADES Christopher Tyerman
CRYPTOGRAPHY Fred Piper and Sean Murphy
DANTE Peter Hainsworth and David Robey
DARWIN Jonathan Howard
DEMOCRACY Bernard Crick
DEPRESSION Jan Scott and Mary Jane Tacchi
DERRIDA Simon Glendinning
DESERTS Nick Middleton
DESIGN John Heskett
THE DEVIL Darren Oldridge
DIASPORA Kevin Kenny
DICTIONARIES Lynda Mugglestone
DINOSAURS David Norman
DIPLOMACY Joseph M. Siracusa
DOCUMENTARY FILM Patricia Aufderheide
DREAMING J. Allan Hobson
DRUGS Leslie Iversen
DRUIDS Barry Cunliffe
EARLY MUSIC Thomas Forrest Kelly
THE EARTH Martin Redfern
ECONOMICS Partha Dasgupta
EGYPTIAN MYTH Geraldine Pinch
EMOTION Dylan Evans
EMPIRE Stephen Howe
ENGELS Terrell Carver
ENGINEERING David Blockley
ENTREPRENEURSHIP Paul Westhead and Mike Wright
EPICUREANISM Catherine Wilson
EPIDEMIOLOGY Rodolfo Saracci
ETHICS Simon Blackburn
THE ETRUSCANS Christopher Smith
EUGENICS Philippa Levine
THE EUROPEAN UNION John Pinder and Simon Usherwood
EVOLUTION Brian and Deborah Charlesworth
EXPLORATION Stewart A. Weaver
THE EYE Michael Land
FAIRY TALE Marina Warner
FAMILY LAW Jonathan Herring
FASCISM Kevin Passmore
FASHION Rebecca Arnold
FEMINISM Margaret Walters
FILM Michael Wood
FILM MUSIC Kathryn Kalinak
FOLK MUSIC Mark Slobin
FOOD John Krebs
FORESTS Jaboury Ghazoul
FOSSILS Keith Thomson
FOUCAULT Gary Gutting
FRACTALS Kenneth Falconer
FREE SPEECH Nigel Warburton
FREE WILL Thomas Pink
FREEMASONRY Andreas Önnerfors
FREUD Anthony Storr
FUNGI Nicholas P. Money
THE FUTURE Jennifer M. Gidley
GALAXIES John Gribbin
GALILEO Stillman Drake
GANDHI Bhikhu Parekh
GENES Jonathan Slack
GENIUS Andrew Robinson
GENOMICS John Archibald
Geography John Matthews and David Herbert
GEOPHYSICS William Lowrie
GOD John Bowker
GOETHE Ritchie Robertson
GRAVITY Timothy Clifton
HABERMAS James Gordon Finlayson
HAPPINESS Daniel M. Haybron
HEGEL Peter Singer
HEIDEGGER Michael Inwood
HEREDITY John Waller
HERMENEUTICS Jens Zimmermann
HERODOTUS Jennifer T. Roberts
HIEROGLYPHS Penelope Wilson
HISTORY John H. Arnold
THE HISTORY OF CINEMA Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
THE History of Medicine William Bynum
THE HISTORY OF TIME Leofranc Holford‑Strevens
HIV AND AIDS Alan Whiteside
HOBBES Richard Tuck
HOLLYWOOD Peter Decherney
HOME Michael Allen Fox
HORMONES Martin Luck
HUMAN ANATOMY Leslie Klenerman
HUMAN RIGHTS Andrew Clapham
HUMANISM Stephen Law
HUME A. J. Ayer
HUMOUR Noël Carroll
THE ICE AGE Jamie Woodward
IDEOLOGY Michael Freeden
INDIAN CINEMA Ashish Rajadhyaksha
INFECTIOUS DISEASE Marta L. Wayne and Benjamin M. Bolker
INFINITY Ian Stewart
INFORMATION Luciano Floridi
INNOVATION Mark Dodgson and David Gann
IRAN Ali M. Ansari
ISLAM Malise Ruthven
ISLAMIC HISTORY Adam Silverstein
ITALIAN LITERATURE Peter Hainsworth and David Robey
JESUS Richard Bauckham
JOURNALISM Ian Hargreaves
JUDAISM Norman Solomon
JUNG Anthony Stevens
KAFKA Ritchie Robertson
KANT Roger Scruton
KEYNES Robert Skidelsky
KIERKEGAARD Patrick Gardiner
KNOWLEDGE Jennifer Nagel
THE KORAN Michael Cook
LAKES Warwick F. Vincent
LANGUAGES Stephen R. Anderson
LAW Raymond Wacks
LEARNING Mark Haselgrove
LEIBNIZ Maria Rosa Antognazza
LIBERALISM Michael Freeden
LIGHT Ian Walmsley
Lincoln Allen C. Guelzo
LINGUISTICS Peter Matthews
LOCKE John Dunn
LOGIC Graham Priest
LOVE Ronald de Sousa
MACHIAVELLI Quentin Skinner
MADNESS Andrew Scull
MAGIC Owen Davies
MAGNA CARTA Nicholas Vincent
MAGNETISM Stephen Blundell
MALTHUS Donald Winch
MAO Delia Davin
MARINE BIOLOGY Philip V. Mladenov
MARTIN LUTHER Scott H. Hendrix
MARTYRDOM Jolyon Mitchell
MARX Peter Singer
MATERIALS Christopher Hall
MATHEMATICS Timothy Gowers
The Meaning of Life Terry Eagleton
MEDICAL LAW Charles Foster
MEDIEVAL BRITAIN John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths
Memory Jonathan K. Foster
METAPHYSICS Stephen Mumford
MICROBIOLOGY Nicholas P. Money
MICROSCOPY Terence Allen
MILITARY STRATEGY Antulio J. Echevarria II
MINERALS David Vaughan
MIRACLES Yujin Nagasawa
MODERN ART David Cottington
MODERN DRAMA Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr
MODERN FRANCE Vanessa R. Schwartz
MODERN INDIA Craig Jeffrey
MODERN ITALY Anna Cento Bull
MODERN JAPAN Christopher Goto-Jones
MODERN WAR Richard English
MODERNISM Christopher Butler
MOLECULAR BIOLOGY Aysha Divan and Janice A. Royds
MONASTICISM Stephen J. Davis
THE MONGOLS Morris Rossabi
MOONS David A. Rothery
Mormonism Richard Lyman Bushman
MOUNTAINS Martin F. Price
MUHAMMAD Jonathan A. C. Brown
MUSIC Nicholas Cook
MYTH Robert A. Segal
Nelson Mandela Elleke Boehmer
NEOLIBERALISM Manfred Steger and Ravi Roy
NETWORKS Guido Caldarelli and Michele Catanzaro
THE NEW TESTAMENT Luke Timothy Johnson
NEWTON Robert Iliffe
NIETZSCHE Michael Tanner
NINETEENTH‑CENTURY BRITAIN Christopher Harvie and H. C. G.
NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green
NOTHING Frank Close
NUCLEAR POWER Maxwell Irvine
NUCLEAR WEAPONS Joseph M. Siracusa
NUMBERS Peter M. Higgins
NUTRITION David A. Bender
OBJECTIVITY Stephen Gaukroger
OCEANS Dorrik Stow
ORGANISED CRIME Georgios A. Antonopoulos and Georgios
PAGANISM Owen Davies
PAIN Rob Boddice
PANDEMICS Christian W. McMillen
PAUL E. P. Sanders
PEACE Oliver P. Richmond
PLAGUE Paul Slack
PLANETS David A. Rothery
PLANTS Timothy Walker
PLATO Julia Annas
POLITICS Kenneth Minogue
POPULISM Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser
POSTMODERNISM Christopher Butler
PRIVACY Raymond Wacks
PROJECTS Andrew Davies
PSYCHOLOGY Gillian Butler and Freda McManus
PSYCHOTHERAPY Tom Burns and Eva Burns-Lundgren
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION Stella Z. Theodoulou and Ravi K. Roy
PUBLIC HEALTH Virginia Berridge
Puritanism Francis J. Bremer
THE QUAKERS Pink Dandelion
QUANTUM THEORY John Polkinghorne
RACISM Ali Rattansi
RASTAFARI Ennis B. Edmonds
REALITY Jan Westerhoff
RELATIVITY Russell Stannard
Religion in America Timothy Beal
RENAISSANCE ART Geraldine A. Johnson
REVOLUTIONS Jack A. Goldstone
RHETORIC Richard Toye
RISK Baruch Fischhoff and John Kadvany
RITUAL Barry Stephenson
RIVERS Nick Middleton
ROBOTICS Alan Winfield
ROCKS Jan Zalasiewicz
THE ROMAN EMPIRE Christopher Kelly
ROMANTICISM Michael Ferber
ROUSSEAU Robert Wokler
RUSSELL A. C. Grayling
RUSSIAN HISTORY Geoffrey Hosking
SAVANNAS Peter A. Furley
SCHIZOPHRENIA Chris Frith and Eve Johnstone
SCHOPENHAUER Christopher Janaway
Science and Religion Thomas Dixon
SCOTLAND Rab Houston
Sexuality Véronique Mottier
SIKHISM Eleanor Nesbitt
THE SILK ROAD James A. Millward
SLANG Jonathon Green
SLEEP Steven W. Lockley and Russell G. Foster
SOCIAL WORK Sally Holland and Jonathan Scourfield
SOCIALISM Michael Newman
SOCRATES C. C. W. Taylor
SOUND Mike Goldsmith
SPINOZA Roger Scruton
SPIRITUALITY Philip Sheldrake
SPORT Mike Cronin
STARS Andrew King
Statistics David J. Hand
STEM CELLS Jonathan Slack
SYMMETRY Ian Stewart
TAXATION Stephen Smith
TEETH Peter S. Ungar
TELESCOPES Geoff Cottrell
TERRORISM Charles Townshend
THEATRE Marvin Carlson
THEOLOGY David F. Ford
TIBETAN BUDDHISM Matthew T. Kapstein
TOCQUEVILLE Harvey C. Mansfield
TRAGEDY Adrian Poole
TRANSLATION Matthew Reynolds
TRUST Katherine Hawley
THE U.S. CONGRESS Donald A. Ritchie
THE U.S. CONSTITUTION David J. Bodenhamer
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT Linda Greenhouse
UTILITARIANISM Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer
UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES David Palfreyman and Paul Temple
UTOPIANISM Lyman Tower Sargent
THE VIKINGS Julian Richards
VIRUSES Dorothy H. Crawford
VOLTAIRE Nicholas Cronk
WATER John Finney
WEATHER Storm Dunlop
WITCHCRAFT Malcolm Gaskill
WORK Stephen Fineman
WORLD MUSIC Philip Bohlman
WORLD WAR II Gerhard L. Weinberg
ZIONISM Michael Stanislawski
Available soon:
Criminology Tim Newburn
Autobiography Laura Marcus
Demography Sarah Harper
Geology Jan Zalasiewicz
Sexual Selection Marlene Zuk and Leigh W. Simmons
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James R. Rush
A Very Short Introduction
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Rush, James R. (James Robert), 1944- author.
Title: Southeast Asia : a very short introduction / James R. Rush.
Description: Oxford : Oxford University Press, [2018] | Includes bibliographical references and index. |
Identifiers: LCCN 2017043737 (print) | LCCN 2017044526 (ebook) |
ISBN 9780190248772 (updf) | ISBN 9780190248789 (epub) |
ISBN 9780190248796 (online component) |
ISBN 9780190248765 | ISBN 9780190248765q (pbk. ;qalk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Southeast Asia.
Classification: LCC DS521 (ebook) | LCC DS521 .R87 2018 (print) |
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List of illustrations
1What is Southeast Asia?
5The past is in the present
Further reading
List of illustrations
1 Contemporary Southeast Asia and its nation-states
2 Wet-rice farmers in Vietnam
© Jimmy Tran/Shutterstock
3 Premodern Southeast Asia through c. 1800
4 Mandalas
5 Angkor Wat
© Tom Roche/Shutterstock
6 Map of las yslas Philipinas, Pedro Velarde Murillo
Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, 06_01_003750
7 Rijsttafel
Tugu Kunstkring Paleis, Jakarta
8 Chinese migrants in Dutch Borneo
KITLV, 6549
9 Sukarno, first president of Indonesia
UN photo, 332531
10 Southeast Asian heads of state at 2016 ASEAN-UN Summit
UN photo/Eskinder Debebe, 690363
Southeast Asia is a region of vast complexity, and scholarship about it is
equally vast and complex. This slender book draws upon a broad body of
scholarship. Barely a sentence fails to reflect the ideas and scholarly writing
of my mentors and colleagues and others from whom I have learned. Readers
familiar with the literature will discern the footprints of Harry Benda, John
Smail, O. W. Wolters, Benedict Anderson, Anthony Reid, James Scott, J. S.
Furnivall, Thongchai Winichakul, and a host of others whose work has
shaped the field.
This volume is a “very short introduction,” and so it does not attempt to
capture fully the deep research and nuanced arguments of this scholarship.
Instead, its purpose is to tell a complicated story simply and legibly. Its
historical arc focusing on kingdoms, colonies, and nations is deliberately
formulaic, designed to provide a structured narrative around which otherwise
random events and anecdotal information about Southeast Asia (or the day’s
news, for that matter) can be understood in the context of larger patterns of
history, politics, and society. This narrative can be—indeed, it is meant to be
—explored, elaborated, and critiqued through further study. The
“Suggestions for Further Reading” at the back will get you started.
Southeast Asia: A Very Short Introduction is also intentionally colloquial.
Terms are used such as trade hubs, traffic patterns, and mini-kings, for
example, the latter to describe an array of persons who ruled over small
territories (mini-kingdoms) throughout Southeast Asia under many different
titles. Likewise, certain terms are employed that are often applied more
narrowly in scholarship—mandala, for example—to describe general patterns
applying to the region at large. Thongchai Winichakul’s use of the term geo-
body, to mean a modern border-bounded nation-state, is another example.
The word Native, capitalized, is used here to convey the colonial-era practice
of categorizing indigenous Southeast Asians officially (and subordinately) in
the law.
Southeast Asia also prioritizes the familiar. East Timor will be East Timor,
although it is officially known as Timor-Leste and also as Timor Lorosa’e.
Burma will be Burma, except when referring to the contemporary state of
Myanmar. Burmans will be Burmans, not Bama. And so on. The spellings of
Southeast Asian names can vary considerably when rendered in English. I
have followed familiar scholarly conventions.
One cannot possibly acknowledge everyone who has contributed to a general
book like this one. But I am grateful to my undergraduate students at Arizona
State University (ASU), in dialogue with whom the narrative of this book has
evolved, and also to several former graduate students whose work has
informed my work. These include Maria Ortuoste, Christopher Lundry, Duan
Zhidan, Zhipei Chi, Sze Chieh Ng, and Alex Arifianto. Particular thanks go
to William McDonald, an ASU student at Barrett, the Honors College, who
worked diligently collecting data about the contemporary region. I am also
indebted to my faculty colleagues in Southeast Asia studies at ASU from
whom I am constantly learning. They include Sheldon Simon, Juliane
Schober, Ted Solis, Karen Adams, Christopher Duncan (now at Rutgers),
Leif Jonsson, James Eder, Mark Woodward, Pauline Cheong, Sarah Shair-
Rosenfield, Peter Suwarno, Sina Machander, Le-Pham Thuy-Kim, and Ralph
Gabbard. Finally, I want to express my gratitude and love to my wife, Sunny
Benitez-Rush, who enriches everything I do, including this book.
Chapter 1
What is Southeast Asia?
Southeast Asia is a sprawling neighborhood of hot countries that straddles the
equator. Its eleven nations lie between India and China and form the great
tropical cusp of Asia. Here societies drawing from Buddhism, Hinduism,
Islam, Christianity, and Confucianism (alongside myriad other traditions)
have rubbed shoulders over centuries and created a vast profusion of
distinctive yet ever-shifting cultures. It is among the most dynamic regions
on earth.
Mainland Southeast Asia, the southern apron of the continent of East Asia, is
home to hundreds of ethnic groups that are today the citizens of Myanmar,
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Island (or maritime) Southeast Asia
includes the Malay Peninsula and two huge archipelagos whose even more
diverse populations are now citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore,
Brunei, East Timor, and the Philippines. The entire region stretches some
3,000 miles from end to end and 2,500 miles north to south, an area larger
than Europe. It contains 625 million people, around 9 percent of the world’s
For the most part, Southeast Asia is verdant and wet, with rainfalls averaging
60 inches a year and, in many places, monsoon rains that arrive reliably each
year to water the rice fields, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees that for
centuries have sustained its rural villages. But here and there drier patches are
found where rain is scarce. In eastern Indonesia people say that their arid
islands are the dirt flicked from the fingernails of the Creator after he finished
making the rest of the world.
Although Southeast Asia’s complex wind, water, and elevation patterns have
created multiple human habitats, scholars have found it useful to begin with
two archetypal ones: hills and plains. Large expanses of the region rise above
1,000 feet. Until very recently, these hills and mountains have been a world
apart, an alternative human habitat dominated by dense old-growth forests
interlaced by free-flowing rivers and streams. In these vast and inaccessible
uplands, farmers developed strategies for living sustainably by creating
temporary hill farms amid the forest—by cutting down a patch of trees,
burning the debris, and planting rice and other crops amid the charred
remains. A hillside “swidden” like this could be bountiful for a year or two,
after which the farmers moved on to another patch as the old one wooded
over again and restored the forest.
Hill farms of this kind existed everywhere in Southeast Asia, enabling highly
diverse customs and characterized by distinctive textiles, jewelry, tattoos,
handcrafts, and spiritual practices. From Myanmar to the Philippines
hundreds of such groups could be found. One may have heard of the Lisu,
Mien, and Hmong of the Burma-Thai-Lao uplands, the Rhade and other
Montagnards of Vietnam, the Iban of Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Ifugao
and Mangyan of the Philippines. Hill peoples like these maintained a variety
of contacts with their lowland neighbors, most especially an up-river and
down-river exchange of forest products (rattan, damar, bird’s nests) for
lowland valuables such as heirloom porcelains and outboard motors.
Otherwise, they remained aloof, clinging to the sanctuary provided by their
inaccessible habitat.
These small populations of resilient, adaptable, and often-shifting hill folk
built their longhouses and villages along the free-flowing mountain rivers
that eventually flowed downward, aggregated with other branches, and
formed the great tidal rivers of Southeast Asia’s lowland plains.
Just as slash-and-burn farming became the dominant agricultural pattern of
the hills, wet-rice farming dominated the plains. Instead of temporary
swiddens, in the lowlands farmers created permanent, bunded fields designed
to capture water and manage its depth as green rice plants sprouted, rose
through the shallow waters of the artificial pond, and finally matured and
yellowed as farmers drained the paddies to make dry fields at harvest time.
For centuries past and until today, paddy fields have dominated the cultivated
landscape of lowland Southeast Asia and supported its large sedentary
populations, even as vast tracts of lowlands also remained forested until
recent times.
Interspersed with vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and lush groves of trees,
this verdant lowland habitat has supported large populations of farmers as
well as the region’s major societies and states throughout history. It is the
plains that host Southeast Asia’s larger ethnic groups—the Burmans, Thai,
Khmer, Vietnamese, Malay, Javanese, Filipino—as well as the greater
concentrations of people adhering to major world religions. Most of
Southeast Asia’s Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus are people of
the plains. In short, almost always when we speak of Southeast Asia, we are
speaking of the lowland societies of the plains.
Today, the old dichotomy of hills and plains is breaking down. Once a lightly
populated region, Southeast Asia is now bursting with people. And they are
changing its old landscapes—penetrating the hills to open giant mines and to
harvest logs and palm oil; overtaking forests, vacant wetlands, and vast acres
of village rice paddies to create a modern landscape of exploding megacities,
sprawling suburbs, and burgeoning industrial zones; and blanketing great
swaths of countryside with agribusiness plantations that produce bananas,
coconuts, sugar, and rubber. Shrimp and fish farms now cover the region’s
coasts, which once were lined with mangroves.
1. Contemporary Southeast Asia and its nation-states
In Southeast Asia today, no one is wholly off the grid. Even the most remote
mountain sanctuaries and islands are within reach of the capital, technology,
and machinery of government that are pulling every group and place into the
matrix of globalization. For the Iban of the hills of central Borneo, it is
logging and oil-palm plantations. For the Ifugao of upland Luzon, it is
hydroelectric dams. For the Montagnards of Vietnam, it is robusta coffee
farms. For the forest Tiboli of Indonesia’s remote Halmahera island, it is
nickel mines. Everywhere it is the same. Meanwhile, as the long arms of the
global marketplace reach deep into Southeast Asia, so do the tax collectors,
engineers, and schoolteachers of the region’s national governments, asserting
their claims of sovereignty over far-flung and disparate citizens and their
valuable resources. Armies also play a role, keeping restive minorities in
check and disciplining, often by use of violence, the state’s claim to power.
In this climate of tectonic change, millions of people are on the move,
shifting from forests into timber and mining camps, from villages into towns,
and from towns into cities and megacities. Great numbers are migrating
across national borders to seek work in neighboring countries. Tens of
thousands every year are being trafficked as sex workers, domestic servants,
and fishing-fleet boatmen. Others are fleeing violence and harassment into
refugee camps and to new homes abroad. Southeast Asia is static only on the
Complicating these large forces is a mind-boggling heterogeneity of
languages, dialects, ethnicities, religions, and customs. In Southeast Asia,
multiple complex societies exist side by side. These societies have been
shaped by centuries of interaction not only with each other but also with India
and China and, in recent centuries, with newcomers from the West—the
Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and Americans, whose colonies
in the region prefigured today’s nation-states. The region’s complex roots and
its contemporary character are belied by the simplicity of the map and of
popular perceptions. We talk glibly of Burmese, Filipinos, Indonesians, and
Thais as though they were essential human types. Likewise, we speak of
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Singapore as entities fixed in time. These
are convenient constructions, it is true, but, as in all such constructions, they
mask complex realities.
Snapshots from the neighborhood
Today, all of Southeast Asia’s countries conform to the model of the nation-
state. Yet as nation-states they are remarkably different. Some are democratic
federations and republics, others are “people’s democratic republics,” still
others are kingdoms. They are led by prime ministers, presidents, party
secretaries, sultans, and kings. As national societies, writ large, they are
Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian. Two are officially Marxist. But they
contain within them adherents of almost every other religion on earth as well
as legions of spirit and ancestor cults—since even in these most modern of
times, the spirits must be attended to. Each country in its unique way is
typically Southeast Asian.
Among the predominantly Buddhist countries of the mainland, Thailand
stands out as the largest by territory and second largest by population (c. 69
million in 2017). It is significantly more prosperous than its neighbors. A
sometime democracy and oftentimes a military-led state, it coalesces around
the memory of its famous nineteenth-century kings and its still-revered royal
family. Cunning political actors, Thai elites avoided overt colonialism (the
only Southeast Asian kingdom to do so), dodged the ravages of World War II
by collaborating with Japan, and maneuvered astutely through the dangerous
years of the Cold War by aligning themselves with the United States.
Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is on the rise, its strong
economy is drawing migrants from neighboring countries, and its middle
class is blossoming. Its capital, Bangkok, shines as a leading Southeast Asian
mega city with a vibrant arts scene, business sector, and an alluring
cosmopolitan face, including its smiling generals.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s neighbor to the west, Myanmar (Burma), a Buddhist
society much like Thailand with a population almost as large, paints a
different picture. By the numbers, it is one of Southeast Asia’s poorest.
(Thailand’s GDP per capita is seven times higher.) Once a proud kingdom
like Thailand, its nineteenth-century kings were defeated by British armies
and then banished as Burma was subsumed within the British Empire. It was
a heavily contested theater of war in World War II, when its emergent
national leaders both collaborated with and resisted the Japanese. With
independence in 1948 came a dysfunctional democracy, then decade upon
decade of military rule under Ne Win and his development program that
wedded Buddhism and socialism. By the 1980s, Burma was backward,
isolated, and riven by armed rebellions. A democracy movement led by Aung
San Suu Kyi and subsequent political and economic reforms in recent years
have weakened the grip of the army, ended the country’s isolation, and
brought elected governments to power, alongside a flood of new investments.
Yet the house of Myanmar remains bitterly divided. As the world is rushing
in, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s beleaguered minority subjects are
taking desperate measures to rush out.
Cambodia, to the east of Thailand, is the site of one of Southeast Asia’s
monstrous modern atrocities. The dark clouds of the Khmer Rouge and their
“Killing Fields” (1975–1978) still hang over the nation today. Heirs of the
once-monumental kingdom of Angkor (800s–1400s), Cambodia’s kings of
the nineteenth century attempted to steer their much-diminished kingdom to
safety under French protection. Cambodia thus entered the twentieth century
and the travails of World War II as part of French Indochina with its residual
monarchy neutered but intact. Hence it was a king, Norodom Sihanouk, who,
repackaged as a president, took over when France departed in 1953 and who
attempted to steer his small Buddhist kingdom to safety through the
treacherous shoals of the Cold War, including the hot war in neighboring
Vietnam. His failure and intensive U.S. bombing in Cambodia led directly to
the triumph of the Khmer Rouge and the murder and manslaughter of more
than two million people and, after 1979, to a long recuperation involving
occupation by both Vietnam and the United Nations. Cambodia survives
today as a small Buddhist kingdom of 16 million people with a constitutional
monarch—Sihanouk’s son—and a quasi-elected strongman prime minister
who is also a former Khmer Rouge commander.
In Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia today, national leaders invoke the
language of democracy and representative government even though in
practice this remains largely an aspiration. Thailand is ruled, off and on, by
an army junta; in Myanmar and Cambodia elections are held, but one might
say that democracy as it is practiced remains highly compromised by
authoritarian power structures. Southeast Asia’s two other mainland states are
unapologetically one-party states.
Modern Laos, a traditionally Buddhist society much like its neighbors, was
formed from an amalgamation of princely domains into another French
protectorate in the 1890s. The colony’s affiliation with French Indochina
drew it into Vietnam’s long war for independence, which ended after years of
confusion and turmoil in 1975 with a government led by the Communist
Party in both countries. One of the quieter corners of Southeast Asia, the Lao
People’s Democratic Republic remains a highly agrarian and still largely
Buddhist society where the largest city, Vientiane, hosts fewer than 1 million
people. The former royal capital at Luang Prabang, upriver from Vientiane
and much smaller, is renowned for its grace. The lowland Lao majority
populates the country’s narrow river valleys, yet a full 90 percent of the
country’s territory rises above 600 feet and is populated by non-Lao,
swidden-farming hill peoples. Today, the long arm of globalization is
reaching deep into Laos from every side, including from China, the country
with which it shares a porous 263-mile-long border.
Vietnam’s independence movement led by the Communists under Ho Chi
Minh and its eventual triumph over both France and the United States is a
legendary epic in modern Southeast Asian history. This is how the once
domineering Confucian kingdom of Vietnam, humiliated and colonized by
France in the nineteenth century, abandoned its feudal trappings to rise as
Southeast Asia’s strongest and, today with more than 95 million people,
largest Communist state. Vietnam’s victorious revolutionary struggle gave its
Communist Party great authority, and the party rules up until now, despite
having long since abandoned many tenets of communist ideology. In today’s
fast-changing Vietnam, the market is in full play and old enemies are
becoming new allies.
In island Southeast Asia, Indonesia dominates. With a population of more
than 263 million people, it is not only the largest country in Southeast Asia
but the fourth-largest country in the world. This far-flung archipelago once
hosted literally hundreds of kingdoms before being patched together into a
massive tropical colony by the Dutch—a project that took three hundred
years. In the early twentieth century young nationalists reimagined the Dutch
East Indies as Indonesia. Through the violent interruption of World War II
and after four years of revolution, in 1949 it came to be. Islam is the
dominant religious culture here. And among the country’s hundreds of
ethnicities, the Javanese rule the roost.
Like Cambodia, Indonesia also became the site of mass killings during the
region’s wrenching left-right power struggles of the Cold War era. In
Cambodia, Communists were the perpetrators. In Indonesia, in 1965,
Communists were the victims, with some 500,000 party members and
affiliates dead in army-led executions and massacres that lasted months. The
military regime that followed continued for more than thirty years but it has
been followed by a substantial new experiment in democracy. This includes,
these days, suspenseful, hotly contested multiparty elections.
Two of Indonesia’s near neighbors in the same great archipelago, Malaysia
and Singapore, also owe their modern configurations to European empire-
building. These territories—including the Malay Peninsula and adjacent
islands as well as a large swath of northern Borneo—were cobbled together
piecemeal by generations of builders of the British Empire. The territories
included several Malay sultanates or mini-kingdoms, two privately held
colonial domains in Borneo under British protection (Sarawak and Sabah),
and two offshore island trade emporiums populated largely by Chinese
migrants and other newcomers that were created by the British (Singapore
and Penang). As Britain retreated from empire following World War II, it
fashioned this odd collection of colonial remnants into a nation-state called
Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore, the larger, richer, and most conspicuously
Chinese of the trade hubs, subsequently withdrew to strike out on its own.
The others have become today’s Federation of Malaysia, another of Southeast
Asia’s authoritarian democracies in which a single political party dominates
in collaboration with multisectarian coalition partners. A constitutional
monarch is the symbolic face of the nation: Malaysia’s king is a Malay
sultan. One of Southeast Asia’s smaller states, at 31 million, Malaysia is also
one of its more prosperous ones, with a GDP per capita twice that of
But Singapore is far richer. Indeed, Singapore’s GDP per capita tops that of
the United States. An anomaly in Southeast Asia as a predominantly ethnic
Chinese city-state, Singapore is also one of the region’s smallest countries,
with six million people. Politically, it is a parliamentary democracy in which
a single party wholly dominates. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has no
coalition partners. This has been true since Singapore’s founding days under
Lee Kuan Yew, the island nation’s extraordinary prime minister, founder of
the PAP, architect of the country’s remarkable rise, and author of its unique
way of doing things in which Confucianism, capitalism, socialism, and state-
sponsored social engineering all play a part.
The final major nation of island Southeast Asia is anomalous in another way.
Spain aggregated the islands of Southeast Asia’s other large archipelago
more than four hundred years ago and called the new entity Las Philipinas
(the Philippines), after King Philip II. Under Spanish sway, the archipelago’s
lowland people adapted Christianity and evolved as a Southeast Asian society
with considerable Spanish influence until being seized by the United States at
the turn of the twentieth century. The Philippines today, with more than 103
million people, reflects this dual heritage. It is flamboyantly democratic and
election-loving and at the same time strikingly oligarchic, with a governing
class whose members compete aggressively with each other for public office
and seldom yield power to the masses below. In the Philippines, elite-led
democracy has proved stronger than dictatorship, an option famously tested
by Ferdinand Marcos beginning in 1972 and rejected in a popular nonviolent
mass movement led by Corazon Aquino in 1986. Subsequent elected
presidents have included a retired general, a movie star, and the daughter of
one former president and the son of another (Aquino’s son, Benigno Aquino
III) as well as the strong-arm populist Rodrigo Duterte, yet another scion of
the governing class.
Two countries remain. The sultanate of Brunei, which rests in a tiny molar-
shaped pocket of territory surrounded by Malaysian Borneo, is all that
remains of a kingdom that once was much larger. But that which remains
rests on one of the richest oil and gas deposits in Asia, making tiny Brunei,
population 500,000, a source of stupendous wealth both for its sultan and the
royal family and for Brunei Shell Petroleum. Once a British protectorate like
its immediate neighbors, the sultanate declined Britain’s offer to join
Malaysia and carries on today as Southeast Asia’s only remaining absolute
East Timor, or Timor-Leste, is not so lucky. Occupying the eastern half of the
island of Timor in the eastern Indonesian archipelago and with a per capital
income of less than U.S. $4,000, it has few resources and little wealth.
Evolving for centuries as a remote outpost of Portugal’s increasingly
impoverished empire, East Timor was jolted into the contemporary world in
1975 when Portugal moved out and Indonesia moved in, claiming the
territory as a province. Its current generation of leadership emerged under the
turmoil and brutality of the unwelcome Indonesian occupation and the small
country’s eventual liberation in 1999 and full sovereignty in 2002.
Even this poor, remote, and small Southeast Asian country illustrates the
region’s underlying pluralism and complex entanglements with the wider
world. The 1.2 million people of East Timor comprise ten and more distinct
Malayo-Polynesian and Papuan ethnic groups spread across a hilly,
hardscrabble terrain. Sixteen indigenous languages are spoken in addition to
the vernacular lingua franca, Tetum. During the recent twenty-nine-year
Indonesian occupation, many people also learned to speak Indonesian.
Today, they are learning English. Even so, the country’s small elite chose
Portuguese as the official national language. The Roman Catholic Church
claims 90 percent of the population, yet everywhere local spirits vie with the
saints for people’s devotion. Aside from some coffee, cinnamon, and cocoa,
East Timor’s modern economy produces little for the world’s hungry
markets, and its hopes for prosperity lie offshore in oil and gas deposits that
are also claimed by Australia. With global markets in mind, the country’s
leaders have adopted as its national currency the U.S. dollar.
Southeast Asia and the world
These quick portraits of today’s Southeast Asian countries reveal the degree
to which they have been shaped by engagements with the wider world. In
modern times, the expansive powers of the West have played the dominant
role. But geography is destiny. Over the long haul nearby states and
civilizations in Asia have played a greater role. The archipelagos, waterways,
and riverine lowlands of Southeast Asia lie adjacent to, and exposed to, two
of the world’s great radiating civilizations. Traffic from India and China
began early in history and has remained constant through the centuries. The
Straits of Melaka have been a heavily traveled maritime passageway for two
thousand years. Southeast Asians established harbor-town entrepôts to
capture this trade. Through them the luxury goods of India and China
penetrated the region’s inland kingdoms, along with new gods and goddesses,
art forms, languages, and words.
Southeast Asians were especially attracted to India’s civilizations and
borrowed heavily over many centuries, shaping innumerable aspects of
Southeast Asia today. During the same centuries, China’s merchants
penetrated from the north bearing porcelains, silks, useful tools, and everyday
objects to Southeast Asian harbor towns large and small. In these entrepôts,
the goods of India and China changed hands alongside the spices, aromatic
oils and woods, birds’ nests, sea slugs, and pearls that Southeast Asians
themselves brought to the market. No Indian kingdom ruled territories in
Southeast Asia, but several Chinese dynasties occupied the Vietnamese
homeland of Dai Viet for a thousand years before the Vietnamese broke away
in 939 CE, placing an indelible Chinese stamp on the independent kingdom
that emerged. China also pressed into the small kingdoms along Southeast
Asia’s northernmost tier and accepted tribute from others farther south on the
mainland and in the islands, including the tiny gold-rich kingdom of Butuan
in the south Philippine Archipelago, which sent five missions to China in the
early 1000s.
The wave of Western imperialism in the modern era hemmed in the power of
China for more than one hundred years and brought India wholly within the
British Empire. Even so, during these same years migration from China to
Southeast Asia greatly expanded, profoundly altering the region’s
demography and economy. Today, a resurgent China is reprising its historical
role in Southeast Asian commerce and also in asserting its regional
preeminence. It is a primary trading partner of virtually every Southeast
Asian country and the source of billions in investment annually. It looms
large. More than India, it also figures centrally in Southeast Asia’s security
Aside from Thailand, none of today’s Southeast Asian nations existed as
independent states seventy years ago. In 1945, each one was reeling in the
wake of the dramatic rise and fall of imperial Japan, whose empire during
World War II embraced all of Southeast Asia. After the war, some of
Southeast Asia’s newly independent nations formed security alliances with
their former colonizers. This was true of the Philippines, which in 1954
joined the United States–led Cold War pact called the Southeast Asia Treaty
Organization (SEATO), alongside Thailand, which also placed itself within
the anticommunist camp. Malaysia and Singapore did the same in alliance
with Britain through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).
In Vietnam, after being rebuffed by the United States, Ho Chi Minh aligned
his eventually successful revolutionary movement and the post-1954
Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam with the Soviet Union and China,
even as the post-1954 state of South Vietnam was supported and defended by
the United States and its regional allies. Meanwhile, others took a neutral
path and declared themselves nonaligned. Alongside Burma, these countries
included Cambodia and Indonesia, whose famously mercurial leaders
Sihanouk and Sukarno, respectively played to both sides in the great global
The 1965 massacres of Communists in Indonesia and the onset of military
rule under Suharto, following Sukarno’s fall, led to a significant shift.
Suharto quickly brought his country into the U.S.-led anti-communist orbit.
This set the stage for the region’s first successful regional organization. In
1967, Indonesia, together with Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the
Philippines, formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The association was emphatically not a security alliance; rather, it was
formed as a platform for mutual cooperation. Through its early meetings and
nascent committee structure, the five disparate countries began working out
many of the practical aspects of living in one neighborhood, such as aligning
their postal services, air traffic control, and telecommunications.
ASEAN’s founding members signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in
1976 that struck at the heart of their security fears: they pledged to respect
each other’s sovereignty and to renounce the use of force in their relations
with each other. This became the basis for the “ASEAN Way,” an approach
to resolving differences that avoided confrontation and favored patience over
haste. What happens inside your borders is your business, not your
neighbor’s business. What cannot be agreed upon will be postponed.
Although following the ASEAN Way meant that problem-solving could be
glacial, it also meant that on the existential matter of state sovereignty
member states could feel safe with one another. This proved to be a great
At first and for many years, ASEAN represented Southeast Asia’s
anticommunist club; the sultanate of Brunei joined in 1984 upon its
independence from Britain. But as the fate of Vietnam was resolved after
1975 and the fires of the Cold War eventually abated, the usefulness of the
organization and the value of its philosophy became apparent to other
members of the neighborhood. The communist states and other outliers all
applied to join. Vietnam was first in 1995 followed by Laos and Myanmar in
1997 and Cambodia in 1999. East Timor awaits membership.
In the intervening years, ASEAN has served as the scaffolding for an
elaborate structure of diplomatic relations both among the member states and
between the collective members and the rest of the world. ASEAN
coordinates officially with China, Japan, and South Korea in ASEAN+3, and
its dialogue partners in the annual ASEAN Regional Forum include the major
powers of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. ASEAN enjoys observer status at
the United Nations General Assembly, and in 2001 it became officially a
nuclear-weapons-free zone. Although ASEAN’s honor-thy-neighbor policy
has thwarted some much-needed reforms, its tolerant philosophy has allowed
the association to endure and remain relevant. Today it is the format through
which the region is exploring more advanced levels of cooperation in areas
such as free trade, labor exchanges, and a monetary union.
ASEAN is only one mechanism through which Southeast Asian countries
seek security today. With an eye to China and to new security threats
represented by terrorism, unruly population flows, and environmental alarms,
many of the nations maintain close ties with the West and also cultivate good
relations with China, Japan, and South Korea, which are important trading
partners, aid givers, and potential diplomatic allies. Militarily, no Southeast
Asian country is in a position to secure itself independently. Only Vietnam
has raised a large standing army in recent history, and despite rising military
budgets and larger fleets of (mostly aging, secondhand) warplanes and
warships, none of them today possesses the wherewithal to stand alone.
Instead, each one engages in a variety of balancing tactics designed both to
engage with the large powers of the world, on the one hand, and to keep them
at a distance, on the other.
In this process today, China is all important. All of Southeast Asia’s countries
welcome Chinese investments to a degree. Chinese goods pour across the
porous borders of the mainland states and fill the provincial markets and city
stores and malls. It is hardly different in the islands. Chinese private and
state-connected companies are aggressively expanding in Southeast Asia in
the mining, agribusiness, and tourism sectors as well as in transportation and
hydroelectricity. (In Laos, where China accounts for 40 percent of foreign
investment, Chinese companies are building casinos, five-star hotels, banana
and rubber plantations, and dozens of hydroelectric dams.) Meanwhile, China
is expanding its strategic presence into Southeast Asia in the South China
Sea. Diplomacy can contain these mounting pressures to a degree, but
momentum on the Chinese side and weak leverage on the Southeast Asian
side make this penetration more or less unstoppable. China cannot be
contained. It must be engaged.
These days, Southeast Asian officials meet with Chinese officials at every
level, both bilaterally and through ASEAN’s consultative structures. More
significantly, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia,
Malaysia, and the Philippines have established military-to-military links with
China to facilitate aid and loans, joint training exercises, and joint production
of military equipment, as well as a forum for discussing security issues.
China has claimed ASEAN as a strategic partner. In 2003 it signed ASEAN’s
foundational Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, pledging to eschew armed
conflict and to respect the sovereignty and internal integrity of its neighbors.
At the same time, most of the ASEAN countries also have security ties with
the United States and welcome the presence of the American Seventh Fleet,
which patrols the all-important Melaka Straits and posts some twenty
thousand military personnel in the region at any given time. Singapore serves
as the logistics center of the American fleet and provides both its naval base
and its airfields. Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia have signed military
access agreements, and both Thailand and the Philippines have been granted
special access to U.S. intelligence as major non-NATO allies. Under a
visiting forces agreement signed in 1999, the Philippines has invited
thousands of U.S. soldiers to assist in its war against Muslim separatists and
to engage in war games. Indonesia is happy to buy advanced weapons from
the United States under special agreement and sends its officers for training
in the United States. Even Vietnam is slowly opening its ports to the
American navy and receives a modest U.S. military aid package. (Vietnam
continues to acquire most of its arms from Russia, however—another
balancing strategy.) Meanwhile, Britain and other members of the Five
Power Defence Arrangements continue to support Malaysia.
Writ large, these complex arrangements balancing China and the United
States (and other powers such as Great Britain, Japan, and Russia) are not
designed with specific quid pro quos in mind, although much fine print is
involved. Their real purpose is to create a web of interlocking and
overlapping alliances and relationships that mitigates against predatory
behavior and the resort to force. This is a familiar Southeast Asian approach
to things. When trouble looms, rally your friends. Indonesian president Joko
Widodo was not being glib when he described his country’s foreign policy as
“a thousand friends and no enemies.”
Elites and national economies
The governing classes in Southeast Asia today have their roots in the deep
past and also in more recent history. Lineage matters in Southeast Asia. In
Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia constitutional monarchies reveal the
contemporary appeal of aristocracy. Princes and princesses and hierarchies of
titled people continue to exist. In Thailand, virtually all of the country’s
elected and nonelected leaders (conspicuously its power-seizing generals)
pledge their loyalty to the king. In Malaysia, a parliamentary democracy, all
but one of the country’s prime ministers since independence has hailed from
a royal lineage. In places where these feudal trappings have been officially
abandoned, such as Indonesia, politicians and even military dictators
routinely claim aristocratic roots. Sukarno did so, as did Suharto, through his
wife. The Philippines lacks such an aristocracy but most of its leading
politicians descend from wealthy provincial clans whose preeminence dates
from Spanish times. Indeed, virtually everywhere in the region, many of
today’s elites are descendants of families that have enjoyed privileged status
for generations, if not for centuries.
The colonial states that dominated Southeast Asia until World War II did not
supplant indigenous elites; they subordinated them. Everywhere members of
upper-class families continued to serve as officials in the colonial states.
More importantly, colonial regimes generally limited education in Western
languages and advanced subjects to members of high-status families. (This is
how Sukarno became a Dutch-speaking engineer and how Tunku Abdul
Rahman became an English-speaking lawyer.) This status enabled them to
come forward as modern leaders in the twentieth century—to lead reformist
and nationalist movements and, at independence, to become the governing
classes of the region’s new nations. (Sukarno as Indonesia’s founding
president, Tunku Abdul Rahman as the founding prime minister of
Malaysia.) Independence and the advent of military rule opened new paths to
political leadership; as armies became institutionalized and matured, officer
corps merged into the governing classes in Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia.
In Vietnam and also in Laos, it was the Communist Party that offered new
avenues to power, as senior cadres and their families formed the country’s
new elite.
These people of high status emerged as governing classes in societies with
largely agrarian economies and only rudimentary processing and
manufacturing sectors. For the most part, they themselves and their families
were not people of business. They tended to draw their wealth and incomes
from landed properties, rent-seeking, and the perquisites of officialdom. For
the most part, business and industry and the realm of money were the
domains of Southeast Asians of Chinese descent. The roots of this
phenomenon also lay in the colonial period when a combination of new
opportunities in the Western colonies and catastrophes in China led hundreds
of thousands of migrants to the region. Colonial laws and policies steered
them away from rural landowning and into towns and cities, where they
flourished as laborers, artisans, shopkeepers, and capitalists large and small.
This occurred everywhere in Southeast Asia but was complemented in British
domains by the arrival of Indians, who played similar roles but on a smaller
scale. Chinese migrants became modern Southeast Asia’s essential urbanites
—Kuala Lumpur was founded by the mining camp boss Yap Ah Loy—and
formed a distinctive commercial class.
The majority of these migrants were men, and their marriages to local women
created mixed Chinese-Southeast Asian families everywhere. In the
Philippines and Thailand, this mestizo class blended with high-status
indigenous families and became an integral part of the nascent national elite.
Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, former president of the Philippines, is
exemplary of this important trend: her great-grandfather was a certain Co Yu
Hwan, who migrated to the Spanish Philippines from China in the nineteenth
century. Her family and many others like it are quintessentially Filipino by
culture. Elsewhere, the evolving Chinese and Chinese-mestizo communities
remained distinctively apart. This is true in today’s Malaysia, Indonesia, and
Singapore. New migrations in the twentieth century and the arrival of ever
larger numbers of Chinese women also created distinctively Chinese
communities even in societies with a high level of assimilation, so that we
may speak of Chinese Filipinos, Sino-Thai, and Sino-Vietnamese.
The pride of place of the Chinese in the region’s economy and the
community’s conspicuous well-being compared with the region’s indigenous
majorities have long been sore points. A common feature of policies
following World War II in many Southeast Asian countries has been an
attempt to use the powers of government to place more of the nation’s wealth
and potential wealth in the hands of its indigenous elites—and to enrich its
indigenous populations as well. To a degree, they have succeeded.
Southeast Asians have long profited by participating in trade, introducing
their own valuable products into the vital stream of commerce that connected
India to China and to the wider world. (Cloves, which once grew only on a
cluster of remote Southeast Asian islands, were mentioned in Pliny’s Natural
History [first century CE] and have been identified in the archaeological
remains of an ancient Mesopotamian pantry.) Under European rule in recent
centuries, commodities from Southeast Asia, such as coffee, sugar, tea,
tobacco, and rubber, reached global markets alongside timber, minerals, and
petroleum. Up until independence, the immense profits of this economy
accrued mainly to the European and American capitalists, and their
employees and shareholders, and to the local Chinese merchants, shippers,
contractors, agents, and suppliers who made it logistically possible. For the
most part, indigenous Southeast Asians participated in this economy as
laborers, clerical workers, and small-time cash croppers and traders.
Following independence, Southeast Asian governing classes strove to redirect
many of these profits to Southeast Asians themselves and, at the same time,
to diversify their national economies by advancing manufacturing and other
sectors. In this project, government has itself played a key role everywhere.
By intervening directly in key sectors (such as rice, petroleum, and energy),
licensing lucrative subsectors (importing automobiles, machinery, food
additives, medicines), granting monopoly concessions to, say, harvest timber
on government land or to establish telecommunication grids, and controlling
access to loans from government banks and serving as brokers between
foreign aid givers and local aid recipients, Southeast Asian governments and
their regime elites have enriched themselves. They have also nourished their
supporters through vast patronage networks connecting politicians, army
generals, and dictators at the top to tiers of bureaucrats, officials, supplicant
businesspeople, and party members on down to the lowest tiers, which, in
some places, actually include voters.
Patron-client pyramids like this vary from society to society and regime to
regime and take on new shapes and functions as rural people become city
people, but in Southeast Asia today they underpin social structures
everywhere. Built upon personal obligations and connections—who do you
know?—they privilege loyalty over the law. They are vulnerable to nepotism,
bribery, and other corruptions, but they are also highly resilient and flexible
and make it possible for societies to cohere even as economies flounder and
governments change. In democratic systems, patron-client pyramids realign
after elections as new members of the governing class achieve top positions.
They undergo major realignments with major regime changes. This occurred
when Ferdinand Marcos seized power in the Philippines, for example, and
when Suharto’s dictatorship collapsed in Indonesia.
These underlying social constructs help to explain why Southeast Asia,
despite many disruptions, is a relatively stable global region in which
governing elites of various kinds seek prosperity and security by both co-
opting and resisting the entreaties of greater powers—balancing this one
against that one—and opportunistically manipulating access to the national
Although in the early years of independence several Southeast Asian
governments attempted to protect nascent home industries behind tariff walls
in a strategy called import substitution, most of them eventually concluded
that opening their economies to foreign investors paid higher dividends, as
did prioritizing their historical strengths exporting commodities, minerals,
and petroleum. Today commodities from Southeast Asia are pouring into
China as well as into the rising economies of South Korea and Japan and the
industrial West. This development is enriching many people in Southeast
Asia, and it also accounts for the transformation of the region’s environment.
Meanwhile, in most countries of the region, governments have also promoted
industrialization and the growth of high-tech manufacturing that
complements the resource sector and protects national economies against the
vagaries of shifting global commodity prices. In Thailand, the Philippines,
Malaysia, and Indonesia—Southeast Asia’s newly industrialized countries
(NICs)—these sectors are advanced. In Singapore they are so advanced,
alongside cutting-edge banking and financial services, that the country is one
of the richest in the world as measured by GDP per capita and other
measures. (The Sultanate of Brunei is rich for another reason.) A huge gap
separates Singapore from Malaysia, the second most prosperous country in
the region, and a large gap again separates Malaysia from the other NICs.
Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and East Timor remain poor by any standard, with a
large majority of their populations still bound to the land and only nascent
modern sectors. Even so, in each one, resource extraction in the form of
logging, hydroelectricity, raw materials, and, in Burma’s case, petroleum, is
generating wealth for rulers and their clients as new investments from China
are drawing even these slow-growing states into the needy matrix of
The rich complexities of modern Southeast Asia—its radical heterogeneity;
its hills and plains; its great cities and agricultural hinterlands; its dynamic
engagement with the outside world; its presidents, prime ministers,
domineering military men, and kings; and its asymmetrical prosperity—all
have roots deep in history. Southeast Asia is unquestionably of the moment.
It is modern, but it is modern in distinctively Southeast Asian ways.
Chapter 2
Rice is the foundation of Southeast Asian life. The discovery of rice
cultivation appears to have occurred in southern China. People living in
Southeast Asia were its early adapters. By the second or third millennium
BCE, they were growing rice, domesticating pigs, chickens, and cattle, and
forming the region’s earliest settled communities in several mainland areas
congruent with present-day northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaya. By the
5th century BCE, they had become iron and bronze workers. Their large and
elaborate funnel-shaped bronze drums decorated with frogs, birds, and
warriors in long boats—often called Dong Son drums from a key
archaeological site in northern Vietnam—became one of the region’s first
items of luxury trade and dispersed throughout much of Southeast Asia.
In these early centuries, people occupied particularly favorable niches of the
region’s habitat, taking advantage of abundant fish, fruits, and animal life as
they formed settled rice-growing (and in places millet-, sago-, taro-, and yam-
growing) communities. These people, alongside later arrivals, were the
ancestors of today’s Southeast Asians, whose small communities barely
altered the landscape as they formed amid Southeast Asia’s vast tropical
2. Wet-rice farmers work in the paddy fields of Vietnam. For centuries
past and until today, paddy fields have dominated the cultivated
landscape of lowland Southeast Asia and supported its large sedentary
We know little about the organization of these early societies or about how
these early farmers and fisherfolk at some point first morphed into nascent
polities or mini-states under the leadership of local strongmen and their kin
and allies. In these times when land was plentiful and people were few, the
key to amassing power lay in controlling people, not in amassing territory.
By c. 250–540 CE, a large early state had emerged in a coastal area adjacent
to the lower Mekong River: Funan, Southeast Asia’s first “recorded”
kingdom, that is, recorded by Chinese observers, who may have been
exaggerating. For practical purposes, Funan marks the beginning of Southeast
Asia’s political history.
From Funan and for many centuries afterward, evidence is strong that the
vast majority of Southeast Asian polities were small and local, consisting of
local lords and strongmen, petty kings, perhaps, ruling over pockets of
population amid the domineering forest. Many of these early polities lay
nested along the fertile plains of the Mekong, Chao Phraya, Irrawaddy, and
Red Rivers, and along similar but shorter rivers that formed fertile plains in
Java, Luzon, and other island sites. Other favored sites were river mouths and
coastlines where abundant fish and opportunities to trade led to the
establishment of early harbor towns augmented by nearby villages of farmers.
Here and there, fertile upland valleys also hosted small states based on wet-
rice farming and the presence of gold or gem mines and other resources. This
occurred, for example, in West Sumatra and in the Shan and Thai highlands.
These early pockets of settled people may have been no larger than a few
hundred or a few thousand people, although some grew larger; the
permanence and fecundity of wet-rice farming made this possible. At any
given time in these early centuries there may have been hundreds of such
mini-states spread across the mainland and islands, each with a king or raja
or, later, when Islam took hold in the islands, a sultan of its own. This pattern
of extreme disaggregation reflected the radical heterogeneity of the people
themselves, with their hundreds of languages and dialects and emerging
ethnicities. Such small polities were the norm.
But occasionally, one such king or strong man succeeded in establishing
domination over a larger area by conquering or otherwise subordinating his
neighbors, thus making a larger kingdom from several smaller ones, that is,
by subordinating more people to himself. And thus, amid a vast realm of
small states, some larger ones rose that came to dominate entire river valleys
and their plains, or a network of affiliated harbor towns or coastal
communities. And a few of these grew to become truly large states or
empires. For the most part, it is only these that we know much about.
Funan appears to have been the first of these and dominated the lower
Mekong River basin in the first centuries of the Common Era. By the 700s
and 800s CE, kings of the Sailendra dynasty had created a great densely
populated kingdom in central Java and built immense and beautiful
monuments in stone. (Borobudur and Prambanan are their legacy.) Between
the 700s and 1200s, powerful rulers based at Palembang in southern Sumatra
ruled a vast sea-based thalassocracy known as Srivijaya that controlled the
Straits of Melaka by dominating the surrounding coastal and harbor-town
polities. And by 900 or so, the Khmer kings of Angkor had achieved
domination over the rice plains of the Tonle Sap and lower Mekong basin in
the great kingdom of classical Cambodia that prevailed in varying degrees of
strength from the late 800s to the 1400s; their architectural legacy is the
monumental temple complex of Angkor. By the time of Angkor, Vietnam
(Dai Viet), which controlled the Red River delta of northern Vietnam, had
already evolved as a frontier territory of China for nearly a thousand years. It
broke free to stand on its own in 939.
In subsequent centuries, other large states emerged in ecologically predictable
sites—along the Irrawaddy River basin and delta (kingdoms of Mons,
Burmans, and Pyus); along the Chao Phraya River (the Thai); along the
central Vietnam coast (Chams); and again in Java (the great Javanese
kingdom of Majapahit [1300–1500]) and the Melaka Straits (Malay Melaka).
Although the physical and literary remains of these big kingdoms dominate
the historical record, we should understand them as only part of a wider
pattern in which a few big states like these nested amid hundreds of smaller
ones—with the autonomy of the smaller, peripheral ones either losing or
gaining in relation to the constant waxing and waning of the larger ones, and
with hill peoples always on the periphery.
A world of mandalas
The concept of the mandala helps us to explain this dynamic political world.
Indians of the classical age adopted this image to visualize the world and the
cosmos; Kautilya used it in his famous Arthashastra (c. 300 BCE) to discuss
diplomacy and war. Southeast Asians borrowed the concept and the Sanskrit
term from them. Think of a small circle that is encircled by increasingly
larger and potentially infinite concentric circles. The circles represent a
kingdom. Power rests in the center, the site of the capital and the locale of the
king and his core officials and also of the kingdom’s core population of
farmers, urbanites, and slaves over which the ruler exercises power directly
and whose labor and food production—through compulsion, taxation, and
religious donations—forms the economic basis of the state. Here also, in the
center, dwell the holy men and scholars of the king’s religious cult and the
artisans, musicians, and scribes who embellish the capital with monuments,
music, and (a veneer of) literacy.
In what we shall call a mandala kingdom, the king’s power radiated out from
the capital and, as it passed by degree through each successive concentric
circle, attenuated and eventually died out altogether or overlapped with the
outer circles of another mandala—all without crossing any clear border. In
the outer circles of his mandala, a king may not have controlled or drawn
resources from people directly but, rather, indirectly through local lords and
strong men. These vassals professed loyalty and rendered tribute, taxes,
soldiers, and slaves to the center as long as the ruler was strong enough to
coerce them. But they may have stinted on their obligations or broken free
altogether when the king was weak and ruled as independent mini-kings over
their own domains of followers and resources. Or, perhaps, they may have
been sucked into the orbit of a competing mandala whose gravity pulled from
another direction. Keep in mind that in Southeast Asia, adjacent mandalas
may well have involved different ethnicities; the underlying tensions of
mandala politics was more than a raw power struggle.
One can think of premodern Southeast Asia as a world of mandala kingdoms,
large and small, with the larger mandalas expanding and contracting by
absorbing their smaller neighbors into their orbits and contracting when
outlying domains subsequently wrested free, and with the large mandalas
competing with other large mandalas for domination of their large domains
and populations. This occurred, for example, in great wars between the
Burmans and the Thais in the 18th century.
3. Premodern Southeast Asia through c. 1800.
We think of Southeast Asia’s mandala chiefs as “men of prowess.” Their
skills included not only prowess in war but also prowess in mobilizing
followers to develop and sustain agricultural resources (in complex wet-rice
regimes, for example), to engage in trade, and to execute essential religious
rites. They were what we might today call entrepreneurs, and also politicians
in the sense that their prowess involved superior rhetorical skills and
diplomatic acumen. In the turbulent world of competing mandalas, high royal
birth placed one in competition for power but did not guarantee it. Kings had
many sons, not to mention brothers and legions of royal cousins. Queens and
their progeny formed factions at court and intrigued for position;
occasionally, they ruled. Succession disputes were routine and often violent.
It was men of prowess (and on occasion women) who prevailed.
The power of a Southeast Asian mandala’s king was measured in part by the
size and splendor of his capital with its monuments and royal trappings and
public pageantry designed to glorify the king and his cult. All this was
embellished with tiers of officials and priests and scribes, soldiers, artisans,
and other urbanites and the sea of the capital’s immediate supporting
population of farmers and slaves. Smaller kings ruling smaller mandalas
attempted to mimic this display of power with similar elements of grandeur
on a lesser scale. Underlying such displays of power were the relationships of
deference and loyalty that linked the lords of outlying circles of the mandala,
or the lords of smaller mandalas that were satellites of a greater one, to the
Coercion was a factor. Small states were conquered and seized by
neighboring larger ones. But diplomacy also played a part. A mandala lord
might simply acknowledge his deference to the center by sending gifts and
tribute—Malay sultans sent gold flowers (bunga mas) to the Siamese king.
He might contribute men to the king’s armies. Or he might send one of his
daughters or sisters to become one of the king’s royal wives, thus cementing
a power relationship with a family one. Such relationships, we assume, varied
case by case, each one in a more or less constant process of negotiation as the
screws tightened when the dominant ruler was strong and loosened when he
was weak.
In smaller mandala kingdoms, Southeast Asian rulers presided over
populations of farmers, slaves, and urban folk in a single niche habitat along
a river, at a river mouth or favorable coastal site, or a fertile upland valley (as
in the Yunnan–Southeast Asia cusp of northern Burma, Laos, and Vietnam).
Here management of the realm could be more or less direct and executed by
loyal kin and officials who answered directly to the king. But as the mandala
expanded, taking in the territories of neighboring leaders and rival ethnicities,
controlling the realm involved indirect arrangements in which local lords and
their families and other elites (and their ways of doing things) were
incorporated into the power structure of the large mandala, where they might
remain only briefly or for several generations. Aside from establishing family
ties between rulers and vassals through marriage, patron-client calculations
applied in which the advantages of loyalty to the center were weighed against
the costs of lost resources and the sting of deference.
4. In Southeast Asia’s mandala kingdoms—conceptualized abstractly in
this map—the king’s power radiated out from the capital, diminished
with distance, and eventually died out without crossing any clear border.
One can imagine the immense complexity of large mandala states in which
multiple satellite societies were linked to the center through multifarious ties
of—almost always—reluctant vassalage. Larger states that dominated their
regions for long periods gradually developed relatively sophisticated systems
of kingdom-wide administration. Such was the case in Burma during the age
of Pagan, in Ayutthaya in Siam, and, of course, in Vietnam, where China
provided an advanced model. But always beneath the surface lurked the
underlying dynamics of mandala contestation. When the larger kingdoms
fragmented, they fragmented into familiar smaller ones.
The mandala world was therefore inherently unstable, as neighboring
kingdoms small and large invariably sought to expand at the expense of each
other. Violence was a constant in the form of raiding and slaving on land and
sea. Power struggles among a ruler’s large coterie of brothers and sons and
other pretenders led to crises and civil wars when a king died. And
occasionally, powerful mandala kings launched major wars against their
neighbors that involved great armies of foot soldiers and war elephants (such
as those rendered in stone on the walls of Angkor Wat).
In all of these encounters, the object was the same: to bring larger numbers of
people into the domain of the winner. Followers equaled power. War captives
were literally taken to the victor’s capital. Perhaps for this reason, mandala
kings preferred war strategies that mitigated against slaughter—overpowering
the enemy with shock and awe, for example, or determining the outcome by
way of elephant-mounted dueling princes. Even so, we can be certain there
was plenty of slaughter and other destruction and insecurity when great
armies took to the field and as the routine power struggles and predatory
raiding of the mandala world swept over the region’s settled communities.
Southeast Asians adapted to these threats by moving, literally by abandoning
a dangerous site for a safe one farther away. Others fled the dangers and
oppressions of the mandala-dominated lowlands for safety in the region’s
inaccessible hills and mountains.
As a way of thinking about the myriad kingdoms and mini-kingdoms of
Southeast Asia’s long early history, the mandala concept applies both to the
mainland and to the islands, where a ruler’s mandala domain might extend no
farther than a single island or two, or the lower reaches of a river (on, say,
Borneo or Malaya or Sumatra) and a raja’s capital at the mouth of the river.
Or it might encompass several islands or harbor-town capitals and their
lowland interiors, as in the great Melaka Straits mandala thalassocracy of
Srivijaya or those of the sultans of Brunei or Sulu that aggregated mini-states
linked by bodies of water instead of land. The mandala concept also applies
to Vietnam (Dai Viet) in the early centuries, although as rulers who followed
China’s model, Vietnam’s kings did embrace the existence of explicit borders
(especially its border with China) in a way that other Southeast Asian rulers
did not.
The lure of Indian civilization
These early Southeast Asian societies and states did not evolve in isolation;
rather, they did so in communication with adjacent Asian civilizations in
India and China. The idea of the mandala itself came from India and, for the
most part, the emerging societies of the mandala world of Southeast Asia
world sought to base their own rising civilizations on the older, deeper one of
nearby India.
By the time of Funan, the awe-inspiring cosmos and complex spiritual culture
of myriad gods and goddesses and profound philosophical ideas of the Hindu
world were a thousand years old. Buddhism, an offshoot of the Hindu world,
had also been evolving for hundreds of years, and between 268 and 232 BCE
a great Buddhist king, Ashoka, had united virtually the entire continent and
created the greatest Indian mandala yet in history. Traffic between Indian
states and harbor towns and early Southeast Asian polities was already well
established by the time of Funan, whose kings claimed descent from an
Indian Brahmin and organized their farming communities around tanks or
reservoirs, India-style. A great wave of Indianization had begun. In the
following centuries, key elements of Indian religious life, arts, and language
as well as law and statecraft and countless stories of heroes and villains, gods
and men, and fantastical beings drifted into the region borne by merchants
and holy men and travelers of all kinds, including legions of itinerant experts
known as brahmins. They were embraced by Burmans and Javanese, Khmers
and Chams, Thais and Malays, and countless other Southeast Asian peoples
who aspired to be a part of the great civilization of India and the vast Hindu-
Buddhist world.
Proof for this is to be found in a proliferation of archaeological evidence,
from the great stone monuments of Borobudur in Java and Angkor Wat in
Cambodia to the thousands of smaller monuments and statues, text-bearing
stiles, and stone, bronze, silver, and gold figures that have been found
scattered across the region as far as the remotest islands of the Philippine
archipelago. But there is abundant historical and living evidence as well—
religious and literary texts and law codes, genealogies, and court documents
plus India-derived alphabets, words, and stories, not to mention place-names,
personal names, and legions of decorative patterns, sacred symbols, and
common rituals in play up until today.
In the Indianized states of Southeast Asia, kings became devaraja, or god-
kings, and represented themselves as incarnations of Hindu deities such as
Siva and Vishnu or as Buddhist monarchs in the manner of Ashoka, or as
revered bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara (e.g., at the Bayon temple of
Angkor). Their mandala kingdoms mirrored the India-conceived cosmos
itself, with great temple “mountains” dominating the mandala center—
depictions of Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods around which the
world revolves. The stupendous Buddhist stupa at Borobudur is an eighth-
century legacy of the Sailendra kingdom of Mataram, a multitiered
monument that honored Buddha and also displayed the piety and power of its
king. Its architectural plan in which tiers of concentric square and round
terraces (adorned with exquisite Buddha images) rise like a pyramid to a
single bell-shaped stupa at the top is a precise depiction of a mandala.
Nearby, about thirty miles (fifty kilometers) away, is Prambanan, another
monumental temple complex and mandala center of subsequent kings in
which the main temple honors Siva alongside somewhat smaller ones
honoring Vishnu and Brahma, the other two gods of the Hindu Trimurti, or
trinity; here, too, are representations in stone of a wide pantheon of Hindu
gods and mythical beings, including Ganesha, Nandi, and Rama.
These two temple complexes, one Buddhist and one Hindu, were built only
one hundred years apart. This fact illustrates how Southeast Asians partook
of Hinduism and Buddhism more or less simultaneously and why we
commonly refer to this long period of Indianization as a Hindu-Buddhist era.
The temple complex of Angkor in Cambodia contains both the Hindu temple
honoring Siva and Vishnu known as Angkor Wat and, just a few miles away,
the great Bayon temple complex in which Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (and
King Jayavarman VII) looks out in all directions from the king’s mandala
center. The great plain of Buddhist temples and stupas at Pagan in present-
day Myanmar is another monumental mandala center.
Drawing upon the great traditions of India, Southeast Asians had many
options to choose from. We can imagine that persuasive Hindu brahmins and
Buddhist monks led them to one cult or sect or another, with the result that a
great profusion of practices occurred within the larger Hindu-Buddhist
discourse, including tantric and occult practices (in Java, for example) and
original fusions of India’s great traditions with local ones in which ancestral
and strictly local spirits were carefully honored and appeased.
Belief in such spirits—the anima or life in all things—forms the original,
primal form of spirituality in Southeast Asia. Even as Southeast Asians
adapted Hindu and Buddhist (and later Muslim and Christian) beliefs and
practices, they never wholly abandoned the deep belief that, for example, rice
is alive and that the songs of birds, the sudden chills of a breeze, and the
stirring of volcanoes bear messages. In the twelfth-century Thai kingdom of
Sukhothai, King Ram Khamhaeng devoted his realm to Buddha, whose
statues adorned the cardinal points of his mandala capital (we are told this in
a famous inscription), but he did not neglect to honor the powerful local spirit
of Phra Khaphung, “superior to all the spirits of the country.” In Java,
Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu and their retinues did not erase or replace local
gods such as Roro Kidul, Javanese goddess of the Southern Seas. Wise rulers
honored one and all.
5. Angkor Wat is part of a monumental temple complex marking the
center of the great Khmer mandala of Southeast Asia’s age of kingdoms.
As elements of Indian civilization penetrated Southeast Asia, they did so
unevenly and serendipitously, creating hybridities of endless variation as
attractive elements of the “new” from India fused with deeply rooted
elements of the “old,” i.e., hallowed local traditions. Southeast Asians
borrowed heavily but not indiscriminately. And they never did so wholly.
The Javanese and the Khmer and the Burman did not become Indians. They
became new versions of themselves. This is a process that continues today.
In Indianized Southeast Asia, the great epics and story cycles of India became
Southeast Asian stories: the Ramayana and the tale of Rama and his consort
Sita and Hanuman the Monkey King (whose exploits were carved onto the
bas-relief walls of both Prambanan and Angkor Wat) became the basis for
countless retellings in drama and dance and stone. The Mahabharata brought
the deep teachings of the Bhagavad Gita to Southeast Asia and became the
basis for enduring popular arts, such as the Javanese shadow-puppet theater
and its fantastical nightlong renderings of the epic war-of-cousins (Bharata
Yudha) in which gods and men and demons play out their fated roles. The
Jataka tales retell the lives of the Buddha in countless reincarnations leading
up to enlightenment. They were carved in stone on the terraced walls of
Borobudur in c. 800 and are recounted popularly throughout Burma,
Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos today. Alongside the Ramayana and the
Mahabharata, they became part of Southeast Asia’s deep pool of stories and
characters that formed the basis for its pervasive Hindu-Buddhist sense of the
These stories and their lessons and legions of characters provided the basis
for every form of popular art and theater and also provided names of untold
millions of Southeast Asians up to the present. King Ram Khamhaeng of
Sukhothai (d. 1298), for example, was a fervent Buddhist king who bore a
Hindu name: Rama. The same is true of all the kings of Thailand’s reigning
Chakri dynasty, each of whom, from the founder in 1782, has reigned as
Rama. For centuries in Southeast Asia, people explained the highs and lows
and many nuances of human nature and the vagaries of chance and history by
retelling these stories and recounting the heroism, wisdom, and loyalty of the
one and the villainy, cunning, and treachery of the other. Characters became
archetypes: Ananda, the kind and selfless attendant of Buddha; Bima, the
bold, action-seeking leader of the Mahabharata (and, in the twentieth century,
Sukarno’s own self-model as a young man.) And so on.
Along with stories and names came words. Very few Southeast Asians ever
learned Sanskrit or Pali, the classical languages of Hinduism and Mahayana
and Theravada Buddhism (Pali); this set of knowledge was limited to priestly
classes. But Southeast Asians grafted thousands of Indian-origin words into
their vernacular vocabularies. Indian words became Southeast Asian words in
Malay, Javanese, Thai, Burmese, and other regional languages and even
penetrated the Philippines. Early Spanish missionaries there discovered that
lowland Filipinos used the word “Bhatala” for god, a direct cognate from
Sanskrit (bhattara, lord). Today the common words for horse (kuda), learn
(ajar), and wise (bijaksana) in modern Indonesian all derive from Sanskrit—
alongside thousands of others. And up until now, the Burmese, Mon, Thai,
Khmer, and Lao languages, as well as Javanese, are all written in an India-
derived (Brahmic) script.
This great wave of Indianization encompassed almost all of Southeast Asia,
as far east as the central coast of Vietnam, where the Chams lived, and into
the islands of the Philippine archipelago, where the impact was weakest. Here
there were no great monuments or, as far as we know, great mandala
kingdoms of the kind that waxed and waned on the mainland and on Java.
Even so, in pre-Spanish times, Filipino vernacular languages were written in
an India-derived script called baybayin, and archaeologists continue to find
Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired figures in Philippine digs. (These include a c.
eleventh-century statuette of the bodhisattva Tara in brilliant gold found in
Agusan, Mindanao.)
New waves of Islam and Theravada Buddhism
The Hindu-Buddhist layer of Southeast Asian civilizations was pervasive and
has been tenacious. But beginning around 1300, new waves of cultural
influence again swept through the region bringing Islam and its message.
Islam also came by way of India, where a Muslim dynasty gained dominance
after the 1100s, although some of its earliest emissaries to Southeast Asia
appear to have traveled directly from the Muslim heartland in Arabia and the
Middle East. As with the older Indian influences, no army of foreign invaders
carried Islam to Southeast Asia. Instead, Islam was brought peacefully by
devout merchants plying the waters between India and Southeast Asia and the
traveling scholars and Sufi mystics who arrived in their vessels and rooted
themselves in the region’s harbor towns and maritime mini-states. Again, the
process took many centuries, but by the mid-1400s the ruler of the Straits-
controlling mandala at Melaka had converted to Islam and become Sultan
Muhammad Shah. Islam’s position in the islands accelerated after that as
Islam-centered mandalas defeated and incorporated others. By 1500 a
Muslim sultan had seized power at Demak on Java.
Islam was soon the hegemonic religious culture in much of the island world,
with its influence strongest in coastal maritime kingdoms such as Aceh,
Melaka, and Makassar and with is impact attenuating among inland
populations, where Hindu-Buddhist legacies were most deeply rooted. Here
and there, more or less pure Hindu societies survived amid the widespread
adoption of Islam. This was most remarkably true in Bali, which hosted
several mini-kingdoms under its own kings, royalty, and priestly castes.
With Islam came the powerful appeal of monotheism and a body of teachings
and laws whose sway stretched from Southeast Asia west to the great empires
of the Mughals in India, the Safavids in Persia, and others all the way to
Africa and Spain. In embracing Islam, its rules and rituals, fasting,
almsgiving, and pilgrimage and habits of modesty, Southeast Asians joined a
body of believers, or umma, that linked them to great centers of knowledge,
power, wealth, and piety that spanned the globe, or seemed to.
With Islam also came Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and of Islamic
scholarship. As was the case with Sanskrit and Pali, only a handful of
religious scholars in Southeast Asia knew the language well. Ordinary
Muslims memorized prayers and passages from the Qur’an in Arabic and
adopted Arabic words into their vernacular languages, so that today, for
example, in Malay and Indonesian, the words for Friday (jumaat), news
(kabar), sincerity (ikhlas) and thousands of others are Arabic. (Persian words
also arrived with Islam.)
With Islam came the sacred teachings of the Qur’an and the hallowed
traditions of the Prophet (Hadith) as well as the popular tales of Sinbad and A
Thousand and One Nights that also moved effortlessly along Muslim-
dominated trade routes. Also, new names arrived. As Muslims, many
Southeast Asians began drawing from the huge repository of names in the
Qur’an and Hadith and other Muslim societies to become Mahmud, Umar,
Abu Bakar, and Ahmad as well as Zubaidah, Chadijah, Laila, and so on.
But not everyone did so, just as not everyone adhered to the new Muslim
teachings with the same degree of discipline and devotion. As in earlier
borrowings, Southeast Asians adapted Islam selectively and found ways to
nest it within older bodies of beliefs and practices. Old calendars, wedding
rituals, habits of dress, and naming systems remained alongside the new ones.
And despite the strict monotheism of Islam, many Southeast Asian Muslims
continued to make offerings to venerated ancient spirits, and they remained
wary of, and in awe of, certain spirit-laden sites.
A particularly complex fusion formed in Java, where Islam as commonly
practiced clung to certain elements of older Hindu-Buddhist-animist ways in
a sort of mystic synthesis. Just as Indianization brought not one monolithic
civilization but a dazzling mosaic of Indianized adaptations, so did the spread
of Islam. Southeast Asians did not become Arabs any more than Persians,
Indians, or North African Muslims did. They became new Muslim versions
of themselves.
The deep-to-shallow sway of Islam took in virtually all of the lowland
populations of the Indonesian archipelago and Malaya and penetrated the
Sulu Sea and islands of the southern Philippine archipelago—a penetration
that was arrested by the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity. On the
mainland, Muslim enclaves formed along the coasts of the Bay of Bengal and
in Champa on the Vietnam coast.
During roughly the same period that Islam overtook the islands, a new school
of Buddhism swept through most of the mainland. Theravada Buddhism was
a reform movement that sought to purify Buddhist beliefs and practices of
superstitions, myths, and embellishments that had occurred over centuries as
the religion passed from generation to generation and into cultural landscapes
far from its place of origin in India. It sought to return followers to the pure
teachings of the Buddha and to a body of austere practices that stood in
contrast to the veneration of bodhisattvas, tantric cults, and worship of god-
like Buddhas that had proliferated in the expansive Mahayana Buddhist
world of East and Southeast Asia. Beginning around the 1000s, Theravada
monks bearing Pali-language sutras brought the new teachings to the lowland
kingdoms of the Mons and Burmans, the Thai, Khmer, and Lao. To be sure,
Burmese nats and Thai phi and other local spirits remained and were folded
into the new religious regimen.
In this way, Southeast Asia bifurcated into a Buddhist mainland and a
Muslim archipelago with a Buddhist-Muslim cusp in the mid-to-lower Malay
Peninsula, where the mandalas of the Buddhist Thai overlapped with the
mandalas of the Muslim Malays. Thus, whereas the iconic religious
architecture of the mainland became the Buddhist monastery, or wat, with
monks in saffron or red robes, in the islands it became the mosque. Monarchs
now presented themselves as patrons of Buddhism on the mainland and, in
much of the island world, as righteous defenders of Islam.
China’s sway
The centuries-long practice of borrowing from India and the Middle East
prevailed everywhere except Vietnam. Here a different Southeast Asian
society emerged under the sway of Asia’s other great radiating civilization,
China. Indeed, the territorial homeland of the Vietnamese along the lower
reaches of the Red River and the Red River delta constituted a colony of the
Chinese empire for nearly one thousand years under the Han, Sui, Tang, and
intervening dynasties. Under a variety of governing arrangements and
patterns of ethnic Chinese in-migration and intermarriage, the society that
evolved there embraced many features of Chinese civilization and became,
one might say, Chinese-like or Sinicized. So deeply embedded were these
influences that even after the kingdom of Vietnam (Dai Viet) wrested its
independence from the Tang in 939, the Vietnamese elites who assumed
power adopted Chinese institutions of government and continued to revere
the religious and philosophical systems that they had made their own.
These systems included Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism—
the three elements of Vietnamese (and Chinese) religion. The Confucian
values of social hierarchy, in which children defer to parents, wives to
husbands, and so on became deeply embedded and underpinned loyalty to the
Vietnamese emperor, who ruled Chinese-style as the Son of Heaven and who
performed rituals that mimicked those of the emperor of China. Scholar
officials modeled on those of China governed the realm in a pattern quite in
contrast with officials and regional powers in the Indianized mandala states.
And the affluent and literate classes learned the Chinese language and studied
the Chinese classics of statecraft, philosophy, and poetry—indeed, as in
China, prospective scholar officials were examined competitively on these
subjects to qualify for officialdom.
The Vietnamese possessed a language of their own, but it became one filled
with Chinese words; in addition, for many centuries until the modern era it
was rendered in Chinese characters. (Just as, for example, Malay was
rendered in Arabic letters.) In a process of cultural radiation similar to
Southeast Asian Indianized societies, Chinese stories became Vietnamese
stories, with a familiar cast of characters. Alongside everyday Buddhist
practices, including the veneration of Bodhisattva Kuanyin and Daoist lore,
the popular culture of China penetrated the popular culture of the Vietnamese
—mingling there with stories and arts and spirits of purely local origins.
Indeed, local Vietnamese guardian spirits were among those honored with
titles and imperial appointments under the emperor.
Despite the apparent coherence of the Chinese model, the Vietnamese
Confucian state was in many ways aspirational and subject to the same forces
that underlay the political instability of the mandala world. Periods of
fragmentation alternated with periods of consolidation. Regional lords and
their clans tested the authority of the Son of Heaven and sometimes usurped
central power altogether. There were succession disputes, rebellions, and
restive non-Vietnamese hill peoples to be appeased and quieted, not to
mention aggressive neighbors such as the Chams. As the Vietnamese
expanded southward in the 1400s and subsequent centuries, gradually
marginalizing the Chams and penetrating the outer rings of the Khmer
mandala in the Mekong Delta, they brought new populations under the sway
of their strong culture. This created new fusions of a very Southeast Asian
Even after 939, the Vietnamese had China to contend with. On two major
occasions, in 1075–1076 under the new Song dynasty and later under the
Mongols (1250 and again in 1278), armies from China invaded Vietnam with
the intent of bringing this outlying “province” back into the fold. Vietnam’s
successful resistance created heroes to be long remembered.
Aside from its legacy in Vietnam, China also intervened periodically in the
small non-Chinese border states on the southern tier of their empire—locales
that today straddle the Yunnan–Southeast Asia border—that were also linked,
mandala fashion, to larger Southeast Asian polities of the Burmans, Thai, and
Lao on the mainland. Trade networks, language, and shared customs
reinforced their inclinations toward Southeast Asia. In Muong Mau, Muong
Laem, Muong Lau, and Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna), Chinese dynasties
occasionally imposed frontier military administrations but usually ruled the
region through elite intermediaries or local lords whose power flowed from
their status and followings in their immediate domains. Like cunning
mandala operators elsewhere, these men of prowess appear to have bent to
China at some times and to neighboring Southeast Asian powers at others, all
the while keeping advantageous channels of trade open on both sides.
Aside from these cusp societies, and the anomalous invasion attempts by the
Mongols (Yuan dynasty), China did not intervene directly in the mandala
world of Southeast Asia. Instead, it managed its relationships with the
region’s multitude of non-Chinese states through the tributary system. Under
the tributary system, rulers of barbarian states—from the vantage point of the
civilized Middle Kingdom—were invited to pay their respects to the Chinese
emperor by sending embassies bearing gifts. These deferential acts would be
reciprocated with more valuable gifts in return. This was, in fact, a form of
trade that benefited both parties. Yet as a ritual, the tributary system allowed
Southeast Asia’s beleaguered mandala kings to claim China as a patron. At
one time or another, many did so, including Vietnam, Srivijaya, Melaka,
Ayutthaya, Majapahit, Champa, Brunei, and Luzon and even small states
such as the tiny gold-rich kingdom of Butuan in Mindanao.
It might have been otherwise. In the early 1400s, as the new Ming dynasty
(1368–1644) was flexing its muscles, Emperor Yongle (r. 1402–1424)
repeatedly sent huge fleets of massive Chinese ships to Southeast Asia (and
well beyond) under the command of Zheng He. In Java, Sumatra, Siam, and
Melaka the message was electrifying. Nothing remotely as impressive existed
in the region. Zheng He and his retinue collected tribute and established local
communities of Chinese merchants and shipbuilders, traded in local products,
suppressed pirates, and projected Chinese power. China’s support helped
establish Melaka as a new commerce-driven mandala center on the Straits.
A new era of engagement was at hand, or so it seemed. But in 1433, a new
Chinese emperor canceled the project and placed the Chinese Empire behind
a barrier of official isolation that lasted for the next several hundred years
(during which, significantly, Chinese merchants based along the empire’s
southern coast continued to trade privately in Southeast Asia).
Southeast Asia on the verge
China’s official withdrawal paved the way for Europe, whose first emissaries
began arriving in Southeast Asia in the early 1500s. The mandala world they
entered hosted hundreds of small kingdoms and a few large ones. Major
states waxed and waned in the predictable verdant spots where fertile river
plains facilitated large populations of settled rice growers. Along the
Irrawaddy, the post-Pagan mandala center at Ava was rapidly waning in the
face of competition from rival mandalas to the south (the Mons) and west (in
Rakhine) and of restless vassals among the Shans and others along the
Yunnan frontier to the north; by 1527 its capital had fallen. In contrast, in
Siam along the Chao Phraya, Ayutthaya was waxing strong as its mandala
expanded at the expense of weaker neighbors and engaging dynamically in
international trade from its cosmopolitan capital. On Ayutthaya’s periphery
existed smaller mandala kingdoms based at Chiangmai (La Na) and Luang
Prabang (Lan Sang). Khmer kings in the lower Mekong held sway over a
much-reduced mandala, a remnant of the former Angkor Empire and one that
found itself beleaguered by aggressive neighbors. One of these was Vietnam,
also waxing strong and recently victorious over its adversarial neighbors to
the south, the Chams, whose capital the Vietnamese seized in 1471.
In the island world, aside from Java, the great maritime mandala of Melaka
dominated the zone of the Melaka Straits, including the small riverine
kingdoms of Malaya as well as coastal Sumatra and Borneo. Aceh, Makassar,
Brunei, Patani, and Bantam hosted powerful small states with mandala-like
satellites of their own, outside of which smaller harbor-town, riverine, and
island polities prevailed; indeed, they proliferated by the hundreds throughout
the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. In eastern Indonesia, Ternate and
Tidore dominated, and in the Philippine archipelago, small mandala-like
thalassocracies orchestrated trade linking Chinese merchants to Southeast
Asian maritime networks from bases in Manila and Sulu.
Although the core mainland states exhibited a certain level of coherence and
permanence, despite more or less constant turbulence in the outer rings of
their mandalas, as a whole, the system was inherently unstable. For the
Europeans who began arriving in the region in the 1500s, this made
establishing a foothold a relatively easy matter.
The arrival of Europeans speaks to yet another aspect of the times:
economically, Southeast Asia was dynamic. Beginning around 1400, the
region benefited from a confluence of global forces that brought new
prosperity to China, India, Europe, and Japan and, in turn, higher levels of
trade and prosperity to Southeast Asia. Pepper, cloves, and nutmeg as well as
pearls, sandalwood, gems, resins, and delicacies such as birds’ nests drove
merchants to Southeast Asian ports in ever greater numbers, where they
exchanged regional specialties for silks, ceramics, guns, and silver. Silver
especially drove the boom as greater and greater quantities arrived in the
1500s from the Spanish Americas and from silver mines in Japan. The new
money strengthened mandala centers in both the islands and on the mainland,
where states such as Ayutthaya hosted communities of foreign traders at their
capitals. Indeed, the region was dotted with emporiums, the richest by far of
which was the sultanate of Melaka, whose fame reached far and wide. And so
it was that Melaka became the first obvious target when Portuguese
conquistadores sailed into the region in 1511 on a mission for gold, God, and
Chapter 3
The mandala world of Southeast Asia was fragile, but it was also rich.
Merchants from near and far flocked to its markets to gather the region’s
unique spices such as nutmeg, mace, and cloves as well as black peppercorns,
precious woods, resins, and oils. At the major entrepôts such as Melaka, these
valuable items were available alongside all the select and commonplace
merchandise of Asia, from fine porcelains and silks to everyday tools and
pottery. Malay, Bugis, Thai, Filipino, Javanese, and other Southeast Asian
merchants managed this trade with great acumen in collaboration and
competition with the Indians, Chinese, and Arabs who frequented and often
dwelled in the region.
Arab merchants carried Southeast Asian goods to Europe, introducing them
into the Mediterranean world, including Venice, through routes that passed
through the Persian Gulf and Istanbul. Europeans were drawn to Southeast
Asia to gain access to the region’s precious goods directly, and in doing so to
cut out the Muslims, their great rivals in religion and civilization. The first to
do so were the two great Iberian kingdoms of Portugal and Spain, crusading
Christian kingdoms that in the 1400s and 1500s roamed the world in their
agile sailing ships in search of wealth and glory, both for themselves and for
The Portuguese arrived first. Having rounded Africa in 1488, they made
quickly for India and Southeast Asia. By 1510 they had established an
enclave on the west coast of India at Goa. The following year they captured
Melaka, the richest commercial city in Southeast Asia and the center of a
powerful Muslim mandala that controlled the Straits. They built a walled city
there, with churches and convents, and began acquiring the valuable spices
directly at the source in Ambon, Ternate, and Banda.
Spain came from the other side of the world, reaching the Philippine islands
from across the Pacific Ocean in Mexico, which they seized from the Aztecs
in 1521. In that same year Magellan, a Portuguese explorer sponsored by
Spain, reached the islands and claimed them for Spain. (He was subsequently
killed there.) After a few further probes, Spain established a permanent
beachhead at Manila in 1571 by displacing a local Muslim sultan and
building a huge walled city called Intramuros.
For a time Portugal grew rich at home on the basis of its Asia trade far away,
which also penetrated China and Japan. Both Portugal and Spain sought to
spread the “one true religion” among their subjects and other Asians, namely
Roman Catholicism. But whereas Portugal contented itself with a string of
commercial outposts and towns—of which Melaka was one of many,
including Goa, Ceylon, East Timor, Macao, and Nagasaki—Spanish
conquistadores claimed the entire archipelago for their king and named it
after him: Las Philipinas. Subsequently, they subjugated all but the
southernmost lowland peoples of the Philippines and, in not so long a time,
converted them to Christianity, or at least to its outward forms.
The agents of this great cultural transformation were members of religious
brotherhoods (Jesuits, Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and others),
missionary monks, or friars, who fanned throughout the islands bearing the
Christian doctrine in vernacular languages, building magnificent churches,
and also acting as the eyes and ears of Spain’s imperial officialdom. In the
ensuing centuries, Spain strove to resettle lowland Filipinos within the sound
of the church bells and to build church-centered urban communities
throughout the islands, complete with plazas, civic buildings, and the homes
of local notables—in most cases the descendants of former datus and their
families, leading clans of pre-Spanish days who remained elite and influential
under the Spanish as Catholic Indios, or Natives.
The friars and other Spaniards grabbed much of the best land for themselves
but they also brought to the islands the civilization of Europe. They
established schools and universities. (The college that became the University
of Santo Tomas was founded in 1611, twenty-five years before Harvard.)
And they introduced their language. Only an elite few among Spain’s
subjects learned Spanish properly, but untold numbers of Spanish words
shifted into the vernacular languages of the islands and remain there today. It
was also aboard Spanish boats that plied annually between Acapulco and
Manila, the famous Manila galleons, that a great many new plants reached
Asia from the Americas. These included maize, tobacco, pineapples,
potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers. (Bananas, papaya, and mangoes sailed
the other way.)
Spain’s influence was profound but not total. Aside from the friars, very few
Spanish people actually lived in the far-flung colony. Most who did tended to
cluster in Intramuros at Manila, the center of government and Spanish life
with a host of churches, convents, schools, and business houses and the
homes of Spanish colonists. A scattering of Spanish officials were posted
around the islands—as provincial governors, for example—but most day-to-
day administration below the provincial level was carried out by elite Indios
who occupied tiers of public offices in districts and towns, where they were
chosen by their male peers and vetted by the Spanish priest.
In a pattern already familiar to the region, Filipinos became Christians and
celebrated Christmas and Easter and the feast days of their adopted patron
saints without wholly abandoning their belief in spirits; ancient spiritual
anxieties and practices remained. Spain’s reach was also geographically
limited. It ended where the hills began and in the southern islands where
Islam and a clutch of small mandala-style sultanates were rooted. Hill peoples
and Muslims thus remained largely outside the colony’s Hispanicizing pull.
Still, Las Philipinas was an entirely new entity in Southeast Asia, one with a
remarkable legacy.
Portugal’s legacy is small by comparison. Although it permanently disrupted
Melaka’s mandala, it did not establish a landed empire in its place. Instead, it
contained its political presence within the enclave itself, which became an
essential hub in its operations throughout Asia. Under Portugal, Melaka
became a learning and propagation center for Christianity, too. The great
Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier was active there. Eventually, however, it
was overtaken by aggressive newcomers; the Dutch seized it in 1641. The
Portuguese left behind a tiny, neglected outpost in East Timor (until 1975!)
and a legacy of cultural artifacts such as Portuguese words (the Malay words
for table and shoes, for example), musical instruments, and melodic tunes.
Otherwise, they changed Southeast Asia very little.
Arrival of the companies
The Netherlands, however, reshaped the region fundamentally. Its early
agents in Southeast Asia were not servants of a crown, as the Portuguese and
Spanish had been, but servants of a company, the Dutch East India Company,
or VOC as its soon-to-be-global brand identified it. Capitalized in the Low
Countries and chartered by the Republic of the United Provinces in 1602, the
VOC carried forward Dutch probes into Southeast Asia that had begun in the
late 1500s. Like the Iberians before them, the Dutch sought direct access to
the region’s profitable and unique spices.
The VOC’s charter gave it a monopoly of trade in Asia and the authority to
wage war, enter into treaties, collect taxes, and occupy and govern territories.
The small mandala kingdoms that dotted Southeast Asia’s shallow seas
became stepping stones for the Dutch as they penetrated the region, port by
port. By 1619 they had established a walled-in enclave and hub city on the
northwest coast of Java at Jakarta (which they called Batavia). In Maluku,
they muscled aside the Portuguese, Spanish, and English to monopolize the
nutmeg, mace, and clove trade. The process was savage. In the 1600s, agents
of the company expelled or murdered indigenous local producers and
confined the production of the spices to certain islands, destroying trees they
could not control. In Amsterdam, the value of cloves and other spices soared.
6. The configuration of islands comprising “las yslas Philipinas” was new
and created wholly by Spain.
The VOC’s hub at Batavia lay on the outer fringes of a great mandala ruled
by Sultan Agung, the king of Mataram on Java. Sultan Agung’s armies
attacked the Dutch entrepôt in 1628 and 1629 but failed to remove it. Instead,
in the years and decades to come, the company expanded its presence on the
island as the kingdom fell into disorder, peeling off key territories in the outer
mandala such as the island’s mercantile coastal cities and intervening in
succession disputes and other power struggles, often in alliance with local
actors. Java’s kings were irreparably weakened as their mandalas grew
smaller and smaller. By the 1750s the company was utterly dominant. Java’s
kings and princes had been subordinated to a new Dutch colonial state. The
tiny kingdoms of central Java that remained with their royal capitals in
Yogyakarta and Surakarta now existed wholly at Dutch discretion.
The Dutch East India Company ruled a vast population of Natives, or
Inlanders (as indigenous people were now officially designated). Being
parsimonious, it employed only a skeleton staff of white Dutch administrators
to manage its colony. Instead, like the Spanish in the nearby Philippines, it
incorporated elite local families into its system as administrators. For
centuries, Javanese aristocrats, the priyayi, had served the island’s kings as
local lords of the realm, rendering their services and loyalty to kings as
determined by the shifting variables of the island’s mandalas. Now, by and
large, they served the Dutch; even so, they remained locally prominent and
even revered as bearers of Java’s high culture and reminders of its rich
Unlike elite Filipinos under Spain, the Javanese priyayi did not assimilate to
the Dutch religion, nor did Java’s common people. The VOC had little
interest in promoting Christianity and permitted only a modicum of
missionary activity. Nor was it interested in advancing Dutch civilization to
Natives. There were no universities in Dutch Java (and no schools of law or
engineering until the 1920s). As a result, the dominant culture of Java and its
subcultures across the island continued to advance in the deep riverbed
already established, in which Islam was the hegemonic religious culture and
in which the civilization’s Hindu-Buddhist and animist roots endured and
On the last day of 1799, the Dutch East India Company collapsed under the
weight of its accumulated corruption and debts. Its assets and territories were
assumed by the Dutch state. By this time, the Netherlands controlled multiple
territories in Southeast Asia, including, aside from Java, the spice islands of
Maluku and the once-great port city of Melaka. Moreover, its dominant role
in maritime trade had subordinated once far-reaching indigenous seafaring
traders to the lower tiers of its regional supply chain.
By this time, England had also acquired an entrepôt along the Melaka Straits
at Penang, where the sultan of Kedah, a small Malay kingdom, sought
protection from the expanding Thai mandala of the nascent Chakri kings to
his north by entering into a deal with the English East India Company (EIC)
in 1786. The Thais swallowed him up anyway, in 1821, but Penang remained
British. Britain also acquired a sleepy outpost at Bengkulu along Sumatra’s
southwest coast.
In the unstable mandala world of Southeast Asia, Europeans had clear
advantages. Europeans had surpassed Asians in matters of shipbuilding,
navigation, and mapping. They were propelled by Europe’s surging
commercial and proto-industrial economy. And their firearms were
consistently superior to those of Southeast Asia’s many kings (who
purchased guns avidly on the emerging global arms market.) More
importantly, global empires such as those of Spain and Portugal and the era’s
huge chartered companies had developed the capacity to mobilize resources
and to project power across great distances—a huge advantage even though
much could be lost in transmission between Europe and Asia.
To Southeast Asian actors who encountered them on the spot, the links
between the officials of the VOC and the English East India Company and
the vast matrixes that supported them were invisible, if not incomprehensible.
Southeast Asian rulers, large and small, appear to have viewed the Europeans
as powerful players acting within the well-understood dynamics of their own
mandala world. Depending on the circumstances, they could be either allies
or enemies—as in fact, they clearly were with each other.
The establishment of many Western footholds at Melaka, on Java, and in the
Philippines opened doors for European newcomers of all nationalities to
make their fortunes privately in the region. Southeast Asian rulers engaged
with them opportunistically, buying guns and opium from them and enlisting
their services as mercenaries and as advisers and intermediaries just as, in
earlier centuries, they had welcomed sojourning brahmins and wandering
Sufis to their courts. (In seventeenth-century Ayutthaya—to cite a famous
example—an enterprising Greek adventurer named Constantine Phaulkon
rose to be a titled counselor under King Narai.)
By 1800, the European presence in Southeast Asia was large but far from
dominating. Up to this point, Europeans had not yet breached the mainland.
Here the kings of the Konbaung and Chakri dynasties were vigorously
expanding their mandalas in Burma and Siam. Vietnam was reaching the end
of a long civil war and on the brink of a strong new dynasty, the Nguyen,
which was proclaimed by Emperor Gia Long in 1802. Smaller mandala
kingdoms proliferated on the fringes of these large states (in Cambodia, Laos,
and elsewhere along the Yunnan cusp).
In the islands, despite the maritime supremacy of the Netherlands and its
domination of Java and the long-evolving hold of Spain over the northern and
central islands of the Philippine archipelago, hundreds of small autonomous
kingdoms and mini-states dotted the region’s sprawling array of land and
water. In this complex mosaic, legions of Southeast Asians still lived under
the authority of their own indigenous kings while legions of others were
evolving in new directions as subjects of European colonies.
Momentum favored the Europeans. Britain had long harbored ambitions in
Southeast Asia but had been bested by the VOC in the early 1600s and
retreated to India. By the late 1700s, through the agency of the EIC (English
East India Company), a chartered company much like the VOC, it had utterly
subverted the huge crumbling mandala of India’s Mughal dynasty and
established hegemonic control over the subcontinent. Its new probes into
Southeast Asia led to the temporary occupation of Spanish Manila between
1762 and 1764 and soon yielded the Melaka Straits colony of Penang in
1789, cunningly wrested from the sultan of Kedah. In the following decades
the EIC moved aggressively to expand its presence, seizing upon the
opportunity of the Napoleonic Wars to grab Java from the Netherlands for
four years (1812 to 1816)—returning it after the Congress of Vienna—and
subsequently establishing a second Straits entrepôt at Singapore in 1819.
By design, Penang and Singapore attracted large numbers of Chinese
migrants, who became the majority populations of these British-run trade
hubs. In an 1824 treaty, Britain secured its supremacy over the Melaka Straits
by acquiring Melaka itself from the Netherlands, swapping it for its
slumbering outpost at Bengkulu in Sumatra. The Straits now demarcated
British and Dutch spheres of influence, that is, territories in which each
power would be free to expand without interference from the other. This was
a harbinger of things to come.
The nineteenth-century onslaught
By the early twentieth century, the colonial spheres of the Netherlands and
Great Britain had expanded dramatically and both France and the United
States had also seized colonial territories in Southeast Asia. Indeed, by this
time, only one of the region’s hundreds of mandala kingdoms had survived.
The rest, large and small, had all been subsumed within the vast empires of
the world’s Western powers. This onslaught unfolded rapidly in the
nineteenth century in a process that revealed both the competitive ambitions
and the strengths of the West’s rising industrial states and the inherent
weaknesses of Southeast Asia’s mandala kingdoms.
Britain’s huge colony in India included Bengal, which lay adjacent to
territories that figured in the outer circles of Burma’s large mandala—
territories into which the armies of the Konbaung kings were expanding
violently in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The resulting rebellions and flows
of refugees into British territory led to conflicts between the kingdom and the
EIC. Burma’s kings, flush from recent victories against China, badly
underestimated their new foe. Britain’s successful invasion by steamship up
the Irrawaddy River led to a treaty in 1826 in which King Bagyidaw (r.
1819–1837) lost large portions of his outer mandala (in Tenasserim, Arakan,
Manipur, and Assam) and also forced open the kingdom to Western trade and
other influences through the Irrawaddy port city of Rangoon.
These events set the stage for further conflicts that resulted again in British
invasions, in the 1850s and 1880s. The first resulted in the loss of “lower
Burma,” the southern half of the kingdom’s mandala, and the second in the
conquest of the mandala center at Mandalay. By 1886 Britain had abolished
the Burmese monarchy, exiled the king and queen, and annexed the territories
of the entire kingdom to British India, including many non-Burman territories
of groups such as the Shan, Kachin, and Karen.
These episodes of conquest paralleled the penetration of Burma by floods of
new capital and enterprises, especially in the Burma delta after Britain seized
it in the 1850s; opened it to migrants from northern Burma, India, and China;
and introduced its rice to world markets. By 1910, Burma was the largest
exporter of rice in the world.
Similar economic forces were in play elsewhere in Britain’s “sphere.” Its
Melaka Straits enclaves at Penang, Melaka, and Singapore—collectively, the
Straits Settlements—lay alongside a collection of small Malay Muslim
kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula. Before the Portuguese conquest, these
river-based sultanates had been part of Melaka’s great mandala. Now four of
them, including Kedah, formed the lower tier of Siam’s huge mandala under
the Chakri dynasty. The rest were autonomous under their sultans and many
titled nobles and chiefs.
Like most small kingdoms of the mandala world, the Malay states had long
engaged in external trade, yielding valuable upriver products such as rattan
and resins to markets beyond. And a few, Perak and Selangor in particular,
hosted tin mines. Britain’s new commerce-driven settlements along the coast
became conduits for British investments and migrating Chinese merchants
and workers into the kingdoms. As the global demand for tin rose, new
capital and technologies were introduced. Mining camps with large numbers
of Chinese men mushroomed into frontier boomtowns, where institutions
such as secret societies arose to meet pressing social needs and to compete
for the profits of labor recruiting, gambling, prostitution, and opium.
These dynamic new forces disrupted the stability of the small Malay
kingdoms, several of which fell into disorder as secret society gang wars
conflated with succession disputes and other mandala-like power struggles.
Eventually, the mayhem spread into the Straits Settlements themselves. In
1874, Britain took action. (The English East India Company had been
nationalized in 1858.) Beginning in Perak and subsequently in the other
states, Britain seized control of the sultanates (in places, militarily) by placing
British “residents” in charge of the territories’ worldly management and
allocating “religion and customs of the Malays” to the sultans, who now
became British clients living in vastly improved palaces.
Although the particulars varied, this was the guiding concept of British
Malaya, which by 1909 encompassed all nine of the sultanates, including
Kedah and the others that King Chulalongkorn of Siam ceded to Britain in
that year. Builders of the British Empire at the time spoke of a civilizing
mission. One of them, Frank Swettenham, wrote, “Time means progress and
expansion for all that part of Malaya which comes under British influence.”
Even so, he said, “the Malays are the people of the country.” We have made
their interests “our first consideration.”
As these events transpired in the Malay Peninsula, other British actors carved
out colonial territories in northern Borneo. These included the swashbuckling
James Brooke, who, beginning in 1841, peeled off one outlying territory after
another of the sultan of Brunei’s mandala until his own private kingdom,
Sarawak, controlled all but a tiny remnant at the capital. In 1888, the much-
diminished sultan applied for British “protection.” Secure within the sway of
the British imperial navy, Brooke and his successors ruled Sarawak as white
rajas until World War II.
Meanwhile, in 1881 an agribusiness company chartered in England with
interests in timber, copra, and other tropical commodities acquired a vast
territory in the northeast of Borneo from both the sultan of Brunei and the
sultan of Sulu, each of whom claimed it as part of their overlapping
mandalas. The British North Borneo Company held the territory, now the
Malaysian state of Sabah, for fifty-nine years. Thus, Sarawak, North Borneo,
and the sultanate of Brunei all came under European sway by the early
twentieth century.
During the same years in which Britain advanced upon Burma, Malaya, and
nearby territories, the Netherlands moved forth from its stronghold on Java
into the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. This staggering undertaking of the
nineteenth century involved untold acts of diplomacy, threat, marauding, and
outright war during which literally hundreds of small kingdoms were first
subordinated to the hegemonic power of the Dutch and finally subjugated
altogether. From the Dutch perspective, the autonomous mini-kingdoms of
the archipelago—as well as larger and stronger ones in Aceh, Bali, and
Makassar—represented territorial loose ends and openings for other
European interlopers (such as privateers like James Brooke). As enclaves
where contraband guns and opium were traded and where rebels and pirates
could find sanctuary, they threatened Dutch rust en orde (calm and order).
The Dutch astutely took advantage of the big fish–small fish nature of the
mandala world by guaranteeing the territories of this particular raja or that in
return for deference and trade monopolies—often specified in long treaties.
Mini-kings found this advantageous. Joseph Conrad remarks of one Malay
chief of the 1880s (in Outcast of the Islands) that he sought to “apply to the
Orang Blanda [the Dutch] for a flag, for that protection which would make
them safe forever!”
But where sultans and rajas refused to be pliant and where local civil wars
and other disruptions threatened, the Dutch were more than willing to go to
war. They did so brutally against independent communities of Chinese gold
miners in Borneo, against Wahabist Islamic reformers in Sumatra, against the
powerful sultanate of Aceh, and, finally, against the two remaining
independent kingdoms of Bali, whose kings and noble families,
acknowledging defeat, committed ritual suicide as colonial soldiers closed in
firing. Eventually, the Dutch replaced all the long treaties with short ones in
which once-deferential allies became subjects. By the early twentieth century,
the Dutch East Indies was complete, the most massive colony in all Southeast
As for France, its imperial ambitions had long been in play in the Americas
and in India. French missionaries had also been among the first in Asia. One
of them, Alexandre de Rhodes, a Jesuit, made early inroads in Vietnam,
where in the 1600s he invented a roman letter–based system for writing
Vietnamese to replace or complement the use of Chinese characters. In 1658,
Rhodes initiated a French missionary society dedicated to proselytizing in
Asia. Two centuries later, another French Jesuit, Pigneau de Béhaine, actively
aided Nguyen Anh in the civil war that resulted in his elevation to become
Emperor Gia Long and founder of the new Nguyen dynasty in 1802. By this
time there were some three hundred thousand Vietnamese Catholics.
The growth of Catholicism in the years that followed led to harsh repression
by the kingdom’s Confucian mandarins and kings, and the action served as
the official provocation for French intervention. Gunboat attacks began in
1858, and by 1867 France had established a full-fledged colony in southern
Vietnam. Subsequent events revealed the degree to which French imperialists
were also motivated by the desire to open Vietnam’s commercial ports and to
use Vietnam as a gateway to rich markets in China. In a sequence of defeats,
Vietnam’s kings relinquished the kingdom’s sovereignty step by step until, in
1885, following a war in which Chinese armies failed to defend the kingdom,
France claimed the entire state. The colony was divided into three parts:
Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina—all governed somewhat differently. In
Annam, a Nguyen puppet monarch remained. But there was no question:
Vietnam was a French colony.
Meanwhile, in 1863, King Norodom of Cambodia, witnessing French
victories in nearby Vietnam (his mandala enemy to the east) and facing
encroachments by Siam (his mandala enemy to the west), placed his
beleaguered kingdom under French protection. Likewise, in 1893, the princes
of a cluster of tiny Lao polities caught in the mandala cusp between Siam and
Vietnam were also persuaded to join Cambodia and Vietnam as constituent
members of French Indochina.
By the 1890s, the Philippines had evolved under Spanish rule for three
centuries. A mature Hispanicized society had formed, and within it a
passionate anti-Spanish anger among some members of the colony’s elite
intelligentsia and urban dwellers. The revolution they launched in 1896 was
the first of its kind anywhere in Southeast Asia. After it foundered, an
improbable sequence of events involving Cuba drew the United States to the
islands. In an imperial conflict with Spain, the United States at first embraced
and then betrayed the Filipino republican revolutionaries and seized the
Philippines for itself. When Filipinos resisted, another brutal colonial
conquest followed and the United States became the final Western power to
claim a vast body of Southeast Asian subjects.
The colonies of Southeast Asia were complete. Of the region’s indigenous
kingdoms, only Siam survived. This remarkable feat was the consequence of
astute leadership. In many ways, the Chakri kings were classical mandala
monarchs. They rose to power following the defeat by Burma of the former
Thai dynasty at Ayutthaya. Having established a new capital at Bangkok, the
Chakris advanced aggressively upon the outer fringes of the kingdom,
claiming large numbers of subjects under their sway. These included Lao
princes to the northeast, hill peoples in the uplands of the north, Khmer
territories in Siem Reap and Battambang, and the four Malay kingdoms of
Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Trengannu in the far south. They differed,
however, in their response to the European threat.
Rama IV, or Mongkut (1851–1868), was a well-educated polymath who
studied Latin and English. He befriended Westerners who arrived in Bangkok
and learned from them. He read newspapers from the British Straits
Settlements. He knew what was happening in Burma and other parts of the
region. By the time he became king in 1851 he was better prepared than any
other Southeast Asian king to grasp the nature of the dangers his kingdom
faced. Instead of resisting the demands of the West, he made deft concessions
to Westerners, beginning with the British in 1855. When they asked to trade
freely in the kingdom, he granted it. When they insisted on importing opium,
he agreed. An ambassador in the capital? Extraterritorial rights for British
subjects? Agreed and agreed. And so on. Mongkut granted the same rights to
a queue of other powers, too.
Meanwhile, Mongkut and his son and successor Rama V, Chulalongkorn
(1868–1910), made sure that Siam did not descend into the kind of disorder
that encouraged foreigners to intervene, discerning astutely that Britain and
France, the European powers advancing on the mainland, might find it useful
to maintain a stable buffer between their zones of expansion in Burma and
Indochina. Father and son embarked on an all-out project of self-
strengthening, bringing in a slew of Western advisers, adopting Western
models of governance, and educating young Thai elites, including their own
children, in Western languages and knowledge. As the Thai state grew
stronger, its mandala grew smaller. Chulalongkorn bowed to imperial
pressures and ceded territories to France in Laos and Cambodia and to Britain
in Malaya. But the kingdom itself survived, even as its rulers transformed it
to resemble the Western colonial states that dominated the rest of the region.
Thai monarchs were not unique among Southeast Asian kings in executing
self-strengthening strategies to stave off the West. They were unique in
High colonialism in Southeast Asia
By the late nineteenth century, Southeast Asia was no longer a mosaic of
colonial territories and mandalas. Aside from Siam, Western colonies wholly
dominated the region. It was a period of almost total white supremacy. As
political projections from Europe and the United States, the Southeast Asian
colonies illustrated Karl Marx’s 1848 prediction in the Communist Manifesto
that the Western bourgeoisie would “create a world after its own image.” In
this the Western colonies did not utterly succeed. But they changed Southeast
Asia profoundly.
Colonial states such as the Dutch East Indies, British Burma, and the
American Philippines were not mandala states. Their borders were fixed on
maps, surveyed, and monitored. In the islands, the British and Dutch marked
their coastlines with lighthouses and patrolled them with marine police.
Colonial administrators endeavored to fill in the state’s once-vague edges
with an apparatus of power so that, now, there actually was a place—a line—
at which the authority of one colony stopped and that of another one began.
In practice, these borders were notoriously porous where smuggling,
trafficking, and migration was concerned. But they were understood to exist
and to demarcate fully bounded states. This included Siam, too, as one of the
many adjustments to life in a neighborhood of European powers entailed
fixing its borders.
These new states were governed, at the senior level, by white officials sent
from Europe and employed in increasingly specialized bureaucracies. The
most senior official was ordinarily a governor-general who, following the
collapse of the East India companies, reported to a senior minister at home,
usually a minister of colonies (but in the United States the secretary of war).
These ministers reported, in turn, to their prime ministers and were also
called upon to testify before parliament or congress, one of the great ironies
of the era being that the colonial powers of Southeast Asia were all
Metropolitan control also determined the nature of the colonial states’
relationships to each other. In the mandala world, neighbors were enemies. In
the colonial world the relationship between, say, British Malaya and the
Dutch East Indies was fixed in Europe. If Britain and the Netherlands were
on good terms at home, they also strove to cooperate in Southeast Asia,
despite aggressive economic competition.
Generally speaking, colonial policies were established in the metropolitan
centers and executed in the colonies. Great debates occurred on colonial
issues in London, Paris, and the Hague. In fact, however, white colonial
officials located on the ground in Southeast Asia were powerful. The
governor-general of the Dutch East Indies ruled a territory forty-three times
larger than the Netherlands itself. Provincial governors and district officers
often had omnibus responsibilities for governing large numbers of subjects
and for supervising the projects of the colonial state.
This was possible because beneath the top—the white tiers of colonial
administrations—stood tiers and tiers of Southeast Asians who performed the
day-to-day work of governance. They included district-level administrators
recruited from indigenous elites and aristocracies as well as tax collectors and
police and office clerks and, in the twentieth century, modern specialists such
as surveyors, paramedics, foresters, and school teachers. With rare
exceptions, only the officers of colonial armies were British, French, Dutch,
and American (or other European ethnicity); the rank and file were generally
made up of Native minorities.
In the colonies small white heads rested upon large Native bodies. This
explains how such a small number of Europeans and Americans managed to
dominate and govern Southeast Asian populations so much larger than their
own numbers. In the Dutch East Indies at the peak of Dutch power in 1930,
there were 250 Natives for every European (a census category that included
Eurasians, Turks, Filipinos, and Japanese). In French Indochina the figure
was 665. The superiority of whites was often fixed in colonial law codes and
was universally understood. The protocols of colonial social life made this
clear as retinues of Southeast Asian servants now served in white households
as nannies, cooks, sweepers, launderers, gardeners, and drivers. In the
rijsttafel (rice table smorgasbord) of Dutch Java, a dozen Native waiters stood
in line to serve a single white diner.
In the early centuries of European and Southeast Asian interaction,
intermarriage across status and color lines was common; in places, large and
prominent mestizo clans emerged. But in the age of high colonialism in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, children of mixed race made for
awkward accommodations. Depending upon the status and legal initiatives of
the parents, some were elevated into the ruling class, others became Natives.
In mature colonies, stable social categories formed in which Eurasians were
explicitly identified, as in the Spanish mestizos of the Philippines. Among the
“pure” whites, demeaning stigmas usually applied. (Anxieties surrounding
persons of mixed race are frequently depicted in stories of the times by
Western authors such as George Orwell, Somerset Maugham, Louis
Couperus, and Marguerite Duras.)
7. In the rijsttafel of Dutch Java, a dozen Native waiters stood in line to
serve a single white diner. As a contemporary Jakarta advertisement
reveals, these days everyone is welcome to enjoy the rijsttafel.
One of the great underlying purposes of the high colonial states was to draw
an ever-escalating quantity of Southeast Asian resources to the West’s
hungry economies. The colonial states and Western capitalists took
advantage of their overwhelming power to develop the region as a major
global base of industrial-scale agribusiness and resource extraction. The
Dutch began exporting large quantities of coffee, tea, and sugar after 1830
through a state-led system of forced cultivation. By the late nineteenth
century, however, private plantations were the norm. Everywhere in
Southeast Asia great swaths of land were opened to grow coffee, tea, and
sugar as well as tobacco, palm oil, abaca, and rubber. Southeast Asians
became menial wage laborers as plantation workers—planting, tending, and
tapping rubber trees; picking tea leaves; cutting cane and working under the
eyes of white European overseers and ultimately for large agribusiness
companies such as Michelin (rubber), Dole (fruits), and Schimmelpenninck
In the Philippines, great sugar haciendas arose in Luzon and the Visayas.
Mining companies flourished throughout the colonial world, yielding
Malayan tin, Philippine gold, Vietnamese coal, and Burmese gems to global
markets alongside petroleum from Burma, Sumatra, and Borneo. Royal
Dutch Shell dominated oil production in the Dutch East Indies. Facilitating
the movement of these commodities were new steamship lines, roads and
railroads, and harbors. At the intersections of the new traffic patterns linking
commodities to markets appeared bustling new towns, hubs of dynamic
exchange that attracted merchants, artisans, and workers of all kinds. At the
same time, the region’s larger cities blossomed into major international trade
hubs and colonial administrative centers, spreading beyond their historical
cores into new suburbs and satellite towns: Manila, Saigon, Singapore,
Batavia, Rangoon.
Populations soared during the period, and they also spread out. Responding to
the opportunities and pressures of the colonial economies, indigenous
Southeast Asians shifted to the new plantation zones for wage work,
sometimes as indentured laborers. (Slavery was now forbidden in the
colonies and also in Siam.) They also swept out of population-pressed home
territories into large fertile spaces of as-yet-unopened land in places such as
the southern delta lands of Burma and Vietnam and the Luzon plains, to grow
wet rice for the market. Many prospered as farmers and cash-crop producers
and also learned the hard lessons of the global economy when commodity
prices plummeted.
As the region’s remaining forests and swamps were cleared to make way for
plantations and homesteading farmers, and as the land filled with people,
primordial ecological equations began to shift, a process exacerbated by
logging and mining in the forested hills. Animal and plant habitats
diminished. By the end of the colonial era, Southeast Asia’s environment had
been almost wholly reshaped by humans.
Newcomers from China
Southeast Asia’s age of colonies also brought legions of newcomers from
China. Chinese merchants had traversed the region for centuries, and
permanent settlements of Chinese had long existed in many Southeast Asian
cities. But now the numbers increased dramatically. Pushed by dearth and
disorder in China and pulled by Southeast Asia’s burgeoning colonial
economy, poor Chinese men by the hundreds of thousands fled China to find
work and opportunity in the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish/American
colonies—indeed everywhere in the region, including Thailand.
Many Chinese men came as menial coolies and did the dirty work of tin and
gold mining, of lifting and loading at the wharves, and of sweeping and
cleaning. Others found work in the businesses of already established Chinese
migrants and became tinkers and tailors and carpenters and itinerant peddlers
of consumer merchandise. Some started multipurpose shops and began to
collect the local vegetables, fruits, and eggs of local farmers in exchange for
credit to buy seeds, tools, carts, and draft animals. Chinese shops like these
In time, small Chinese businesses became larger Chinese businesses.
Carpenters and masons became contractors. Shopkeepers became
moneylenders and bankers. Entrepreneurs became tycoons. By the early
twentieth century, every colony had produced Chinese businessmen of
immense fortune and influence. More significantly, in virtually every colony
the Chinese had come to occupy the essential urban middle echelons of the
regional economies. From whom could you buy a pair of scissors, mops,
watering cans, pots, and pans? Gold and silver jewelry? A time piece, a
bicycle, a water pump? Who could organize a work crew to move cane from
the fields to the mill? To build a house? A church? To whom could you sell
surplus rice, eggs, and fruit or rattan, resins, and honey collected from the
forest? In most places and cases, by the early twentieth century in Southeast
Asia, the answers to these questions involved someone of Chinese descent.
8. In the age of colonies, hundreds of thousands of men fled China to
find opportunity in Southeast Asia. Migrants such as these pose for a
photograph around 1890 in Dutch Borneo.
The impact of these migrations from China was uneven. Far greater numbers,
relative to local populations, amassed in British Penang and Singapore and in
the British Malay States, where the Chinese population rose to half the total
and more. But all Southeast Asian cities now had substantial Chinatowns and
the colonies and Thailand had large numbers of Chinese residents, from 2 to
4 percent in the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina to 10 to 12 percent
in Thailand and the Philippines. Burma was an exception in the sense that it
also drew large numbers of migrants from India, as did Malaya, Penang, and
Singapore to a lesser degree.
The European regimes in Southeast Asia found the hardworking, money-
savvy Chinese useful. Until the late nineteenth century, the British, Dutch,
and French relied on them as revenue farmers who paid for the privilege of
selling opium and collecting tolls. But they feared them, too. In most colonies
Chinese were forbidden to buy agricultural land and confined to urban areas
and urban occupations. There were periodic crackdowns (and in earlier
centuries anti-Chinese massacres in Manila and Batavia). As the numbers of
Chinese rose, so did talk of the Yellow Peril. For indigenous Southeast
Asians the Chinese were also problematic. As suppliers of goods and credit,
they were welcome; but as debt collectors and marketplace tricksters (a
common stereotype), they were mistrusted and despised. The king of Siam,
Vajiravudh, Chulalongkorn’s Oxford-educated son, famously published an
anti-Chinese pamphlet in 1914. Despite some intermarriage and assimilation,
this ambivalence became rooted in Southeast Asia’s new plural societies as
they evolved toward the present.
New borrowings
These powerful changes in the economy, demography, and social
composition of Southeast Asia during the age of colonies was accompanied
by equally profound cultural changes. In a new wave of borrowing and
adapting that mirrored the earlier periods of Indianization and Islamization,
Southeast Asians now encountered, and selectively embraced, the West.
White colonizers disagreed about whether it was a good idea to educate
Natives as Westerners. The civilizing mission—creating a world after the
West’s own image—was complicated by racism. The idea, for example, of
Burmese and Indonesians and Vietnamese mimicking the British, French, and
Dutch was not all that attractive to many colonial whites. In most Southeast
Asian colonies, Western education, that is, education in Western languages
following a Western school curriculum, was strictly limited to Native elites
and certain other well-to-do subjects. Some schools were designed to train
Native officials in Western bureaucratic practices. For everyone else, the
regimes offered a modicum of vernacular-language primary education, the
quality and availability of which varied widely. (In British Burma in the
1920s only 4 percent of Native children advanced beyond grade four.) In
places, missionary schools offered an alternative to this pattern. In the
Philippines, American colonizers applied models of “industrial education”
designed for racial minorities (e.g., at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama) and
introduced English-language education at a popular level, although in
practice not universally.
Generally speaking, only a tiny handful of Southeast Asians were offered
Western educations, and fewer still, university or professional-level degrees.
As the colonial era matured, the Western regimes opened new slightly more
advanced schools for health workers, surveyors, and teachers. Graduates of
these schools formed the basis of a nascent professional middle class, part of
a rising tide of people literate in the vernacular languages and the region’s
first true generation of readers.
As a small few learned English, French, and Dutch, words from these
languages flooded into Southeast Asian vernacular languages, just as
Sanskrit, Arabic, and Chinese words had done in earlier periods. English
words now punctuated colloquial Burmese, Malay, and Tagalog. French
words became Vietnamese words. In the Dutch East Indies, people now went
to the bioskoop and enjoyed pikus-nikus and dansa-dansi. They took
photographs with a kodak and used Dutch words for car parts such as clutch,
gears, and mufflers. (They still do.) Filipinos put food in the “fridge.”
It was largely through the vernacular-language press that Southeast Asians
learned of the wider world. Newspapers and magazines catering to the
region’s rising class of literates featured stories from the world round—
revolution in China, war in Europe, radical reforms in Muslim Turkey under
Kemal Atatürk. Southeast Asians read Western books in translation (The
Three Musketeers!) and avidly watched European and American movies.
Western popular music also swept into the region and already in the 1920s
and 1930s there were local Southeast Asian versions of Western band music
and jazz.
Likewise, urban Southeast Asian men began wearing jackets and trousers and
Panama hats; women adopted skirts and dresses and coiffed their hair
Hollywood-style and tried lipstick and rouge. Despite some disapproval, this
was true of many urban Southeast Asians and their elites and also of the
region’s now-large population of Chinese. Family photographs of the period
document these changes vividly.
More profoundly, both through the elite Western-language educations of the
few and the mass vernacular learning of the many, a body of new ideas
entered Southeast Asia. These included the fundamentals of Western science,
geography, and economics; popular theories, including social Darwinism;
and biographies of historical figures such as George Washington. By the
1920s, new political ideas such as democracy, socialism, and communism
were the subjects of passionate popular discussion, debate, and action. The
civilizing mission of colonialism thus bore within it the seeds of its own
The high point of Western colonialism occurred in the early twentieth
century. This is when Western rule seemed permanently secure. (Keep in
mind that Asia’s own great radiating civilizations were both deeply
compromised at the time—India as a colony of Britain and China undergoing
a tumultuous political revolution.) But World War I weakened the Western
powers and new political ideas and movements began to undermine their
empires from the inside. By the 1930s, all of Asia and Southeast Asia was
astir with nationalism.
The colonial powers reacted differently. Britain, faced with a sophisticated
nationalist movement in India, yielded to nationalists in Burma by granting a
high degree of home rule that involved an elected Burmese government and
prime minister by the late 1930s. The United States also promised home rule
in the Philippines. Under the Commonwealth of the Philippines of 1935,
Filipinos wrote their own constitution and elected the entire national
government and a president.
France and the Netherlands were much less willing to ease their colonies
toward home rule. Despite permitting certain elected councils and elite
collaborative bodies, they found it harder to consider the end of empire. In
1931, Bonifacius Cornelis de Jonge, governor-general of the Dutch East
Indies, predicted confidently that the Netherlands would remain in the Indies
for another three hundred years. The following year, Pierre Pasquier,
governor-general of French Indochina, predicted that, in Vietnam, France
could look forward to “the flowering and the expansion of one of the most
beautiful branches that has sprouted from her genius.”
However, nationalism and Japanese imperial armies changed everything. And
sooner than anyone expected, Southeast Asia’s colonies became nations.
Chapter 4
Most of Southeast Asia’s colonies had been created by conquest and
coercion. European rule was not welcome. Almost everywhere, Southeast
Asians attempted to fend it off in every way possible. The sultan of Melaka
rallied allies from neighboring states to drive away the Portuguese. Sultan
Agung launched huge assaults against the Dutch fortress at Batavia. Burmese
and Vietnamese kings went to war to save their kingdoms from the British
and the French. And so it went across the region in encounters large and
The odds were against them, given the overpowering edge possessed by
Europeans in weaponry and the logistics of wielding power. Even so, the
sultanate of Aceh kept the Dutch at bay for thirty years. And elsewhere
violent resistance made colonial conquests expensive and painful for
advancing Westerners. (Referring to the British conquest of Burma, Kipling
wrote of “the dead beneath our awnings … on the road to Mandalay.”) When
the dust settled and subjugation became a fact of life, memories of heroic
resistance fueled the popular imagination and kept alive the dream of
Being colonized was a humiliation. It subjugated Southeast Asians to laws,
regulations, and institutions of authority that were foreign. It relegated elites
to second-class status in the colonial social hierarchy and to subordinate
places in colonial bureaucracies. It rendered kings throneless or converted
them into puppets who reigned in splendor but who had no power to rule.
Colonialism was also an insult to the region’s religions. The builders of the
British Empire in Burma nonchalantly entered Buddhist shrines with their
shoes on and belittled the sangha, or monkhood. Muslims felt rage and
humiliation under the thumb of the Dutch—nonbelievers for whom Islam
was a medieval religion worthy of scorn.
Being colonized also interfered with the routines and customs of ordinary
men and women. Colonial tax collectors pressed upon scarce resources,
imposed new fines and fees, and interfered with traditional patron-client
practices that had softened the burden of rents and taxes in lean years. New
rules and regulations also limited people’s access to traditional sources of
sustenance, including forests and other commons that colonial governments
claimed as state land.
For all of these reasons, resistance and rebellion were constant phenomena in
the colonial world. Peasants rose against colonial tax collectors and their
Native agents. Religious and cult leaders led bands of followers against
infidel officials. And members of the nobility and upper classes struggled to
restore their kings and princes to power. At times, all of these elements were
in play simultaneously. These outbursts kept colonial regimes on edge but
inevitably failed in the face of overwhelming force. Even so, they kept alive a
spirit of resistance. Their leaders became figures of lore.
Embracing nationalism
In time, a new form of resistance emerged. It grew first among the new
classes of Western-educated Southeast Asians, the young Filipinos,
Indonesians, Vietnamese, and Burmese who spoke Spanish, Dutch, French,
and English. For this small group, education led to agency. From among their
ranks arose the first generation of modern Southeast Asian men and women
of prowess. Their educations and experience exposed them to Western
Enlightenment ideas of reason and science, to the concepts of liberty and
democracy, and to the revolutionary appeals of the American and French
Revolutions and of Karl Marx. They became reformers and critics of the
colonial state. They came to discern the difference between the kingdoms of
the past and the modern nations of the West. And they began, some of them,
to visualize their own colonized societies as nations-in-the-making. Hence
they became nationalists.
This new concept was based not on the mandala states of old or of legitimacy
borne of religious authority or, as in Vietnam, of a classical patrimonial
Asian philosophy, but upon the notion of legitimacy residing within a body of
citizens. And who, exactly, would these citizens be? None other than the
subjects of the colonies. What would constitute the territories and boundaries
of the new nations? The answer: They would be exactly co-terminus with
those of the colonies. The new nation of Burma, for example, would embrace
all the territory claimed by Britain as part of British Burma; Indonesia, the
name chosen in the early twentieth century to convey the idea of a nation
born within the Dutch East Indies, would be the same size and shape as the
Indies itself. And so on. Colonies would become nations. And Natives would
be citizens.
This was a fine dream, but given the strength of the colonial states, how
could it be achieved? Beginning in the first decades of the twentieth century,
Western-educated Southeast Asians began to organize movements for
political reform and independence. Southeast Asia’s proto-nationalists were a
varied lot. Some were cautious and concentrated their efforts on self-
strengthening—on improving themselves as better Buddhists and Muslims or
on defending the positions of certain beleaguered groups, such as Java’s
aristocratic priyayi. They founded clubs and schools and published journals.
Others complained loudly, agitated, and became openly revolutionary. Some
organized movements centered on religion. Others harkened to the example
of Asian nationalists such as Mohandas K. Gandhi in India, Sun Yatsen in
China, or the Meiji-era nation builders in Japan. And some became
communists. Asia’s first Communist Party was formed in 1920 in the Dutch
East Indies, a year before such a party was founded in China. Indeed, for
Southeast Asians, colonialism inadvertently ushered in a new era of protean
A few examples will illustrate the complexity of the process. In Burma, the
first acts of resistance occurred in the immediate wake of the British seizure
of Mandalay in 1885, where royal officials and Buddhist monks mobilized
armed support in a failed attempt to restore the king and the old order. (It
took several years for Britain to quell the resistance.) By 1906, a group of
English-educated students had organized the Young Men’s Buddhist
Association, the YMBA, whose self-improving members agitated for
reforms, not rebellion. They protested against shoe-wearing in Buddhist
shrines, colonial schools that promoted Western values, and Burma’s colonial
identification as a province of British India.
As Britain opened Burma to incremental home rule in the 1920s, many elite
Western-educated young people entered public life as members of advisory
and legislative councils and, eventually, by the late 1930s, a full-fledged
elected Burmese government. (In step with these changes, Britain finally
separated Burma from India in 1937.) An English- and French-educated
lawyer, Ba Maw, was elected prime minister. Political actors like Ba Maw
were passionate nationalists but nationalists who chose to advance their cause
incrementally within the colonial state, agitating for new doors to be opened
and, when they opened, walking through them. This was a common pattern in
other colonies, too. But in Burma and elsewhere, more revolutionary forces
were also in play.
By the time Ba Maw became prime minister in 1937, Britain’s colony in
Burma had been rocked profoundly by the global depression, which rendered
many of its once-prosperous small farmers landless and which led to deadly
interethnic riots targeting moneylenders from India and other foreigners.
Amid troubling stirrings like these, in 1930 a large millenarian rebellion
surfaced in which politicized peasants and nascent urbanites rose against the
colonial state in an attempt to reestablish the “kingdom of Burma.” The
rebellion’s charismatic leader and would-be king, Shaya San, was captured
by the British, defended in the colonial courts by Ba Maw, and hanged. As
these alarming events brought the harsh underlying realities of British Burma
to light, a new generation of elite nationalists turned in a radical direction.
Under Aung San, the We Burmans Society, or Thakins, declared themselves
socialists, spurned Ba Maw and other collaborating gradualists, and
organized for revolution.
Just as Buddhism provided a public identity around which Burmese
opponents of Britain could rally, in Indonesia Islam became a rallying call.
Among the earliest politicized movements in the Dutch East Indies were
Muhammadiyah (the way of Muhammad) and Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union),
both launched in 1912. Whereas Muhammadiyah focused on Muslim self-
strengthening through education, community organizing, and the propagation
of a stream of reform-minded Islam that embraced modernity, Sarekat Islam
took a more agitational approach and stirred the anti-Dutch feelings of its
followers. It boasted two million members by 1919. One of its branches,
influenced by Dutch socialists on the spot (including an early Comintern
agent), declared itself a Communist Party in 1920.
It was about this time that the word Indonesia was gaining currency as the
name of the colony’s nation-to-be. “Indonesia” became a beacon for a
proliferating number of nationalist and proto-nationalist groups. In 1928,
following a failed uprising by the young Communists, a congress of elite
young nationalists pledged themselves, in the Youths’ Oath, to Indonesia:
one country, one nation, one language. Wholly in sync with this spirit, a
young Dutch-educated engineer named Sukarno proposed that nationalism
itself could bring together the colony’s diverse peoples, religions, and
ideologies, including Islam and communism. Sukarno’s proactive stand of
noncooperation was further than many of the colony’s activists wanted to go,
and it provoked the Dutch, who arrested him and kept him out of circulation
for years, along with many of his like-minded colleagues. Nevertheless, by
the 1930s, the dream of a free Indonesia animated the hopes of virtually all
the colony’s politicized organizations, revolutionary or not.
Opposition to the French in Vietnam was vociferous from the beginning. In
the early twentieth century, Phan Boi Chau was already conspiring for
revolution on the models of Meiji Japan and Sun Yatsen in China. Chau
failed but inspired others. By the 1920s, the colony supported several parties
with openly proto-nationalistic or nationalistic agendas. These included the
reform-oriented Constitutional Party, which lobbied the French for municipal
councils and more opportunities for Vietnamese to become French citizens,
and the openly revolutionary Vietnam Nationalist Party (VNQDD) modeled
on the Guomindang in China. The VNQDD’s abortive uprising in 1930,
crushed by the French, created an opening for yet another stream of
Vietnamese nationalists, the Communists.
As a young man, Ho Chi Minh fled Vietnam when anti-French feelings were
running high. In Britain and France and eventually in the new Soviet Union,
he discovered socialism and then communism, whose unequivocal
denunciation of colonialism he could heartily embrace. He became an early
agent of the Comintern and in 1925 founded a revolutionary organization
(Youth), the precursor of Vietnam’s communist movement. Ho’s subsequent
maneuvering succeeded in uniting the colony’s disparate Marxists and
establishing a coherent party in 1930. His astute leadership combined with a
talented group of adjutants—including Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap
—and France’s suppression of their anti-Marxist nationalist rivals, account
for the fact that, in Vietnam, Communists ultimately seized the leadership of
the colony’s national revolution.
Southeast Asia’s first genuine nationalist revolution occurred in the
Philippines in 1896, inspired by the reformist propagandizing of Jose Rizal
and the revolutionary anger of Andres Bonifacio. In 1899, Filipino
nationalists founded the first Republic of the Philippines, whose president,
Emilio Aguinaldo, led the doomed effort at the turn of the twentieth century
to fend off invading American armies. Once securely in power, the United
States told its new Southeast Asian subjects that it was holding the colony in
trusteeship; one day it would be theirs. It opened positions of senior
leadership to elite Filipinos who soon became provincial governors and
elected members of the colony-wide Philippine Assembly. By 1916 there was
an elected senate as well. The colonial bureaucracy was also rapidly
In this way, elite Filipino families of the late Spanish era morphed into a new
Americanizing elite under the United States. This situation muted
revolutionary tendencies (some trade-union radicalism and a nascent
communist movement notwithstanding) and created a class of wily
collaborating nationalists who found their agency by clamoring for
independence while at the same time reaping the benefits of public office.
The Commonwealth of the Philippines, inaugurated in 1935 by the U.S.
Congress, brought this process to a new stage. Manuel Quezon, archetypal
politician of his day and leader of the Nacionalista Party, was elected
president and led an entirely Filipino government under the watchful eyes of
a U.S. high commissioner. As war clouds threatened in the late 1930s,
Quezon hired U.S. general Douglas MacArthur to prepare for the defense of
the colony. In the Philippines, nationalist hopes rested to the end with the
In the rest of Southeast Asia, nationalist sentiments were muted. Among the
Malays in British territories, young men from princely families learned
English and Western ways in school and came to see themselves as modern
exemplars of their people; meanwhile, graduates of Malay vernacular-
language schools harkened with some excitement to the nationalist movement
in the nearby Dutch East Indies. But no one among either group emerged as
dynamic nationalist leaders with politicized followings on a par with
Sukarno, Aung San, Ho, or Quezon. The large Chinese populations of
Malaya and the Straits Settlements were more politicized, but their concerns
lay with the fate of China, not Southeast Asia. It was much the same
elsewhere in Laos and Cambodia, where modern political stirrings were
confined to a small group of French-educated elites and intellectuals whose
concerns focused on Buddhism and on threats posed by Chinese and
Vietnamese migrants. Tellingly, the party Ho Chi Minh founded in 1930 was
the Indochinese Communist Party, but most of its members were Vietnamese.
And what about Siam, Southeast Asia’s only sovereign state? Here the self-
strengthening efforts of the Chakri kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn
succeeded in exposing a new generation of elite Thais to modern Western
ideas. King Vajiravudh, Rama VI (r. 1910–1925), had been educated at
Sandhurst and Oxford. Inspired by the heated nationalism of Europe, he
propagated a jingoistic popular nationalism at home, complete with
uniformed paramilitary scouts and anti-Chinese diatribes. Subsequently, as
Siam’s Westernized classes grew larger and more influential, their sense of
being modern began to clash with the kingdom’s absolute monarchy.
Europe’s monarchies were constitutional monarchies. In 1932, a conspiracy
involving military and civilian activists orchestrated a bloodless coup d’état
in which Siam’s king Prajadhipok (Rama VII, r. 1925–1932) was
subordinated to a constitution and parliament. The civilian and military
governments that assumed power thereafter presided over an independent
state that increasingly resembled the nations modeled on the West that other
Southeast Asian nationalists were striving to achieve. In that spirit, in 1939,
they adopted a conspicuously Western name for their country: Thailand.
A Japanese intervention
As the year 1940 approached, much of Southeast Asia was astir with
nationalist hopes. In Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines political
movements with brilliant leaders were in play. And yet, aside from the Thais,
already free, only Filipinos had any concrete hope for independence; the
United States had promised it for 1946. Strive as they might, the others faced
untold years of waiting and struggle.
Japan changed everything. Japan’s modern march to empire had begun in the
late nineteenth century as the Meiji government embarked on its quest to
make Japan the equal of the world’s great powers, namely, the Western
empires. First in Taiwan (1895), then in Korea and Manchuria (1910 and
1931), and then in a large swath of the Chinese mainland (1937), the
Japanese empire grew. As a rapidly industrializing and militarizing power,
Japan drew essential raw materials from the colonies in Southeast Asia:
copper, coal, iron ore, chromium, and petroleum.
In 1940, Japan’s militarists established a beachhead in Indochina, where local
French officials were collaborating with the Fascist-aligned Vichy
government in France. After allying themselves with Germany and Italy in
the Tripartite Pact of September 1940, they began planning to seize the rest of
Southeast Asia.
In December 1941, Japan launched its attacks on two American colonies in
the Pacific—Hawaii and the Philippines—as well as on British Malaya,
British Burma, and Thailand. The Thais quickly capitulated and allied
themselves with Japan. In Burma, young nationalists under Aung San and the
Thakins led Japanese invaders into the British colony. In late 1941 and early
1942, forces of Imperial Japan swept triumphantly through British Malaya to
Singapore and defeated the forces of the Netherlands in the Dutch East
Indies. By April, General Douglas MacArthur and his Filipino-American
forces in the Philippines had capitulated. For the first and only time in
history, all Southeast Asia now fell under a single political domain. Japan
called its new empire the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was to
be Asia for Asians.
Some Southeast Asians welcomed the Japanese sincerely, others warily.
Despite its appealing propaganda, Japan’s urgent wartime priorities and
military rule led to appalling brutalities. As British, Dutch, and Americans
languished in improvised prison camps, ordinary Southeast Asians also
suffered badly due to shortages of food, clothing, and common necessities
such as soap. The Japanese forced some local women into sexual servitude
and tens of thousands of Southeast Asian men into slave-like menial labor
building roads, bridges, and railroads in distant sites.
The Japanese relied on Southeast Asian elites to continue functioning as
officials. In places, they invited them to form whole governments. This
occurred in Burma where Ba Maw became premier again under Japanese
auspices, as his nationalist rival Aung San became minister of war and head
of the new national army. In the Philippines, Jose Laurel, a Yale-educated
member of the Philippine Supreme Court, headed another Japan-sponsored
government as president. Both Ba Maw and Laurel met ceremoniously with
Japan’s war chief Hideki Tojo in Tokyo in 1943 on the occasion of the
official “independence” of their occupied countries within the Co-Prosperity
Sphere. Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand also attended the event in
Tokyo. In Indonesia, Sukarno and a great many of his nationalist colleagues,
including prominent Muslim leaders, lent their support to Japan’s New Order
in Asia as members of advisory bodies and propagandists for the empire in
massive outdoor rallies.
In the occupied territories, collaboration with Japan was both an opportunity
and a duty. If respected leaders did not come to the fore, local populations
would be at the mercy of Japanese officers and unscrupulous opportunists.
Remaining at the helm during wartime was also a way of sustaining one’s
place in society as larger power equations shifted unpredictably. A close
relationship with Japanese officers could also provide useful leverage in
strictly local power struggles.
But what if the Japanese were to lose the war? This became an issue after
1943 when news of the American advance across the Pacific began seeping
into Southeast Asia. Some Southeast Asian collaborators appear to have
placed all their hopes in Japan’s promises. This was the case in Indonesia.
But elsewhere, Southeast Asia’s wartime leaders and elite actors responded
strategically. In the Philippines, elite-connected anti-Japanese guerrillas were
in contact with underground American agents throughout the war, alongside
members of the Marxist-led Hukbalahap anti-Japanese peasant movement.
Moreover, many in Manila’s Japanese-sponsored government had close
prewar ties to Americans and were well positioned to claim, later, that they
accepted their wartime roles out of duty, not pro-Japanese sentiments. As for
President Jose Laurel himself, one of his sons had been trained in the
Japanese military academy and served with him in Manila during the war;
another was serving with the Philippine government in exile in Washington.
In Burma, Aung San eventually used his wartime position as head of the
Burmese national army to develop a clandestine anti-Japanese mass
movement in collaboration with British and American agents. In Thailand, an
underground Free Thai movement led by Pridi Banomyong, a prominent
architect of Thailand’s shift to constitutional monarchy and now regent to the
underaged king, fostered ties with the British while the formal government
kept up its public collaboration with Japan. As the winds of war blew
evermore forcefully against Japan, these underground movements moved to
the fore and assisted the Western Allied powers in their reconquest of the
In some parts of Southeast Asia, however, opposition to Japan was passionate
from the outset. In Malaya, where the Malays and their sultans acquiesced to
the occupation (with some supporting it enthusiastically), communist-leaning
members of the local Chinese community formed the Malayan People’s Anti-
Japanese Army and struck out against the occupiers throughout the war in
collaboration with British agents. And in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and his
nascent communist movement mobilized a broad, popular armed movement
to fight both the Japanese and the French. Under Ho’s leadership, the
Vietminh waxed strong amid wartime uncertainty and dearth, including a
million-dead famine that struck Vietnam in 1945. That same year it
collaborated with underground American agents in the final months of the
war as it positioned itself for national leadership at war’s end.
The Japanese occupation brought an end to the myth of white superiority. Not
one Western power had withstood Japan, and Southeast Asians witnessed
personally the humiliation of their former white bosses as they languished in
wartime prison camps. In the meantime, many Southeast Asians welcomed
the opportunity to rise to higher official positions by replacing now-absent
whites and to undergo “can do” military training under the Japanese. Despite
the deprivations of the war and the imminent return of Europeans, they faced
the postwar years with heightened expectations. Nationalists stood poised to
seize the moment.
Nations emerge
In some places, the region’s colonizers acquiesced quickly. In the
Philippines, the United States fulfilled its promise of independence on July 4,
1946. On that symbolic day, Manuel Roxas, a member of the prewar elite of
the American Philippines (and of the Japanese-sponsored wartime
government) who had recently been elected president, stood before a crowd
in Manila and declared that the Republic of the Philippines would henceforth
“follow in the glistening wake of America’s mighty prow.” In Burma, Aung
San’s wartime mass movement, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League,
emerged in the vanguard of independence efforts after the war. Aung San
negotiated successfully with Britain and in 1947 was elected to lead the soon-
to-be-independent government. His assassination by rivals that summer
meant that someone else would claim this honor. On January 4, 1948, Aung
San’s longtime ally U Nu became premier of the Union of Burma.
Independence aspirations in Malaya were complicated by the absence of a
passionate nationalist movement among Malays before the war and the
presence of a communist-led, British-affiliated, Chinese independence
movement during the war. Britain returned to Malaya with a blueprint for
independence that aimed radically to alter the prewar status quo. Under the
Malayan Union Plan, the old sultanates would be abandoned and all of
Britain’s subjects on the peninsula—Malay, Chinese, and Indian—would
enjoy equal political rights in a unitary state. This plan acknowledged an
important demographic truth, that by the late 1940s, Malaya’s Chinese
residents outnumbered (or at least equaled) the number of Malays.
Britain’s plan for a Malayan Union catapulted the Malays into political action
at last. Beginning in 1946, the colony’s English-educated Malay elites
mobilized around the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to rally
Malays against the union plan and to lobby Britain for an alternative. They
succeeded. A new plan in 1948 favored Malays in citizenship and official
leadership and restored the nine historical states as well as their sultans, who
would become constitutional monarchs in the planned parliamentary
Federation of Malaya. The colony’s communist-led Chinese activists
immediately struck back in an armed rebellion that rattled the colony-in-
transition for several years. Britain called it the Emergency and deployed its
imperial armies to defeat the rebels with the support of UMNO and its Indian
and Chinese partners—for many of Malaya’s prosperous Chinese residents
also opposed the radicals. Britain organized elections even as the fighting
continued. The UMNO-led alliance prevailed, and on August 31, 1957,
UMNO’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, the newly elected premier, proclaimed
freedom for the Federation of Malaya. In his speech he thanked Britain for
“the assistance which we have received … along our long path to
nationhood.” Britain, Tunku said, “will ever find in us her best friend.”
The French and the Dutch returned to Southeast Asia after the war as
weakened states for whom empires still mattered dearly. Their postwar plans
for Southeast Asia envisioned global federations of quasi-independent
member states in which they would be the senior partners. This is not at all
what Indonesian and Vietnamese nationalists had in mind.
In the final years of World War II, Sukarno and other leading Indonesian
nationalists participated in Japan-fostered meetings to prepare for
independence. A draft constitution was already in place on August 17, 1945,
two days after Japan’s surrender, when Sukarno seized the moment and
declared Indonesia free. Soon afterward, partisans of the new Republic of
Indonesia found themselves fending off returning Dutch troops, who
occupied key urban areas as Sukarno and the Republic established free
territories of their own. The often-violent standoff between the Republic and
the Dutch—called the Indonesian Revolution—lasted four years and involved
vexing negotiations interspersed with open warfare in which the Dutch
army’s superior weapons were poised against Indonesia’s passionate cause
and the home-ground advantage of its fighters. At first, the United States
supported the Netherlands, but the exposure of Dutch atrocities and the
Sukarno-led defeat of an internal Communist putsch gained favor for the
Republic. In 1949, the Netherlands relinquished power to a federation of
Indonesian states that gave way within a year to a unitary republic. Under the
leadership of a relatively small group of Dutch-educated nationalists, the
gargantuan tropical colony ruled for centuries by the Netherlands now
became a nation.
9. Sukarno was a Dutch-educated engineer who became Indonesia’s first
president. He believed that the force of nationalism itself could bring
together the country’s diverse peoples, religions, and ideologies.
In Vietnam the process of forming the nation was longer and bloodier. Like
the Netherlands, France was loath to relinquish its colonies. Its postwar plan
for a French Union ran headlong into the new Democratic Republic of
Vietnam, whose independence Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed on September 2,
1945, quoting the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are
created equal,” with U.S. soldiers at the scene. By this time, Ho’s
organization, the Vietminh, controlled much of northern Vietnam and key
areas of the center and south. France’s return was enabled by its wartime ally,
Britain, which occupied southern Vietnam as the Japanese departed. Instead
of opting immediately for war, Ho agreed to place his government within
France’s French Union, but this arrangement broke down within a year.
The nine-year-long guerrilla war that followed was not precisely between the
Vietnamese and the French. Despite the popular support and organizational
acumen of the Vietminh—and the mantle of nationalism it bore—France had
Vietnamese supporters as well. These included members of the colony’s
moneyed and propertied classes, its French-educated middle classes including
military officers, and many Vietnamese Catholics and members of local
religious sects. Significantly, Bao Dai, heir to the throne in Vietnam’s
Nguyen dynasty, agreed in 1949 to be head of state on the French side.
The Vietnamese on both sides of this conflict were nationalists, but they were
nationalists with contrary hopes for the future of the nation. Communism
divided them. This passionate disagreement drew the Vietnamese into the
global crucible of the Cold War.
France’s colonial armies and Vietnamese allies could not contain the surging
Vietminh. By the early 1950s, the United States was subsidizing 80 percent
of their flagging efforts as part of its postwar global mission to contain “the
Reds” (as Ho and his followers now became in American propaganda). When
Vietminh armies defeated France decisively in 1954 in the Battle of Dien
Bien Phu, global Cold War factors more than local ones determined what
happened next: the division of the country by the big powers (in the Geneva
Accords) into Communist-led and non-Communist-led zones. Meant to be
temporary, pending elections that were never held, these opposing zones
hardened and prolonged Vietnam’s decolonization for another twenty years.
In the north, the Democratic Republic under Ho Chi Minh and the
Communist Party received support from the Soviet Union and China but
claimed its legitimacy on the basis of its historical revolutionary
achievement. It had many partisans south of the Geneva line, where the
Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, was blatantly beholden to its foreign
sponsor, the United States. This significantly compromised its legitimacy.
Even so, South Vietnam called upon the sincere loyalty of a great many
Vietnamese for whom a Communist Vietnam was anathema and also upon
the qualified and calculated support of many others for whom it was the
better of two flawed options.
The hopeful project launched by the United States in South Vietnam
unraveled quickly. The revolution soon reawakened in the south. Through the
sustained, disciplined action of its highly committed partisans, the National
Liberation Front (to Americans, the “Vietcong”) ate deeply into the fragile
body politic of the southern state. As the struggle intensified, the northern
government and its guiding party engaged the fight in the south at ever-
increasing levels, just as the United States escalated its military intervention
in defense of its Cold War client. The carnage was stupendous for soldiers
and civilians alike; between two and three million died. In the end, neither the
efforts of the South Vietnamese government nor the deployment at the war’s
peak of more than half a million U.S. soldiers nor the largest bombing
campaign in history (against North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) prevented
the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975.
The reunification of Vietnam that year marked the end of the country’s
decolonization. The dreams of nationhood planted long ago and proclaimed
by Ho Chi Minh in 1945 had now come fully to fruition. The nation was
claimed by its most successful nationalists, the Communists. Ho Chi Minh
himself had died in 1969, but his party ruled on.
Inevitably, Vietnam’s wrenching path to independence affected the fortunes
of its Indochina neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. As its imperial fortunes
waned in the early 1950s, France deftly relinquished its control in both
would-be nations to their residual elites: in Cambodia to King Norodom
Sihanouk, whose grand uncle (King Norodom) had invited the French into
the kingdom ninety years before, and in Laos to a Royal Lao government led
by Prince Souvanna Phouma, a neutralist, who together with his half-brother
and ideological rival Prince Souphanouvong, dominated the small country’s
nascent political movements.
In the spirit of Cambodian nationhood, the French-educated Sihanouk
abandoned the throne to become head of state and led his own political party
as he fended off opponents from the left and the right. Brooking little
opposition, he attempted to steer his country through the dangerous shoals of
the Cold War through the 1950s and 1960s. Clashing bitterly with the United
States, he refused to take sides in the war exploding next door in Vietnam,
which inevitably bled across his borders; the Communist command center for
the war in South Vietnam (COSVN) lay just within Cambodia, for example.
The United States maneuvered for regime change and, in 1970, Sihanouk was
overthrown by one of his generals; Lon Nol immediately led Cambodia into
war on the U.S. and South Vietnamese side. Intensive U.S. bombing inside
the country now accompanied chaotic ground fighting. All this led to a bitter
end in 1975 with the capture of the state by the surging Khmer Rouge.
In Laos, the war in Vietnam penetrated early and deeply. The northeast
plateau became an important part of the clandestine corridor through which
the North Vietnamese fostered the revolution in the south. In collaboration,
Prince Souphanouvong led the Pathet Lao, or Lao Communists. To push
back, the United States recruited Laotian hill peoples, such as the Hmong,
into clandestine anti-communist armies that fought a “secret war” alongside
American agents throughout the long struggle. Meanwhile, in Vientiane,
neutralist and pro-U.S. regimes (with Souvanna Phouma as the key player) by
turns attempted to hold the center together. Amid this chaotic web of power
struggles the Pathet Lao advanced. And it was they who assumed power at
war’s end in 1975. All former French Indochina was now reconfigured into
Marxist-led nations of one sort or another.
By this time, the fledgling Federation of Malaya had expanded to incorporate
two remaining pieces of Britain’s erstwhile Southeast Asian empire:
Sarawak, once the British-protected private domain of the Brooke family, and
Sabah, formerly the private commercial domain of the British North Borneo
Company. In 1963 these Borneo territories were folded into a new national
entity named Malaysia, along with Singapore, the richest and most populous
of Britain’s Chinese-populated Straits Settlements. Singapore’s highly
politicized population was led by Lee Kuan Yew, the dynamic Cambridge-
educated trade-union lawyer and head of the colony’s left-leaning People’s
Action Party (PAP). Lee and his aroused Chinese constituents were not a
good fit in the expanded Malay-led federation of Malaysia. In 1965,
Singapore withdrew and, with Lee and his party at the helm, embarked upon
its own future as an independent nation.
A few years later, in 1984, the Sultanate of Brunei relinquished its protected
status under Britain and became, once again, a sovereign kingdom under its
Sandhurst-educated sultan, an absolute monarch.
The nature of nations
As in the kingdoms of the past, in Southeast Asia’s nations indigenous
leaders once again took their places at the top of the social and political
pyramid. New men and women of prowess rose to become elected
politicians, political party bosses, power-seizing generals, and dictators, as
well as leaders in fields encompassing education, health, law, journalism, and
business. The anomaly of foreign rule was past. But the legacy of foreign rule
was deep. In many respects, the new nations resembled the former Western
colonies much more than they resembled the region’s bygone kingdoms.
To begin with, both the spatial and the conceptual configurations of
Southeast Asia’s nations followed that of the colonies. The nations were geo-
bodies, whose territories were mapped and whose official authority extended
fully to the borders instead of attenuating away from the capital, mandala-
style. For the most part, the maps of the colonies prefigured the maps of the
nations, so that outlying rings of the old mandalas that had been captured and
colonized by Western powers became part of the new nations—just as
nationalists had envisioned.
In the islands, the impact of colonial conquest and mapping was radical.
Unlike the mainland where modern nations overlay historic mandalas in
Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, in the islands the new nations represented
wholly novel configurations created by Western empires. Although modern
Indonesians like to think of their country as a modern incarnation of the great
mandala kingdom of Majapahit, nothing remotely like the Dutch East Indies
existed in Southeast Asia before the Dutch created it. Yet it was this exact
colonial geo-body that Indonesian nationalists dreamed of as their own
nation. The modern Philippines is another obvious example. As a geo-body,
Las Philipinas was a Spanish creation.
Malaysia is an extreme case. Britain became the hegemon in Malaya partly as
a result of its treaty with the Netherlands in 1824 identifying the Melaka
Straits as the borderline between English and Dutch spheres of influence.
Malaya became “British” and subsequently Malaysian. Sumatra, the home of
a great number of Malays, became “Dutch” and therefore Indonesian. That
the north coast of Borneo would be colonized by Britain-affiliated privateers
was largely serendipitous. But when Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah)
were orphaned by their private owners following World War II, Britain took
them over and, seventeen years later, arranged for them to join Malaysia, a
wholly accidental configuration that is unquestionably a nation today.
Finally, tiny East Timor underscores the point. Its half of the remote island of
Timor (plus another small enclave) was a Portuguese presence that the Dutch
let stand even as the Dutch East Indies grew all around it. It remained
separate when the Indies became Indonesia and remains so today, despite a
brutal twenty-four-year-long attempt by the dictator Suharto to make it part
of Indonesia after Portugal withdrew in 1975. East Timor proved indigestible
and became its own sovereign nation in 2002. Its nationalist leaders named
Portuguese as the national language. Even in this small place, empire was
Colonialism shaped the new nations in other ways as well. Southeast Asia’s
nationalists longed for independence but embraced Western political ideas
and other lessons of their colonizers. They created governments that built
upon British, French, Dutch, and American models for their bureaucracies
and for ministries of education, public works, finance, and foreign affairs.
They created parliamentary democracies, presidential democracies, and
Leninist one-party states. They established militaries with service branches,
titles, and uniforms similar to those of the West. They wrote constitutions.
And they created educational systems based on textbooks, schoolrooms, and
curriculums mirroring those of Western schools, including instruction in
Western languages. All of these things enabled them to place their new states
within the global matrix of modern nations.
Other legacies of colonialism were more problematic. Beyond a thin layer of
Western-educated elites, most of Southeast Asia’s new nations possessed
large populations of poorly educated, semiliterate citizens. (In 1950, only
Thailand and the Philippines possessed literacy rates above 50 percent.) Few
were prepared to staff their ballooning bureaucracies with qualified personnel
or their schools with qualified teachers. Moreover, the economies of
Southeast Asia were overwhelmingly agricultural and industrially primitive.
A total of 50 to 70 percent or more of the region’s population was rural. The
Western regimes had introduced little in the way of manufacturing and
processing. Southeast Asia exported rubber, tin, coffee, tea, sugar, and the
like and imported practically all its manufactured consumer goods and
machinery, including cars, trucks, pumps, and printing presses.
The new nations of Southeast Asia had inadequate electric power, a poor
network of roads and railroads, and few hospitals and doctors. In 1960,
Indonesia counted one doctor for every 70,000 people. Poverty was
widespread and in many places the norm. On average, the GDP per capita in
Southeast Asia in the early postwar years was well under U.S.$300 dollars a
year. In the eyes of the West, Southeast Asia was backward. It was the Third
Yet another legacy of colonialism weighed heavily. The fact that colonial
maps became national maps meant that most of the new nations included
within their boundaries territories occupied by ethnic groups that, historically,
had been rivals or enemies of the nation’s ruling group. These animosities
flared anew after independence in Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and
The Cold War and authoritarianism
Many of these issues were complicated by ideology. The Cold War placed
Southeast Asians, inadvertently, within one of the world’s great contested
arenas. China’s revolutionary embrace of communism, the subsequent war in
Korea, and the leading role of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam’s national revolution
raised fears in the West and especially in the United States that all Southeast
Asia would potentially “fall.” This is what lay behind the long, losing
campaign of the United States in Vietnam and in nearby Laos and Cambodia.
Elsewhere things played out differently. In the Philippines, a communist-led
anti-Japanese movement known as the Hukbalahap grew strong during the
Japanese occupation and mobilized peasants around a land-to-the-tiller
program. After independence, the new nation’s elite politicians criminalized
the Huks and blocked their elected representatives from the legislature. In the
subsequent campaign to defeat their armed movement, the United States
found a compelling political ally in Ramon Magsaysay. As national defense
chief and subsequently president, Magsaysay orchestrated aggressive anti-
insurgency strategies alongside sociopolitical measures to address Huk
grievances (including opening homesteading land to poor farmers).
Magsaysay was unabashedly pro-American and told Filipino voters that their
vulnerable nation was safer with the United States as a friend.
The post–World War II leaders of Thailand agreed. Under Field Marshal
Sarit Thanarat and the generals Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat
Charusathien, Thailand fell into step with American Cold War policy, joining
the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and steadfastly
supporting American policy in Indochina while fiercely suppressing its own
communist and left-wing students and activists. In Malaya, the Communist-
led insurgency was also defeated. In each of these cases, substantial amounts
of Cold War foreign aid flowed to the collaborating regimes. By the mid-
1960s, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines were firmly in the
anticommunist group as the fates of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were still
being contested.
Sihanouk’s strategy of remaining free of Cold War conflicts by declaring
neutrality in Cambodia found adherents in Burma and Indonesia. General Ne
Win, who seized power in Burma in 1962, and Sukarno, Indonesia’s
founding president, both favored nonalignment. Indeed, Sukarno hosted the
first world summit of nonaligned countries in Indonesia in 1955. At Bandung,
he spoke for the “voiceless ones in the world” who were now coming into
their own.
Unlike Ne Win, who led his country into isolation, Sukarno accepted aid
from both sides, exasperating both in the process. As president, he presided
over a striking array of political parties, from conservative Muslims on the
one side to Communists on the other. His embrace of the surging
Communists as political allies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, along with
his anti-imperialist, anti-American rhetoric, won him the animosity of the
United States. Washington supported a rebellion against him in 1958 and
subsequently conspired with members of his officer corps to eliminate the
Indonesian Communists. The Communist Party was legal in Indonesia and by
1963 claimed as many as two million members and ten million affiliates. Its
annihilation in the army-led massacres of 1965–1966 removed communism
as a political factor in Indonesia, ended Sukarno’s career, and brought a pro-
United States military dictatorship to power under Suharto. He ruled for
thirty-three years.
Indonesia’s turn to dictatorship exemplified a trend. By this time the early
postindependence experiments in parliamentary democracy had also failed in
Burma, where General Ne Win would rule even longer than Suharto.
Generals ruled in Thailand, too. The Philippines soon shifted in an
authoritarian direction as well when, in 1972, the two-term elected president
Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law—to contain a communist threat, he
said. Marcos ruled with American support until 1986.
The turn to authoritarian government in Southeast Asia, including the
triumph of one-party rule in the Indochina states and in Singapore under Lee
Kuan Yew, is perhaps a reflection of the enormous task of transforming
colonies into nations. Many of the region’s formative nationalists entertained
visions of national societies in which citizens governed themselves through a
process of democratic consensus. This proved romantic. They had not
accounted for the power of lingering ethnic and regional animosities, for the
corrosive impact of poverty, for the explosive appeal of utopian ideologies
and their disciplined movements, nor for the machinations of great outside
powers. Nor had they accounted for the visceral appeal of power itself as they
and their elite peers competed with each other in the uncharted seas of
The neighborhood matures
Many Southeast Asians alive in the late 1970s had lived through the entire
transformation of their societies from colonies to nations. Surveying the
region, they might have despaired. By 1975, the dust had settled in Vietnam
but the trauma had yet to end as refugees by the tens of thousands fled the
newly reunited country for years to come. Neighboring Cambodia was lost to
atrocity behind the bloody veil of the Khmer Rouge, who murdered or
otherwise caused to die about one-third of the country’s population. A
thousand miles away in East Timor, the inhabitants were reeling in resistance
to an armed invasion by Indonesia. Burma languished under a military
dictator, Ne Win, and the Philippines under a civilian one, Marcos. Suharto
and the army dominated Indonesia. And in Thailand, a student-led movement
for democracy in the mid-1970s brought about three years of civilian
government only to be brutally overtaken by military rule once again.
Moreover, with the exception of Singapore, Southeast Asia remained an
archetypal Third World region, still poor and still in the throes of its own
halting creation.
Yet at this very time, Southeast Asia stood on the verge of region-changing
events. In 1976, ASEAN’s members signed the groundbreaking Treaty of
Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, paving the way for region-wide
cooperation. In late 1978, Vietnam launched its ten-year occupation of
Cambodia that brought an end to the Killing Fields and inaugurated
Cambodia’s return to coherency. Only a few years later, Vietnam inaugurated
the doi moi reforms that opened its economy to market forces and rapid
growth. Almost simultaneously, the People Power Revolution of 1986 led by
Corazon Aquino overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and
restored the country’s vibrant oligarchic democracy. Two years later, in 1988,
a democracy movement in Burma led by Aung San’s daughter, Aung San
Suu Kyi, openly defied Burma’s military junta and set into motion a series of
events leading to consequential reforms in coming decades.
Next, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought the Cold War and its
distorting impact to an end. This major event made it possible for Southeast
Asia’s nations led by Communist and non-Communist parties to focus more
on their similarities than on their differences. By 1999, Vietnam, Laos,
Cambodia, and Burma had all joined the neighborhood association, ASEAN.
Meanwhile, beginning in 1978, the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping in China
set off a series of reforms that would soon transform China and have colossal
repercussions for Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia soon experienced its first postindependence boom. Beginning
around 1990, new investment from Japan, North America, and Europe began
lifting the regional economies, especially those of Malaysia, Thailand,
Indonesia, and the Philippines, where economies began expanding at rates
between 5 and 10 percent a year. Export processing zones and investor-
friendly laws brought high-tech manufacturing into the region alongside a
rise in low-tech, low-wage manufacturing. Cities blossomed with new
construction as L-shaped cantilever cranes dominated the rising skylines of
Bangkok, Jakarta, and Manila. Property values rose. So did incomes and
opportunities for the rising number of the region’s high school and university
graduates. Middle classes expanded. Upper classes luxuriated—new golf
courses sprouted everywhere. The region took on a new glow. People spoke
of Southeast Asia’s New Tigers, meaning Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.
The Philippines called itself a “cub.”
This exuberant period came crashing to an end in 1997. Beginning in
Thailand, a monetary crisis swept the region. The decline of Japan’s yen
alongside Southeast Asia’s poorly regulated banks, risky loans, and endemic
corruption all fostered the crash. Southeast Asia was soon littered with
bankruptcies and empty high-rise apartments. Abandoned half-built hotels
and office buildings stood exposed like skeletons as legions of hopeful young
MBAs, engineers, and professionals lost their jobs.
The impact of the crash was not permanent but it had consequences. In
Indonesia it contributed to the fall of President Suharto, for example, who
resigned in the face of popular protests in 1998. This surprising event led to a
dynamic new period of democratization in Indonesia, known as reformasi.
(The country’s latest two presidents, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono and Joko
Widodo were both popularly elected.) The end of military dictatorship in
Indonesia also paved the way for East Timor’s independence. In a 1999
popular referendum authorized by Suharto’s successor, the people of East
Timor voted overwhelmingly in favor of separation from Indonesia.
Indonesia’s withdrawal was vengeful and bloody, but in 2002 East Timor
became a fully sovereign nation, Southeast Asia’s eleventh.
After 1997, the region slowly recovered, faltered again in the early 2000s,
and recovered again in a pattern that continues. Each small boom intensifies
the region’s links to the larger world economy and brings new levels of
economic diversity and sophistication to its manufacturing and financial
sectors, as well as to its huge and still expanding agribusiness and mining
sectors. This growth is asymmetrical. Southeast Asia has both very rich and
very poor countries. In all but Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei, the
very poor (people earning less than U.S.$3.10 a day) still account for more
than 30 percent of the national populations.
Even so, Southeast Asia today is a far cry from Southeast Asia of early
independence. Over the decades, a stable region has taken shape. The new
states are intact. And, along with the rest of Asia—including India, Japan,
South Korea, Taiwan, and China—they are wholly engaged with and
embraced within today’s global matrix of nation-states and the world
capitalist economy.
Chapter 5
The past is in the present
Today’s fast-changing Southeast Asians seem utterly engaged with the
present. Among them, 45 percent are under fifteen years of age. Like young
people everywhere, they participate in a mixing of popular culture that fuses
global elements with local ones; social media links them to each other and to
the world as never before. The lucky and ambitious ones are definitely
learning English.
Meanwhile, the great stone monuments and temple complexes that marked
the centers of old mandala kingdoms are tourist attractions today. So are the
once-grand colonial hotels that were havens of luxury for world-traveling
Westerners during the high age of colonies; think of the Raffles in Singapore,
the Strand in Yangon (the former Rangoon). Many of the imperial
government buildings and gracious ruling-class homes of the colonial era
have been repurposed as museums, shops, and restaurants or remodeled as
residences for today’s elites. Dense populations and traffic jams are a given.
Even in provincial cities and towns, motorbikes and noisy motorized tricycles
and minicabs clutter the streets, jostling with a growing number of
automobiles. Nationalities are taken for granted. One is Singaporean,
Malaysian, Filipino, Thai. These identities feel permanent, eternal. ASEAN
gatherings featuring ritual photographs of Southeast Asian heads of state
standing side by side emblemize the coherence of the ten-nation
neighborhood. Other facts of life include the cities’ dirty air and filthy water
and shorelines and beaches awash with the world’s trash. Such is Southeast
Asia of the moment.
What remains today of the past? Of Southeast Asia’s kingdoms and colonies
and its first-draft nations? Despite the distractions of the busy present, the
answer is quite a lot.
The extraordinary heterogeneity of Southeast Asia has not changed. Beneath
the skin of the region’s national identities—Filipinos, Indonesians,
Singaporeans, and so on—thousands of separate ethnicities and languages
and dialects remain, playing a role in local power struggles and sometimes in
national ones. In places, ethnic competitions have led to violence, especially
where migrating outsiders compete with long-established residents and where
ethnic differences are compounded by religious ones. This has occurred in
eastern Indonesia, for example, where in-migrant Javanese Muslims have
clashed with Christian Malukans and Papuans. The Muslim Rohingya are a
despised minority among Buddhist Burmans. And so on. Everywhere, power-
wielding majorities lord it over regional minorities in a hierarchy of size and
influence. These big-fish–small-fish rivalries are much discussed and figure
in countless stereotypes and jokes—as when Filipino Tagalogs speak about
Cebuanos, or the other way around. In multiethnic Indonesia, the possibilities
are legion.
10. Southeast Asian leaders meet at the 2016 ASEAN-UN Summit. The
ten members of ASEAN have pledged to respect each other’s
sovereignty and to renounce the use of force in their relations with each
Hill peoples are still thought of as backward by ethnic-majority lowlanders
and are subjected to predatory policies by national governments that have
opened their ancestral lands to logging, mining, and agribusiness. These days
the hills are no longer apart. Southeast Asia’s swidden farmers have been
pinched into ever smaller pockets of the decreasing forests, just as wildlife
has been. Hill farmers and their children have become wageworkers. Many
now live in logging camps and mining towns and in the burgeoning
provincial cities that flourish as exchange centers for logs, palm oil, coffee,
copper, and a slew of other commodities. When they don their traditional
finery of brightly dyed textiles, beads, feathers, and metalwork, it is likely to
be for a special ritual or festival, or for world-traveling backpackers. In places
where these changes have not yet occurred, as in upland Laos, national
governments are committed to bringing them about quickly.
The plains are also changing. In the region’s vast, flat lowlands, rice paddies
still stretch into the distance. Rice is still the staple food for most Southeast
Asians. But the economic disadvantages of farming and the region’s
prospering cities and towns continue to draw people from farms into the
expanding urban economy, including the gray economy of city slums. (By
2010, some 42 percent of Southeast Asians had become urbanites.) The urban
invasion of rice-paddy land is striking. On the outskirts of Southeast Asian
cities, now replete with housing subdivisions, industrial parks, and pop-up
commercial centers with fast food and petrol stations, one sees everywhere
the earthen remains of former paddy-field bunds.
Power is money
Southeast Asians were early participants in commerce. The region’s men of
prowess—its kings, rajas, and sultans—amassed power by controlling large
numbers of people who channeled resources toward their capitals.
Throughout the mainland and the islands, they built and enriched their
mandala centers by managing, taxing, and participating in trade.
Colonialism interrupted this pattern as Western colonial regimes and
capitalists seized these opportunities for themselves. This was blatantly
obvious in the behavior of the East India companies, but the crusading
Iberians also created fortified trade hubs in Melaka and Manila for the same
purposes. Later, more mature colonial states left commerce to private
companies—think Michelin, British Petroleum, American Tobacco—and
raised revenues from the taxes, levies, and fines they imposed upon their
The colonial apparatuses for managing and taxing trade and for revenue
collection were inherited by the leaders of Southeast Asia’s nations at
independence. They enabled the region’s new leaders to begin recapturing the
profits of regional trade and local natural resources for the nation itself, and
also for themselves. Southeast Asia’s new men of prowess—elected
politicians, dictators and strongmen, party leaders, and generals in power—
imposed new tariffs and joint-venture laws, licensing requirements, and
facilities fees; they cut profit-sharing deals with major agribusiness and
mining companies; and, in some cases, they expropriated foreign-owned
companies and strategic sectors of the economy altogether. Indonesia’s
Sukarno nationalized petroleum, for example.
In a similar way, new laws strove to marginalize Chinese participation in
national economies and to redistribute Chinese wealth. Conspicuous
examples of this include Indonesia and the Philippines, where ethnic Chinese
merchants were driven from their rural shops in the 1950s, and Malaysia,
where the New Economic Policy beginning in 1971 sought to move more of
the nation’s potential wealth into Malay hands. Southeast Asia’s ruling elites
also used their influence to garner private fees, gifts, and bribes for opening
doors to some business suitors and closing them to others. In many formal
and informal ways, they have enriched themselves and their cronies and
followers (including their citizens) in a pattern reminiscent of rulers in the
age of kingdoms. Then as now, in Southeast Asia, power is money.
The lion’s share of goods that enter and leave Southeast Asia, from tea,
coffee, and sugar to petroleum, copper ore, coal, and every sort of consumer
good, still goes by ship. As in the past, the harbor towns of Southeast Asia do
a brisk business. To get a modern sense of the historic importance of classic
maritime entrepôts such as Melaka, one can do no better than visit today’s
Singapore, the second busiest seaport in the world. Here immense container
docks go on and on for miles on the island’s south shore.
Singapore, famously free of the every-hand-is-out sort of corruption that
plagues other countries in the region, illustrates the connection between
political power and wealth accumulation. In this prosperous one-party state
led by the People’s Action Party (PAP), average citizens have done very
well. Singapore is a First World country with a higher per capita gross
domestic product (GDP) than the United States. The island nation’s political
elites have also done very well. Singapore’s non-bribe-taking senior ministers
and bureaucrats are paid salaries that surpass those of their regional peers by
many multiples. Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister and son of
founder Lee Kuan Yew, is the highest paid head of state in the world.
Members of elite ruling-party families including the Lees have placed
themselves comfortably among the island’s business, financial, and
professional top tier. In Singapore, everything is strictly legal. (Still, power is
Sleeping mandalas
Southeast Asia’s Western colonies and its new nation-states imposed upon
the region a well-delineated matrix of states with clear borders; they are geo-
bodies. What remains, then, of the mandalas of old? The impressive survival
of the new states since independence and their formal incorporation into a
web of international organizations, including ASEAN, suggest that Southeast
Asia’s nations are here to stay. Nation-building has succeeded in Southeast
Asia. Nationalism is a force. And yet, Southeast Asia remains rife with
conflict. Borders are porous. Certain regions remain astir. Others lie uneasily
within the nation. Often, sleeping mandalas provide an explanation.
Thailand illustrates this point. Under the Chakri kings of the nineteenth
century, Siam’s mandala stretched deeply into the Malay Peninsula and
embraced a wide swath of territory in western Cambodia. In typical mandala
fashion, this huge domain had grown at the expense of others.
To the south, the Thais had subjugated several small Malay Muslim
kingdoms that had once been part of the great mandala centered at Melaka.
These included Patani, Kedah, Perlis, Trengganu, and Kelantan and their
Malay-Muslim subjects. By the mid-nineteenth century, these mini-states
were all under Thai sway. In 1909, however, the king of Siam,
Chulalongkorn, ceded four of them to Britain, and they became part of
British Malaya. Patani remained part of the Thai state; its Malay-Muslim
subjects therefore remained on the Thai side of the border.
To the east, the immense mandala of Angkor had once included much of
eastern Thailand. In the nineteenth century, the Chakri kings were reversing
this process, aggressively attaching Battambang and Siem Reap and
neighboring Khmer territories to the Thai mandala. This was one reason that
King Norodom of Cambodia accepted French protection in 1863; in 1904, the
French wrested the territories back when King Chulalongkorn ceded them to
French Cambodia.
During World War II, Japan rewarded its Thai allies by allotting the Malay
and Cambodian territories to Thailand, but they were restored to the British
and French at war’s end. This arrangement became fixed in the region’s new
nations. Today, Patani and other Malay-Muslim territories lie in Thailand,
while Kedah, Trengganu, Perlis, and Kelantan are part of Malaysia.
Meanwhile, Battambang and Siem Reap lie within Cambodia’s geo-body. In
short, the national borders of today’s Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia lie
athwart ancient mandala cusps that have been fluid as recently as seventy
years ago.
Flash forward. Today, about 1.5 million Malay-speaking Muslims live in
Thailand’s “Muslim south,” an area long awash in conflict and violence
between its Malay-descended residents and the Thai authorities. These
conflicts are usually described in religious terms—Muslim rebels, extremists,
and separatists act out against the Buddhist Thai state. But the deeper roots of
conflict lie in colonial-era border fixing and subsequent nation-building,
which have interrupted the more fluid mandala patterns of classical Southeast
Asia and rendered the Malays of southern Thailand a restless Muslim
minority within a modern Buddhist nation.
Tensions of a different kind have arisen on the border between Thailand and
Cambodia. Following the back-and-forth territorial shifts during World War
II, this area remained problematic during the turbulent years of the Khmer
Rouge and its aftermath in Cambodia. Beginning in the 1970s, refugee camps
sprang up all along the long, mountainous Thai-Cambodian border as wave
after wave of people fled the unfolding violence and atrocities. In a rugged
garland of disparate refugee camps, tens of thousands of displaced people
lived in limbo awaiting new homes abroad or an opening to return to
Cambodia. The formal jurisdiction of both the Thais and Cambodians was
highly compromised in this violent and fluid frontier along an age-old
Southeast Asian mandala cusp.
Tensions flowed along this same border in 2008 over the ownership of Preah
Vihear Temple. This one-thousand-year-old temple was one of thousands of
Hindu/Buddhist cult temples that the Khmers of Angkor built throughout
their giant mandala that penetrated deep into today’s Thailand. This one lies
along the current border. According to old French maps and a 1962 judgment
by the International Court of Justice, Preah Vihear Temple lies in Cambodia.
In 2008, however, Cambodia’s application to UNESCO to designate Preah
Vihear a World Heritage Site aroused Thai politicians to claim the temple site
for Thailand. Tempers flared, and in the next few years fighting broke out
sporadically between Thai and Cambodian soldiers along the border.
Passionate nationalist feelings stirred around the conflict, which was finally
resolved in 2013 when the International Court of Justice declared the area a
demilitarized zone. Why did this small temple and its ambient site matter so
much? For both sides, the conflict recalls mandala contests that go back many
centuries. This is remembered, even though, these days, the fight is cast in
terms of national sovereignty. Like the conflict in southern Thailand, this one
still simmers. More than a dozen similarly contested areas exist along the
same long border.
We can identify another sleeping mandala in the Sulu Zone of maritime
Southeast Asia. In the age of kingdoms, the Sulu Sea was a great field of
mandala contestation, with small sultans and rajas and local big men
dominating its island and riverine states. Spain took much of this territory out
of competition by the 1600s, leaving Mindanao and its neighboring polities in
play. This vast maritime theater of trading and raiding was famous for pearls,
tortoise shells, and sea delicacies, and it was also the center of Southeast
Asia’s maritime slave market with its center at Jolo. It was here that the
sultan of Sulu held sway. He claimed a mandala that included most of the
islands and small polities of the zone and that stretched to the northeast coast
of Borneo. This area was also claimed by a competing sultan whose capital
was in Brunei. Northeast Borneo thus lay on a mandala cusp, with one
mandala pulling it toward Jolo, the other toward Brunei.
When the North Borneo Company acquired northeast Borneo in 1881 as the
site for its agribusiness enterprises, it signed arrangements with both sultans.
North Borneo came under British protection and was later absorbed directly
into the British Empire. As a result, it subsequently became Sabah, a
constituent state of modern Malaysia. Meanwhile, American colonizers in the
Philippines brought the sultan of Sulu to heel, and his subordinate territories
eventually became part of today’s Republic of the Philippines.
This mandala-world and colonial-era backstory explains the repeated
attempts by Filipino politicians to “reclaim” Sabah. The sultan of Sulu, they
say, only leased North Borneo to the North Borneo Company; he did not sell
it. Such efforts stir nationalist feelings but inevitably fail. In today’s world
the national geo-bodies are stronger than the underlying mandalas. Still, the
Sulu Zone remains an arena where goods and people flow freely across soft
borders. And Sabah is still on the cusp—close to a million Filipinos now live
The mandala dynamics of the Sulu Zone also help to explain the unrelenting
violence and political conflict of the southern Philippines. Recall that this
area was already Muslim when Spain arrived in the 1500s and that Spain
never wholly controlled it. Instead, a variety of ethnic groups, including the
seafaring Badjau, Tausug, and Sama Dilaut, competed for followers and
resources among themselves, and, at times, they deferred to regional mandala
centers. Large and small, they were led by proud sultans and warrior chiefs
and clans claiming royal status.
American armies quelled these independent societies in the late 1800s, and
they became part of the American Philippines. When the Republic of the
Philippines became independent in 1946, these Muslim territories were
involuntarily folded into the Christian nation. Most of the conflicts of the past
seventy years, including wars of succession, movements for autonomy, and
the penetration of the region by radical Islamists, can be traced to this event
and to its postindependence consequences. These include the migration of
Christian Filipinos into once majority-Muslim areas and the repeated and
sometimes violent attempts by the Philippine government to integrate its
Muslim South into the geo-body of the nation.
Another arena of contemporary unrest in Southeast Asia that can be
understood in part through mandala dynamics is the catastrophe of the
Rohingya in Myanmar. Their homeland in Arakan lies over an old mandala
cusp dividing Muslim Bengal and Buddhist Burma. Britain’s colonization of
both areas led Arakan into the geo-body of British Burma and, hence,
subsequently in 1948, into the independent Union of Burma, today’s
As a consequence, the Muslim Arakanese, or Rohingya, became unwanted
subjects within a nation that defined itself as Buddhist. This led to years of
harassment by the group’s Buddhist neighbors in Rakhine State (as Arakan is
known today) and repression by the Burmese government itself: in 1982
dictator Ne Win denied them citizenship as Bengali “foreigners.” (Currently
this applies to more than eight hundred thousand people.) Buddhist-Muslim
hostilities, rebellion, and reprisals ensued, all leading to the crisis of 2015 and
after, in which tens of thousands of desperate, stateless Rohingya refugees
have fled Myanmar for uncertain futures in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia,
and Thailand.
Like the Rohingya, the Shans, Karen, and Kachin of Myanmar are also
restless within the nation. Their territories, once small mandala polities in
their own right, were also included within the huge mandala of the Konbaung
kings that Britain seized in the nineteenth century. They, too, became part of
British Burma and were subsequently included in the official geo-body of the
Union of Burma at independence in 1948. Almost immediately, rebellions
erupted in these outlying non-Burman territories, challenging the new
nation’s fragile parliamentary government and leading to, among other
things, the triumph of the army as the dominant institution in Burma.
Throughout the ensuing decades, entities such as the Shan State Army, the
Chin National Front, the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National
Union, the United Wa State Army, and others governed their territories in
defiance of the Union of Burma, sometimes funding their armies and shadow
states with profits from opium grown in the Golden Triangle. War between
the armies of the center and the armies of the periphery dragged on and on,
leaving a record of appalling brutality in its wake, plus waves of refugees
who made their way into neighboring Thailand. Myanmar’s current
membership in ASEAN may serve to reinforce the nation’s territorial claims,
and new governments since 2011 have been negotiating an end to the long
wars with more than a dozen armed groups. (Eight such groups signed a
cease-fire agreement in 2015). Yet as Myanmar moves gingerly away from
military rule, it remains to be seen whether the nation will succeed in its
efforts to unify.
Myanmar’s fragility is exceptional. Even as sleeping mandalas stir beneath
today’s geo-bodies and underlie certain contemporary disturbances,
Southeast Asia’s nations show every sign of enduring.
India and China
Thinking of the deep structures of Southeast Asia’s formation, what can we
observe about India and China, the two radiating civilizations from which
Southeast Asians borrowed so much? Of these two, India was formative,
shaping the major societies of most of the mainland and islands over
centuries as Hindu- and Buddhist-inflected civilizations and contributing to
the Islamization of the islands as well. A great deal of India’s influence
remains in layer upon layer of language, culture, and custom throughout the
region. Millions of Southeast Asians bear names from the classical Indian
story cycles; in Indonesia, many a young couple gets married in regalia that
harken back to the epics. Buddhism and Islam are the hegemonic religious
cultures; in Bali, a brilliant Southeast Asian Hinduism survives.
But it is hard to find examples of contemporary borrowing from India, aside
from the popularity of Bollywood films. Southeast Asians are not learning
Indian languages—unless you mean English—although they will still
sometimes reach into Sanskrit to find an appropriate-sounding name for
something modern (as an alternative to using an English word). Trade
between India and Southeast Asia pales in comparison to the region’s trade
with others. The South Asian community in Southeast Asia tends to be small
and concentrated in Malaysia and Singapore, with expatriates scattered about
elsewhere. As India rises to prosperity and influence, this will surely change.
But as of now, it is Asia’s other great radiating civilization that looms large in
Southeast Asia’s present: China.
The impact of China’s long ties and waves of migration to Southeast Asia is
permanent. Today, the Southeast Asian Chinese control a large swath of the
regional economy, despite the ever larger participation of indigenous
Southeast Asians. Overcoming stigmatizing stereotypes and a variety of laws
and policies designed to curb their influence in the region’s independent
nations, they have continued to thrive. One key to their success is a region-
wide network of families and interconnected businesses that transcends the
national economies. Links of kinship, dialect, and mutual trust foster business
ties and expedite transactions across a vast “offshore” Chinese matrix that has
flourished even in times when China itself has languished.
After its reunification under Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, China
began wielding influence in Southeast Asia by supporting Ho Chi Minh’s
revolution in Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, fostering other communist
movements in the region. In 1955, Chou Enlai made a point of attending
Sukarno’s nonaligned summit at Bandung.
Yet the People’s Republic of China remained largely preoccupied with itself
until after the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976. As China
subsequently began to ratchet up its market economy under Deng Xiaoping,
the offshore Chinese community in Southeast Asia came rapidly into play.
Money being held in Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore, Manila, and Kuala
Lumpur could now be invested profitably in China. And money being
generated in China could be invested in Southeast Asia.
In the 1990s, capital flows between Southeast Asia and China began to rise.
In the next decade they soared. The existence of a region-wide matrix of
Chinese families and businesses made this possible. For the first time in
centuries, the economy of China became a driving variable in the economy of
Southeast Asia. Today Chinese money and goods are pouring into the region.
Like the Walmarts of the United States, the shopping centers and markets of
Southeast Asia are chock-full of Chinese-made consumer goods, from nuts
and bolts and pins to light bulbs, electric fans, air conditioners, television
sets, and motorcycles. These products are imported by long-established
Chinese-owned companies already on the spot. At the same time, investments
from China are funding hydroelectric dams, hotels and casinos, agribusiness
plantations, factories, and mines, and ambitious railway projects connecting
Southeast Asian cities to Chinese cities.
A very large shift is underway. After two centuries of decline and turmoil,
China is re-staking its historical claim to preeminence in Asia. The country’s
startling new wealth is making this possible, combined with the political
coherence of the Chinese state in the years following Mao. This new China is
still evolving; many large variables, including the ultimate role of the ruling
party, are still up in the air. But China’s power is clear. China today claims a
geo-body commensurate with the farthest reaches of the Qing dynasty and is
asserting itself aggressively on its fringes. Along the once-soft, multiethnic
border connecting Southwest China and the northern tier of Southeast Asian
mini-states, the Chinese state has abandoned long-practiced strategies of
indirect governance and pushed state institutions and programs of
Sinicization to the very border. These include militarized agricultural farms
producing export commodities, especially rubber.
China’s aggressive advance into the South China Sea, where several
Southeast Asian countries claim maritime rights and island clusters and reefs
that China also claims, is proving much more worrisome. With its newfound
strength, China is now occupying some of these islets and converting them
into larger ones with landfill and adding airstrips, ports, and military
outposts. In the Spratly Islands, for example, these initiatives are especially
alarming because, in spite of China’s large presence in Southeast Asian
history, it has rarely attempted to place itself physically within the region in
this way.
Southeast Asian governing elites feel the pressure and, by way of a response,
are balancing rather than resisting. On the one hand, they are accommodating
the Chinese. In 2015, for example, all the ASEAN countries pledged to join
China’s new alternative to the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure
Investment Bank (AIIB). And in 2017, they hastened to attend the gala
summit of China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to link
Asia to Europe and Africa through a vast web of Chinese-built ports,
industrial parks, roads, and rails. On the other hand, Southeast Asia’s leaders
are beefing up their ties to the West and the United States, welcoming recent
U.S. economic and strategic initiatives under the Barack Obama
administration and in-your-face U.S. naval exercises near China-occupied
islands under the Donald Trump administration. In a case decided in 2016,
the Philippines persuaded the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague
that China has no historical basis for its claim to waters in the West
Philippine Sea.
China’s new power and its growing presence in Southeast Asia empowers the
region’s large Chinese-descended minority, as they now form part of China’s
vastly expanding economy in the region. Connections to China are valuable.
The stigma attached to Chinese descent that lingers in parts of Southeast Asia
—in Indonesia, for example, where President Joko Widodo was slandered by
his political opponents as being Chinese during the elections of 2014—may
wane as the status of China itself rises. Or it may intensify if people in
Southeast Asia come to feel that a rich, powerful China poses a threat and
undermines national loyalties among its China-descended citizens.
Lessons of the West
Despite the remarkable rise of China in recent decades and Asia’s other
robust economies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Southeast Asia remains
today in an age of Westernization. To be sure, in the realm of popular culture
Southeast Asians savor Japanese manga and cosplay and are riveted by
television dramas from South Korea. They enjoy foods and music from
around the world. As always in history, they are outward looking. But when
it comes to learning foreign languages, it is still English that confers status
and provides entrée to the global conversation. It is still to Western
universities that elite and aspiring Southeast Asians flock. (Yale, Duke, and
Stanford Universities all have Singapore-based programs, alongside Wharton,
INSEAD, MIT, and others.) These same universities serve as models for
Southeast Asia’s own burgeoning university sector, its technical institutions,
and its teaching and nursing academies. And although computer technology
and high-tech manufacturing are global phenomena and are fields in which
many companies across Asia excel, Silicon Valley still glitters.
Moreover, Southeast Asia’s nations continue to follow the Western models of
government with which they began at independence, with ministries and
departments and constitutions that resemble those of the West. Even the
region’s dictators have clothed their thuggish regimes in the language and
apparatuses of democracy. Suharto arranged to have himself reelected every
seven years in festive Indonesia-wide “democracy parties.” Marcos held
“people’s referendums” in martial-law Philippines. In Thailand, power-
seizing generals inevitably speak of returning the kingdom to elected
governments and eventually do so. Authoritarian Singapore also holds
elections regularly to relegitimize the highly disciplined and domineering
People’s Action Party.
Southeast Asians today are adapting what is new, attractive, and powerful in
the wider world just as they once yielded to the appeal of Hinduism,
Buddhism, and Islam. And just as they adopted these infusions selectively in
the past—fusing what was new and exciting with what was old and
comfortable—they are doing the same thing today.
Take democracy, for example. The introduction of democratic ideas and
structures has altered how political power struggles occur in Southeast Asia.
But it has not really altered the power structures and social hierarchies that
determine who competes for power. In modern Malaysia, for example, elite
Malays dominate the nation just as their ancestors dominated Malay
kingdoms of old. Sultans and their titled officials and loyal chiefs have made
way for the party politicians of UMNO and for prime ministers and tiers of
modern elected and appointed officials (although feudal titles remain
popular). Today’s Malay men of prowess compete politically. And yet certain
deep structures remain. Recall that all but one of Malaysia’s prime ministers
to date have been descendants of Malay royal families. And note that in the
modern nation, as in Malay kingdoms of the past, Chinese actors play
significant but subordinate roles.
The Philippines hosts a wildly popular democratic culture. Filipinos believe
in elections and, despite the familiar candidate’s cry of “I was cheated,”
honor the outcomes. They flock to the polls. But with very few exceptions,
the people who run for office and win are members of an old class of
prominent families whose social position and wealth date to the Spanish
period. The same clans have dominated the same districts and provinces from
generation to generation. Democracy has not displaced the oligarchy. It has
provided a machinery for organizing the competition among its members and
for legitimizing elite rule in the modern republican nation. At the same time,
Philippine elections occasionally provide an opening for modern celebrities
such as movie stars and athletes—huge vote-getters—to join the governing
Indonesia’s elite Western-educated founders attempted to form a
parliamentary democracy and led the new nation through its first elections.
Democracy soon foundered, however, and in 1965 it was wholly overtaken
by Suharto’s military dictatorship. The fall of Suharto restored hopes for
democracy; in fact, in the years since 1998 Indonesia has elected thousands
of officials high and low, including several presidents. Despite this, many
elite players under the former dictatorship continue to wield power under the
new election-driven system. Political parties facilitate elite competition and
serve as conduits for patronage and the spoils of office. In local elections
across Indonesia, voters often favor candidates from old elite and aristocratic
families. Much like the Philippines, in Indonesia, democratic elections appear
to have provided a means for privileged groups to maintain their influence in
a new guise. National elections in Indonesia also reveal the enduring power
of Java: all but one of the country’s seven presidents have been Javanese.
We can observe something similar in the region’s armies and navies. From
the Philippines to Thailand to Burma and Indonesia, the structure of modern
militaries follows that of Western militaries, with tiers of familiar ranks and
divisions of duty, i.e., infantry, ordnance, intelligence, and so on. But lurking
just below the surface of the formal chain of command are structures of a
personal nature that link leaders to followers and, among officers, faction to
faction. (These factions often arise among graduating classes at military
academies, much like fraternities.) In Southeast Asia, commanders of
regional-based units and special operations foster bonds of personal loyalty
with their men, making special efforts to provide for their families. These
bonds endure. Patron-client ties and personal relationships like these can be
activated in political crises and power struggles, pulling whole divisions one
way or another. Quarreling factions in Sukarno’s army led directly to his
downfall in 1965; Suharto’s well-cultivated following aided his rise. In 1986,
General Fidel Ramos mobilized his personal ties in the Philippine military to
shift support away from dictator Marcos to Marcos’s rival, Corazon Aquino.
The power structures of military dictatorships are riven with internal factions
of this sort. In armies, too, borrowed Western structures disguise social
dynamics that are deeply Southeast Asian.
Where social mobility is concerned, however, militaries and especially
military dictatorships have provided new avenues for social mobility in the
region. In many countries, including Indonesia and Myanmar, military
officers emerged as new elites in the postindependence era. This occurred
partly because military officers replaced or supplanted civilian officials in
key senior functions and, significantly, because families of officers were
accorded opportunities for education, travel, and experience unavailable to
many ordinary people. They emerged not only as people with access to power
but also as well-educated people with useful skills. Thus, to be affiliated with
an officer-corps family became a distinct advantage.
Something similar is true in one-party states. In Singapore, membership in
the PAP is the steppingstone to elite status in the republic. It is the same in
Vietnam and Laos, where Communist Parties still rule despite having
abandoned much of communism itself.
The tension between borrowed ideas and local ones has been debated
passionately from the beginning of the modern era. Southeast Asia’s rising
Western-educated nationalists all grappled with the problem of seizing what
was best from the West without forfeiting their own hallowed beliefs and
cultural identities. This led many of them to revisit their own traditions.
Young Burmese radicals discovered that the teachings of modern socialism
were already to be found in classical Buddhist teachings. Sukarno argued that
the roots of democracy in Indonesia lay deep in the consensus-forming
practices of traditional Javanese villages. Others found democracy in the
In more recent times, Southeast Asian leaders wishing to restrain unfettered
popular democracy have also appealed to tradition. Sukarno did exactly that
when he suppressed his new country’s quarreling political parties in favor of
“Guided Democracy.” Mahathir Mohamad, the authoritarian prime minister
of Malaysia from 1982 to 2003, appealed to “Asian Values.” In a similar
vein, Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew defended his predilection for elite-
led authoritarianism and his critique of Western individualism in Confucian
terms. And what is “Thai democracy”? In Thailand, power-seizing generals
and their elite civil-society supporters in recent years have overthrown
popularly elected civilian governments on the grounds that they violated Thai
values honoring religion, monarchy, and the nation.
Religious identities
Religion is another arena where resistance to the West’s influence is strong.
Flourishing movements among Southeast Asian Buddhists and Muslims
emphasize reasserting religious values in the face of the highly individualistic
values of the West. This is especially strong among the region’s Muslims,
who make up 37 percent of the population. Keep in mind that, today,
virtually all Muslim young people yearn to use computers and high-tech
smartphones. They are avid consumers of Western culture in the forms of
music, films, and television shows. In these ways they are thoroughly
modern. But they are also emphatically Muslim.
Throughout Muslim Southeast Asia today, mosques are full; young people
and their elders regularly gather to study and pray; people increasingly use
Arabic salutations in social encounters and public events; Muslim self-
improvement books, videos, and television shows proliferate; and Muslim
women wear head scarves and appropriately modest clothing in accordance
with conservative practices. (For the youth, blue jeans are often part of the
ensemble.) These phenomena emphasize the positive identity of Islam.
Embedded within this larger phenomenon are social and ideological
movements that are politically assertive, including political parties in
Malaysia and Indonesia that campaign for making the laws of Islam (Sharia)
the laws of the land. In a handful of provinces they have succeeded, but by
and large they have not. The debate remains a lively one. Meanwhile,
national governments have stepped up their support for Islam in the realms of
education and mosque building and in facilitating the Hajj. In Malaysia
especially, the ruling party has increasingly adopted the mantle of Islam as
part of the country’s Malay identity.
At the same time, more extreme Muslim subcultures have also penetrated
Southeast Asia, recruiting small numbers into exclusionist cults and jihadist
movements associated with global assaults aimed at the West, such as al-
Qaeda and ISIS (Islamic State). Extremists have been identified in Malaysia,
Indonesia, and the southern Philippines. In Indonesia sporadic terrorist
attacks have occurred, including the infamous Bali bombings of 2001 and
others, more recently, in Jakarta. This radical fringe does not speak for the
vast majority. Still, it puts the region’s Muslims on edge and acts as an alarm
factor for Christian minorities, who in today’s Malaysia and Indonesia are
already inclined to feel beleaguered in the face of an assertive Islam. An
unfortunate consequence of this has been Muslim-Christian violence in
several places in Indonesia.
Across the mainland, Buddhism remains the religious discourse through
which most Thais, Burmese, Lao, and Cambodians understand and interpret
the contemporary world. This can take multiple forms, from the purely
contemplative to the politically engaged. Buddhism is invoked with respect to
every issue, from poverty, crime, and gender to kingship and democracy.
New sects flourish. In places, Buddhism is highly politicized, especially in
Myanmar, where Buddhists are an empowered majority. As noted,
longstanding tensions and rivalries between Buddhists and Muslims in some
areas lie behind recent bloody outbursts and the flow of Muslim refugees
Meanwhile, Christianity is growing in Southeast Asia. Significant
populations of Christians have been present in the region for a long time in
the Philippines, Vietnam, East Timor, and parts of eastern Indonesia.
Christian missionaries during the high colonial period created further pockets
of Christians in Burma and Indonesia. In the years since independence,
Catholicism has advanced among the region’s ethnic Chinese populations in
Indonesia and elsewhere, and Protestant sects have advanced generally,
especially Pentecostal and evangelical denominations that have evangelized
the region’s now-exposed hill peoples and restless urbanites in places like
Singapore. Today, a quarter of all Southeast Asians are Christian.
Yet, even as world-religion identities grow stronger in Southeast Asia, the
region’s cultures of fusion and tolerance survive. In one telling example, two
thousand-year-old Hindu temples recently unearthed on the campus of the
Islamic University of Indonesia will not be destroyed or covered up but will
instead be displayed prominently on the Muslim campus. As for Southeast
Asia’s primordial spirits, they live on comfortably embedded within the
everyday spiritual habits of millions of the region’s Buddhists, Muslims, and
Christians. Spirits rarely make the news but, in 2015, they did so when the
deputy chief minister of Sabah, Malaysia, blamed a deadly earthquake on
foreign tourists who had stripped naked on Mount Kinabalu and disturbed the
local spirits. To appease them, rituals were duly held.
A beleaguered habitat
Visitors to Southeast Asia today from outside the region arrive at swanky
international airports in or near a capital city and many will not stray far from
these megacities—Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, Jakarta—and their five-star
hotels, modern office buildings, fashionable restaurants, and chic shopping
malls or from well-traveled tourist pathways that lead to museums,
monuments, and beaches. Yet even privileged travelers cannot altogether
escape the profound environmental forces that impact ordinary Southeast
The human habitat of today’s Southeast Asia has been shaped by the region’s
accelerating participation in global trade, leading growing numbers of people
to press into the region’s forests, wetlands, and hills to reap subsistence and
profits from the land. Much of the region’s old-growth forest has succumbed
to loggers and agribusiness companies and, in places, to needy farmers. Some
of the land has been converted into industrial tree plantations and other
monocultures, but much has simply been degraded. Silted rivers and
downstream floods are other common consequences of this transformation,
along with declining biodiversity and animal habitat and the loss of the
climate-regulating benefits of forests.
Efforts to convert remaining forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra to oil palm
and paper-wood plantations are so aggressive that companies induce massive
fires to clear the land. Smoke from these fires rolls across the earth, creating
sickening fumes in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and southern
Thailand. People wear face masks in defense. Otherwise, it is the exhaust
from the surging numbers of cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes that dirties
the air of the region’s cities. Asthma, bronchitis, and lung disease plague
millions of urbanites. The water is not clean either, as unchecked human and
industrial waste, not to mention simple trash, flows into the rivers, lakes,
bays, and city canals. In Southeast Asia the rule has become bottled water
only, please.
Southeast Asians are justly alarmed about this. Activists are vocal, and
conscientious politicians are enacting sensible laws. Forest rangers and air-
quality inspectors are at work. Indeed, ASEAN task forces, scientists,
technocrats, ministers, government officials, and nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) are urgently trying to turn the tide. They are
succeeding here and there. But by and large they are no match for the huge
global forces driving the world’s economy or for the powerful local interests
in Southeast Asia who have much to gain from their failure. The hard truth is
that the assault on Southeast Asia’s environment continues largely unabated
The situation is scarcely different in China or India or much of the
developing world. The impact of globalization, climate change, and the
scramble for the earth’s resources is universal. As a habitat for humans and
other living things, Southeast Asia is inextricably part of these larger forces.
Its fate is also the fate of the earth.
Chapter 2: Kingdoms
The essential point about power arising from control of people is emphasized by Anthony
Reid in Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, vol. 1, The Land below the
Winds (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988). The description of Southeast
Asian warfare and of early-modern Southeast Asian commerce also largely follows
Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, vol. 1, The Land below the
Winds, and vol. 2, Expansion and Crisis.
For mandalas, see Stanley J. Tambiah, “The Galactic Polity in Southeast Asia,” Hau:
Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3.3 (2013): 503–534; and O. W. Wolters, History,
Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast
Asia Program, 1999). Wolters introduced the term “men of prowess.”
For patron-client ties, a good place to begin is James C. Scott, “Patron-Client Politics and
Political Change in Southeast Asia,” The American Political Science Review 66.1
(1972): 91–113.
The idea that Southeast Asians chose to live in inaccessible uplands to be free, is presented
in James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland
Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).
The term “mystic synthesis,” to describe Java’s Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic ways, comes from
M. C. Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth
to the Early Nineteenth Centuries (Norwalk, CT: EastBridge Signature Books, 2006).
Chapter 3: Colonies
Conrad quotation is from Joseph Conrad, Outcast of the Islands (London: J. M. Dent,
1949), 57.
Swettenham quotation is from Frank Swettenham, British Malaya: An Account of the
Origin and Progress of British Influence in Malaya (London: John Lane, 1907), 345.
Chapter 4: Nations
Kipling quotation is from Rudyard Kipling, “Mandalay,” in Barrack-Room Ballads and
Other Verses (London: Methuen, 1892).
On nations as geo-bodies, see Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-
body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).
Chapter 5: The past is in the present
On Southeast Asian democracy, see, inter alia, Edward Aspinall, “The Surprising
Democratic Behemoth: Indonesia in Comparative Asian Perspective,” Journal of Asian
Studies 74.4 (2015): 889–902; and Mark R. Thompson, “Democracy with Asian
Characteristics,” Journal of Asian Studies 74.4 (2015): 875–887.
On Thailand’s Muslim south, see Michael Montesano and Patrick Jory, eds., Thai South
and Malay North: Ethnic Interactions on a Plural Peninsula (Singapore: National
University of Singapore Press, 2008).
On Sulu Sea issues, see Katrina Navallo, “Filipino Migrants in Sabah: Marginalized
Citizens in the Midst of Interstate Disputes,”, 2015.
On the fate of the hills, see Jefferson Fox, Yayoi Fujita, Dimbab Ngidang, et al. “Policies,
Political-Economy and Swidden in Southeast Asia,” Human Ecology 37.3 (2009): 305–
Further reading
Chapter 1: What is Southeast Asia?
Beeson, Mark, ed. Contemporary Southeast Asia. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. See
especially Greg Felker, “The Political Economy of Southeast Asia,” 46–73.
Dayley, Robert, and Clark D. Neher. Southeast Asia in the New International Arena.
Boulder, CO: Westview, 2013.
Duncan, Christopher R. Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for
the Development of Minorities. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Jones, Gavin W. “The Population of Southeast Asia,” Asia Research Institute, Working
Paper 196. Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2013.
Robison, Richard, ed. Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian Politics. London:
Routledge, 2014. See especially Jeffrey A. Winters, “Oligarchs and Oligarchy in
Southeast Asia,” 53–67.
Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia.
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Chapter 2: Kingdoms
Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Early Modern Southeast
Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Coedès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Translated by Susan Cowing.
Honolulu: Hawaii East-West Center Press, 1968.
Lieberman, Victor. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c800–1830. 2
vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003–2009.
Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce. 2 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1988–1993.
Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia: From Early Times to
c1500. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Wolters, O. W. History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1999.
Woodside, Alexander. Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Nguyen
and Ch’ing Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1971.
Chapter 3: Colonies
Brocheux, Pierre, and Daniel Hémery. Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858–
1954. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Conrad, Joseph. An Outcast of the Islands. 1896. Reprint, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2016.
Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. 1900. Reprint, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
Couperus, Louis. The Hidden Force. 1900. Translated by Alexander Texeira de Mattos.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.
Duras, Marguerite. The Lover. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon Books,
Cribb, Robert, ed. The Late Colonial State in Indonesia: Political and Economic
Foundations of the Netherlands Indies, 1880–1942. Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV
Press, 1994.
Furnivall, J. S. Netherlands India: A Study of a Plural Economy. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1944.
McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the
Rise of the Surveillance State. Part 1. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. 1934. Reprint, London: Penguin, 2014.
Owen, Norman G. Prosperity without Progress: Manila Hemp and Material Life in the
Colonial Philippines. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Phelan, John Leddy. The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino
Responses, 1565–1700. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959.
Reid, Anthony, ed. Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese.
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996.
Ricklefs, M. C., Bruce Lockhart, Albert Lau, Portia Reyes, and Maitrii Aung-Thwin. A
New History of Southeast Asia. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Tagliacozzo, Eric. Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States along a Southeast
Asian Frontier, 1865–1915. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation. Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 1994.
Chapter 4: Nations
Anderson, Benedict R. O’Gorman. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006.
Bradley, Mark Philip. Vietnam at War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Chandler, David P. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution
since 1945. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
Edwards, Penny. Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860–1945. Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
Elson, Robert E. The Idea of Indonesia: A History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 2008.
Evans, Grant. A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. Chiang Mai, Thailand:
Silkworm Books, 2002.
Kahin, George McTurnan. Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1952.
McCoy, Alfred W., ed. Southeast Asia under Japanese Occupation: New Haven, CT: Yale
University Southeast Asia Studies, 1980.
Marr, David. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1971.
Robinson, Geoffrey. The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence on Bali. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1995.
Shiraishi, Takashi. An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java, 1912–1926. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Taylor, Robert H. The State in Myanmar. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.
Zinoman, Peter. The Colonial Bastille: The History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862–
1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Chapter 5: The past is in the present
Anderson, Benedict R. O’Gorman. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast
Asia, and the World. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2004.
Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2000.
Ricklefs, M. C. Islamization and Its Opponents in Java, c1300 to the Present. Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 2012.
Schober, Juliane. Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar: Cultural Narratives,
Colonial Legacies, and Civil Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011.
Sidel, John T. Capital, Coercion, and Crime: Bossism in the Philippines. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1999.
Good feature writing about current affairs in Southeast Asia can be found on the Wall
Street Journal, New York Times, and BBC websites alongside those of many regional
newspapers and article aggregators / new portals, e.g., the Philippines-based Rappler
and the Australia National University–based New Mandala. Economic data and reports
on contemporary issues, such as poverty, human trafficking, the environment, etc., can
be found on several United Nations websites, such as the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme
(UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Children’s
Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the
Pacific (ESCAP), and UN News Centre; see also the World Bank, Asian Development
Bank (ADB), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), World Resources
Institute (WRI), Amnesty International, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Useful
academic journals include Contemporary Southeast Asia, Asian Survey, Sojourns, and
the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.
Abdul Rahman, Tunku, 89
Aceh kingdom, 30, 42, 48, 62, 76
Agriculture, 1–3, 6, 10, 22, 24–29, 32–33, 38, 60, 67–68, 70–72, 80, 97, 98, 106, 117
Aguinaldo, Emilio, 82
Angkor Wat kingdom, 8, 28, 31, 33, 34, 36–39, 48, 109–111
Aquino, Benigno, III, 12
Aquino, Corazon Cojuangco, 12
Arabia, 30, 41, 73
ASEAN-UN Summit (2016), 105
Ashoka, 36, 37
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 16–18, 101, 104, 105, 109, 117, 126
Atatürk, Kemal, 74
Atrocities, 8, 89, 100, 110. See also massacres
Augustinians, 51
Aung San, 80, 83, 84–86, 88
Aung San Suu Kyi, 8, 101
Authoritarianism, 9, 11, 98–100, 119, 122
Ba Maw, 79, 80, 85
Bandung Summit, 99, 116
Bangkok, Thailand, 4, 8, 30, 64–65, 102, 116, 125
Bantam, 30, 31, 48
Bao Dai, 91
Batavia, 30, 55, 69, 72, 76
Béhaine, Pigneau de, 63
Belt and Road Initiative (China), 117
Bodhisattvas, 37, 41, 44, 45
Bombings, 9, 93, 123
Bonifacio, Andres, 82
Borneo, 4, 6, 11, 12, 31, 35, 48, 61–62, 69, 94, 96, 112
British Burma, 66, 73, 78, 80, 84, 113–114
British Malaya, 61, 67, 72, 84, 109
British North Borneo, 62, 94
British Straits Settlements, 65
Brunei sultanate, 1, 12–13, 16, 24, 35, 48
Buddhism, 1, 3, 7–10, 8, 36–45, 37, 45, 56, 77–80, 83, 106, 110–111, 113, 115, 119, 122,
Burma (Myanmar), 8–9, 15, 20, 24, 34, 39, 57–60, 62, 64–66, 69–70, 75–80, 84–86, 88,
95, 99–101, 113–114, 120–121, 124
Butuan, 14, 31, 47
Cambodia, 1, 7–10, 15–16, 18–19, 28, 33, 36–37, 39, 56, 63–65, 83, 93, 95, 98–101,
110–111, 124
Catholicism, 13, 51–52, 63, 68, 124
Cebuano peoples (Philippines), 106
Chakri dynasty (Thailand), 40, 56–57, 60, 64, 83, 109
Chams kingdom, 28
China, 1, 6, 11, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 46–47, 49, 58, 60, 70–72, 73, 74, 98
Chin National Front (Myanmar), 114
Chou Enlai, 116
Christianity, 1, 3, 7, 12, 38, 50–53, 51, 56, 105, 113, 124
Chulalongkorn (King of Siam), 61, 65, 72, 83, 109–110
Co Yu Hwan, 21
Coffee, 6, 13, 22, 69, 97, 106, 108
Cold War, 7, 9, 10, 15, 16, 91–93, 98–99, 101
Colonialism, 7, 65–70, 74–75, 77, 79, 81, 96–97, 107
Commodities, 22, 23, 61, 69, 106, 117
Communist Manifesto (Marx), 66
Communists/Communism, 9, 10, 16, 20, 79–80, 81–82, 92, 93, 94, 98–99, 116
Confucianism, 1, 10, 12, 45, 63, 122
Constitutional monarchies, 9, 19, 83
Co-Prosperity Sphere, 85
Corruption, 23, 56, 102, 108
Couperus, Louis, 68
Cultural Revolution (China), 116
Daoism, 45
De Jonge, Bonifacius Cornelis, 75
Democracy, 7–9, 11–12, 19, 74, 78, 99–101, 119–120, 122, 124
Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, 15, 91, 92
Deng Xiaoping, 101, 116
Dutch East India Company (VOC), 53, 55–56
Dutch East Indies, 10, 63, 66–67, 69, 72, 74–75, 78–80, 85, 95,
Dutch Java, 56, 68
East Timor (Timor-Leste), 1, 13, 16, 24, 51, 53, 96, 100, 102, 124
Economy/economic reforms, 7–8, 11, 29, 60, 67, 74, 97, 103, 117
Education, 20, 65, 73–74, 77–78, 80, 88, 95, 96, 121–122
English East India Company (EIC), 56, 57, 58, 61
Ethnic groups. See specific ethnic groups
Extremists, 110, 123–124
Federation of Malaysia, 11, 89
Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), 15, 19
Forests, 2–3, 6, 25, 26, 67, 70–71, 106, 125–126
France, 9, 10, 59, 63, 65, 75, 81, 84, 91, 92, 93,
Free Thai movement (Thailand), 86
French Cambodia, 110
French Indochina, 8–9, 64, 65, 67, 72, 75, 84, 93–94, 98, 100
Funan kingdom, 26–28, 31, 36
Gandhi, Mohandas K., 79
Geneva Accords, 92
Gia Long (Vietnamese Emperor), 58, 63
Golden Triangle, 114
Great Britain, 11, 15–16, 19, 56, 58–62, 65, 67, 75, 78–81, 88–89, 91, 94, 96, 109. See also
Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, 85
Hill peoples, 2–3, 10, 28, 46, 53, 64, 94, 106, 124
Hinduism, 1, 3, 36–38, 40–43, 56, 111, 115, 119, 124
Hmong peoples, 2, 94
Ho Chi Minh, 4, 10, 15, 81, 83, 87, 91, 92–93, 98, 116
Hukbalahap, anti-Japanese peasant movement, 86, 98
Human habitat, 125–126
Iban of Malaysia and Indonesia, 2, 6
Iberian kingdoms, 50, 53, 107
Ifugao of the Philippines, 2, 6
India, 1, 4, 6, 14–15, 22, 28–30, 35–45, 49, 51, 58, 63, 72–73, 75, 79–80, 103, 114–118
Indochinese Communist Party, 83
Indonesia, 1–2, 6–7, 10–11, 13, 15–16, 18–21, 19, 23–24, 40, 42–43, 48, 62, 73, 77–78,
80–81, 85, 89–90, 96–97, 99–102, 105–107, 113, 115, 118–124
International Court of Justice, 111
Investments, 8, 15, 17–18, 60, 101, 116–117
ISIS (Islamic State), 123
Islam, 1, 10, 15, 27, 41–44, 53, 56, 73, 77, 80–81, 115, 119, 123–124
Jakarta, 4, 31, 55, 68, 102, 116, 123, 125–126
Japan, 7–8, 15, 17, 19, 23, 49, 51, 67, 75, 79, 81, 84–87, 88–89, 90, 98, 101–103, 110, 118
Java kingdom, 26–28, 31, 33, 36, 38–39, 41, 43, 47–48, 55–58, 62, 68, 79, 120
Jesuits, 51, 53, 63
Jihadist movements, 123
Kachin ethnic group, 113
Karen ethnic group, 113
Karen National Union, 114
Kedah Sultanate, 30, 56, 58, 60–61, 109–110
Kelantan kingdom, 109
Khmer kingdom, 3, 8, 9, 28, 38–40, 44, 46, 48, 64, 94, 100, 109–110
Khmer Rouge, 8, 9, 94, 100, 110
“Killing Fields” atrocities (Cambodia), 8, 101
Konbaung dynasty (Myanmar), 57, 59, 114
Korea, 84, 98, 103, 118
Kuala Lumpur, 4, 21, 116, 126
Languages, 13, 40, 42, 73–74, 83
Laos, 1, 4, 9–10, 16, 18, 20, 24, 34, 39, 58, 65, 83, 93–94, 99, 101, 106, 121
Laurel, Jose, 85, 86
Lee Hsien Loong, 108
Lee Kuan Yew, 12, 94, 100, 108, 122
Lisu peoples, 2
Lon Nol, 93
Luzon, 5, 6, 31, 47, 69–70
MacArthur, Douglas, 82, 85
Magsaysay, Ramon, 98
Mahayana Buddhism, 40, 44, 45
Makassar kingdom, 42, 48, 62
Malayan Union Plan, 88
Malayo-Polynesian ethnic group, 13
Malay Peninsula, 1, 3, 4, 11, 28, 32, 40, 42, 44–45, 50, 53, 56, 60–62, 64, 72, 74, 83–85,
98–99, 108–110, 119, 123
Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (Malaya), 87
Malaysia, 1, 2, 11–13, 15–16, 18–21, 24, 62, 94, 96, 99, 101–104, 108, 110, 112–113, 115,
119, 122–124
Mandala/s, 28–29, 32–39, 41, 44–51, 53–66, 78, 95, 104, 107, 109–114
Manila, Philippines, 5, 31, 48, 51–52, 58, 69, 72, 86, 88, 102, 107, 116, 125
Mao Zedong, 116
Marcos, Ferdinand, 12, 23, 100–101, 119, 121
Marx, Karl, 7, 78
Marxists, 7, 81–82, 86, 94
Massacres, 10–11, 16, 72, 99, 100
Meiji government (Japan), 84
Melaka kingdom, 4, 18, 28, 30, 33, 35, 41–42, 47–51, 53, 56–58, 60, 76, 107
Migrations, 8, 11, 21, 58, 60, 70, 71, 72, 83
Mien peoples, 2
Ming dynasty (China), 47
Mongols, 46, 47
Mons kingdom, 28, 44, 48
Montagnards, of Vietnam, 2, 6
Mughal Empire (India), 42, 58
Muhammad Shah, 41
Muslim Arakanese, 113
Muslim Rohingya, 105–106
Muslims, 3, 7, 19, 38, 42–43, 50, 51, 53, 74, 77, 78, 80, 105, 110, 122–125
Myanmar. See Burma (Myanmar)
Nationalism, 75, 77–84, 90, 91, 109
National Liberation Front, Vietnam (“Vietcong”), 92
Nationhood, 89, 93–94, 100
Nation-states, 4–5, 7
Netherlands, 53, 56, 58–59, 62, 67, 75, 85, 89, 96
New Economic Policy, 108
Ne Win, 8, 99–100, 113
New Order in Asia (Japan), 85
Nguyen Anh, 63
Nguyen dynasty (Vietnam), 91
Norodom (Cambodian King), 63, 93, 110
North Borneo, 62, 96, 112
North Vietnam, 15, 93, 94
Nu, U, 88
Obama, Barack, 117
Opium, 57, 60, 62, 65, 72, 114
Orwell, George, 68
Pali, 40, 42, 44
Papuan ethnic group, 13
Pasquier, Pierre, 75
Patani kingdom, 48, 109, 110
People Power Revolution (Philippines), 101
People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore, 11–12, 94, 108, 121
People’s Republic of China, 116
Perlis kingdom, 109
Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague), 118
Pham Van Dong, 82
Phan Boi Chau, 81
Philippines (Las Philipinas), 1, 2, 12, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 24, 41, 64, 66, 75, 82, 84, 87, 98,
99, 113
Plantations, 6, 18, 69–70, 116, 125–126
Pliny, 22
Portugal, 13, 49–51, 53, 57, 96
Poverty, 97, 100, 124
Power struggles, 10, 29, 34–35, 55, 61, 86, 94, 105, 119, 121
Praphat Charusathien, 98
Preah Vihear Temple (Cambodia), 111
Pyu kingdom, 28
Quezon, Manuel, 82, 83
Qur’an, 42, 122
Rama IV (Mongkut), 64–65
Rama V (Chulalongkorn), 65
Rama VI (Vajiravudh), 83
Rama VII (Prajadhipok), 83
Religious identities, 122–125
Republic of the United Provinces, 53
Rhodes, Alexandre de, 63
Rizal, Jose, 82
Rohingya in Myanmar, 105, 113–114
Rubber, 6, 18, 22, 69, 97, 117
Sabah, Malaysia, 11, 62, 94, 96, 112, 125
Safavid Empire (Persia), 42
Sailendra kingdom (Java), 27, 37
Sama Dilaut ethnic group, 112
Sanskrit, 40, 42, 73
Sarawak, 11, 61–62, 94, 96
Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union), 80
Sarit Thanarat, 98
Shan ethnic group (Myanmar), 113, 114
Shaya San, 80
Siam kingdom, 33–34, 48, 57–58, 60–61, 64–66, 70, 72, 83, 109
Sihanouk, Norodom (Cambodian King), 9, 15, 93, 99
Singapore, 1, 7, 11–12, 15, 16, 18, 21, 24, 58–60, 69, 72, 85, 94, 99, 100–105, 108,
115–116, 119, 121–122, 124–125
Slave market, 111–112
Socialism, 8, 12, 74, 81, 122
Song Dynasty (China), 46
Souvanna Phouma, 93–94
Souphanouvong, 93, 94
Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 15, 98
South Korea, 17, 23, 103, 118
South Vietnam, 15, 92–93
Soviet Union, 15, 81, 92, 101
Spain, 12, 40, 42, 50–54, 56–58, 64, 111, 112
Spices, 14, 50, 51, 53, 55
Stone monuments, 27, 36, 104
Strand Hotel, Yangon, 104
Sugar, 6, 22, 69, 97, 108
Suharto, 16, 19–20, 23, 96, 99–100, 102, 119, 120–121
Sukarno, 15, 16, 19–20, 40, 81, 83, 85, 89–90, 99, 107, 116, 121–122
Sultanates, 1, 12–13, 16, 24, 30, 32–33, 35, 48, 49, 56, 58, 60–61, 76, 109–110
Sulu Zone, 111–112
Sumatra, 4, 27, 28, 30, 35, 47, 48, 59, 62, 69, 96, 125
Sun Yatsen, 79
Tagalog language (Philippines), 74, 106
Tausug ethnic group, 112
Tea, 22, 69, 97, 108
Temples, 38, 111, 124
Ternate, Indonesia, 31, 48, 51
Thailand, 1, 4, 7–8, 7–9, 11, 15–16, 18–21, 24, 25, 39–40, 70, 72, 84–86, 95, 97, 98–103,
109–111, 113–114, 119, 120, 122, 126
Thakins, 80, 84
Thalassocracy, 28, 35
Thanom Kittikachorn, 98
Theravada Buddhism, 40, 41–44
Tidore, Indonesia, 31, 48
Tobacco, 22, 52, 69, 107
Tojo, Hideki, 85
Treaties, 16, 18, 53, 58, 59, 62, 63, 96, 98, 101
Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976), 16, 18, 101
Trengganu kingdom, 109, 110
Tripartite Pact (1940), 84
Trump, Donald, 117–118
United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), 88
United Nations General Assembly, 17
United States (U.S.), 7, 10–13, 15, 18–19, 59, 64, 66, 75, 82, 87, 89, 92–94, 98–99, 108,
United Wa State Army, 114
Vientiane, Laos, 4, 9, 94
Vietminh, 87, 91, 92
Vietnam, 1–14, 6–7, 9–10, 14–17, 16, 19–21, 25–26, 28, 34–35, 41, 43–48, 57–58, 63–64,
69–70, 73–78, 81–83, 87, 91–94, 98–101, 116, 121–122, 124
Vietnam Nationalist Party (VNQDD), 81
Vichy government (France), 84
VOC. See Dutch East India Company
Vo Nguyen Giap, 82
Wan Waithayakon (Thai Prince), 85
Wealth, 12–13, 20–22, 24, 42, 50, 107–108, 116, 120
West Sumatra, 27
Wet-rice farming, 3, 26–27, 32
Widodo, Joko, 19, 102, 118
World War, II, 7, 8, 10, 11, 15, 20, 21, 61, 85, 89–91, 96, 110
Xavier, Francis, 53
Yap Ah Loy, 21
Yogyakarta, 31, 55
Yongle (Chinese emperor), 47
Yuan dynasty (China), 47
Yudhoyono, Bambang Susilo, 102
Zheng He, 47
Halftitle page
Series page
Title page
Copyright page
List of illustrations
1 What is Southeast Asia?
Snapshots from the neighborhood
Southeast Asia and the world
Elites and national economies
2 Kingdoms
A world of mandalas
The lure of Indian civilization
New waves of Islam and Theravada Buddhism
China’s sway
Southeast Asia on the verge
3 Colonies
Arrival of the companies
The nineteenth-century onslaught
High colonialism in Southeast Asia
Newcomers from China
New borrowings
4 Nations
Embracing nationalism
A Japanese intervention
Nations emerge
The nature of nations
The Cold War and authoritarianism
The neighborhood matures
5 The past is in the present
Power is money
Sleeping mandalas
India and China
Lessons of the West
Religious identities
A beleaguered habitat
Further reading
Write 3 pages essay Chicago style analyzing the novel This Earth of Mankind as a work of historical fiction.
The book for this assignment, This Earth of Mankind, is part of the “Buru Quartet,” named after the island where the author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was imprisoned for 14 years, and where he composed the epic that spans four novels.
think about how the book portrays the themes of history, including the nature of colonial power in Southeast Asia, the importance of gender and race, the role of agriculture in the colonial economy, the power of education, the law, etc.
Use the following prompt when writing the essay:
What can we learn about Southeast Asian history from works of literature such as This Earth of Mankind? Answer this question by relating aspects of the novel (plot, characters, etc.) to what we’ve learned thus far about colonialism, gender, plantation economies, race, etc. in Southeast Asia, especially (but not limited to) Java.
The essay should include a clear introduction, where you summarize your argument, a body where you use examples from the novel and other historical sources (i.e. assigned readings, lectures, etc.) to support the claims, and a conclusion to remind the reader of the main points of the analysis. Make sure to cite the sources! Remember, to cite sources whenever you include ideas or facts that are not your own or common knowledge. This means you will likely need to cite not only the primary source you are analyzing but also other readings for context. Also, please make sure to cite the textbook( James R. Rush,Southeast Asia: A Very Short Introduction) or even class lectures before using outside online sources for your essay.

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