History of Southeast Asia

The history of Southeast Asia covers the people of Southeast Asia from prehistory to the present in two distinct sub-regions: Mainland Southeast Asia (or Indochina) and Maritime Southeast Asia (or Insular Southeast Asia). Mainland Southeast Asia comprises Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (or Burma), Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam whereas Maritime Southeast Asia comprises Brunei, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Christmas Island, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore.[1][2]

Southeast Asia

The earliest Homo sapiens presence in Mainland Southeast Asia can be traced back to 70,000 years ago and to at least 50,000 years ago in Maritime Southeast Asia. Since 25,000 years ago, East Asian-related (Basal East Asian) groups expanded southwards into Maritime Southeast Asia from Mainland Southeast Asia.[3][4] As early as 10,000 years ago, Hoabinhian settlers from Mainland Southeast Asia had developed a tradition and culture of distinct artefact and tool production. During the Neolithic, Austroasiatic peoples populated Indochina via land routes and sea-borne Austronesian immigrants preferably settled in Maritime Southeast Asia. The earliest agricultural societies that cultivated millet and wet-rice emerged around 1700 BCE in the lowlands and river floodplains of Indochina.[5]

The Phung Nguyen culture (modern northern Vietnam) and the Ban Chiang site (modern Thailand) account for the earliest use of copper by around 2,000 BCE, followed by the Dong Son culture, which by around 500 BCE had developed a highly sophisticated industry of bronze production and processing. Around the same time, the first Agrarian Kingdoms emerged whereby territory was abundant and favourable, such as Funan at the lower Mekong and Van Lang in the Red River delta.[6] Smaller and insular principalities increasingly engaged in and contributed to the rapidly expanding sea trade.

Contemporary political map of Southeast Asia

The wide topographical diversity of Southeast Asia has greatly influenced its history. For instance, Mainland Southeast Asia with its continuous but rugged and difficult terrain provided the basis for the early Cham, Khmer, and Mon civilizations. The sub-region's extensive coastline and major river systems of the Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong and Red River have directed socio-cultural and economic activities towards the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.[7][8] On the other hand, apart from exceptions such as Borneo and Sumatra, Maritime Southeast Asia is a patchwork of recurring land-sea patterns on widely dispersed islands and archipelagos. A discontinuity[9] that admitted moderately sized thalassocratic states indifferent to territorial ambitions where growth and prosperity was associated with sea trade.

Since around 100 BCE the Southeast Asian archipelago occupied a central position at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea trading routes which immensely stimulated the economy and the influx of ideas promoted societal organisation and advance. Most local trading polities selectively adopted Indian Hindu elements of statecraft, religion, culture and administration during the early centuries of the common era, which marked the beginning of recorded history and the continuation of a characteristic cultural development. Chinese culture diffused more indirectly and sporadic as trade was based on land routes like the Silk Road. Long periods of Chinese isolationism and political relations that were confined to ritualistic tribute procedures prevented deep acculturation.[10][11]

Borobudur in Java

Buddhism, particularly in Indochina began to affect the political structure beginning in the 8th to 9th centuries. Islamic ideas arrived in insular Southeast Asia as early as the 8th century, where the first Muslim societies[12] emerged by the 13th century.[13][14] The era of European colonialism, early Modernity and the Cold War era revealed the reality of limited political significance for the various Southeast Asian polities. Post-World War II national survival and progress required a modern state and a strong national identity.[15] Most modern Southeast Asian countries enjoy a historically unprecedented degree of political freedom and self-determination and have embraced the practical concept of intergovernmental co-operation within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).[16][17]


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