History of Southeast Asia
Asia has been inhabited for thousands of years, with the first evidence
of both rice cultivation and bronze working appearing about 3600 BC in
what is now Thailand, making it one of the first places in the world to
use bronze (over 1000 years before the Chinese did it, although at
about the same time as it was used in Mesopotamia).
*This was a fertile area, capable of producing vast food surpluses,
with which village chiefs would sometimes provide feasts for entire
villages. Cattle, chickens, dogs, and pigs were probably first
domesticated in Southeast Asia.
*Southeast Asia used the sea far more than East Asia or South Asia,
with many of its great kingdoms situated along coasts and sometimes
stretching across many islands. In some cases, these empires only
touched the shorelines of the lands they controlled (although they
controlled many shores on different lands), and were called
thalassocracies—lands ‘ruled from the sea.’ Their settlement
extended as far as Madagascar.
*It is thought that the earliest peoples of Southeast Asia were
Austro-Asian people. One of their first major empires was the
Funan kingdom located on and around the Mekong Delta from about 100 AD
to about 600 AD, although it reached its height about 250 AD and was
actually only a vassal of China after 357. However, at it peak,
it was a powerful, wide-ranging trading empire, and among the ruins of
its cities archaeologists have found Chinese, Indian, and even Roman
trade goods. The kingdom employed Indians in its government and,
like most of the region, was Hindu until about 400 AD, after which much
of the region began to convert to Buddhism (although in some places
Hinduism remained dominant, and in many places both were practised to
*Even when Funan was ruled by China, it was powerful enough to have
vassals of its own. One of these (starting about 550 AD) was
Chenla, in modern Cambodia. As Funan declined, Chenla took over
much of its territory, establishing its own empire in 613. Chenla
did not remain strong for long; by 715 several of its component states
had broken away. However, a prince of the old Chenla empire who
spent time in Java, would return in 790 and create what came to be
known as the Khmer Empire.
*Based around the Mekong Delta, the Khmer eventually conquered most of
the Indochina Peninsula and the northern part of the Malay Peninsula
and, despite occasional civil wars and some periods of weakness, the
Khmer empire lasted until 1431 (and in places its traditions lasted
*The Kmher used complex systems of canals and other irrigation systems
to produce 3-4 crops of rice per year. The Khmer are most famous
for their architecture. Students ought to look at page 741 to see
Angkor Wat, one of many temples in the capital city and temple complex
of Angkor, located in modern Cambodia.
*The entire temple complex around Angkor Wat makes it the largest
religious structure in the world, covering almost one square mile (more
than the Vatican City). Construction began sometime between 1113
and 1150 AD, and it remained in use even beyond the fall of the Khmer
empire. It was initially a Hindu temple, but eventually it was
used by both Hindu and Buddhist monks, and after the fall of the Khmer
Empire it became a purely Buddhist temple, and was used and maintained
as a religious site almost continuously afterwards. Angkor Wat is
a national symbol of Cambodia, and appears on the national flag.
*While the Khmer were ruling most of the mainland, a thalassocracy
developed in the East Indies. Based on the island of Sumatra, the
Srivijaya Empire controlled the seas and islands of Southeast Asia from
about 600 AD to 1414 AD. Between 1068 and about 1088 the
Srivijaya and India’s Chola Empire fought, which weakened both of them,
but did not destroy them. About the same time, Islam began to
spread through the traditionally Buddhist empire, changing the
culture. In 1414 the last prince of Srivajaya converted to Islam,
but by then most of what is now Malaysia and Indonesia had already
reverted back to separate kingdoms and sultanates, more and more of
which were Moslem, although some pockets of Hinduism and Buddhism
*Most of the rest of Southeast Asia existed as a series of minor
kingdoms, most of which did not last long (as far as we know—much of
the area is still not well known to archaeologists and
historians). Many of them were conquered or dominated at various
times by China, and later by Europeans. The one major exception
to this was the Kingdom of Siam.
*Between 1350 and 1767 the Thai people were ruled by the Ayutthaya
Empire, a Buddhist kingdom that managed a patchwork of small
territories that owed allegiance to the king. It was an advanced
kingdom, with commercial ties to much of the rest of the region and
eventually even to Europe—King Narai and King Louis XIV exchanged
ambassadors in the mid-1600s.
*In 1767 armies from Myanmar (Burma) invaded Siam and destroyed the
Ayutthaya Kingdom, but two Thai generals (with the help of China)
fought back and defeated them. One general, Thaksin, became King
of Siam in 1767, and upon his death in 1782, his friend Buddha Yodfa
Chulaloke became king. His rule was known as the First Reign, or
Rama I, and that title has been given to all subsequent Thai kings (all
of whom are his descendents), including the current Rama IX, Bhumibol
Adulyadej, who has been king since 1946 (making him the longest-serving
monarch currently on his throne).
*Rama IV (Mongkut; 1851-1868) and Rama V (Chulalngkorn; 1868-1910) both
made serious efforts to modernise their country and to maintain good
relations with Europe. They were successful, unlike all other
Southeast Asian rulers, whose countries were eventually colonised by
*In 1939, Siam changed its name to Thailand, and (except between 1945
and 1949) has kept it that way. Thailand means ‘land of the
free,’ but it also means ‘land of the Thai people,’ which some citizens
of non-Thai ethnicity find obnoxious.
*On 21 December 1941, Thailand and Japan signed an alliance (in part
because Japan probably would have invaded if the Thais had not
cooperated), but even after WWII, Thailand, although regarded as a
defeated country, was not occupied (in large part because the USA would
not let Britain and France move in, as a consequence of which Thailand
has typically viewed the USA as a good friend).
*Thailand was unique in its independence, though. In the 1500s,
the Portuguese set up colonies in the East Indies, including what is
now East Timor, making it one of only two Catholic countries in the
region, the other being the Philippines, conquered by Spain in
1565. It would remain a Spanish colony until 1898 when it was
taken the USA during the Spanish-American War.
*The Philippines were a hard country to rule, though: the
Japanese attempted to claim it at various point and demanded tribute,
the British took some of the islands during the Seven Years War (but
gave them back in the Peace of Paris), and in the late 1800s, a number
of uprisings began. Philippine independence movements would
continue under US rule and the Japanese occupation (1941-45). In
1947 the US would give the Philippines their independence, which has
been followed by a mixture of democratic and dictatorial governments.
*The Dutch came to Indonesia starting in 1602, and, through the Dutch
East India Company captured the city of Jakarta, burnt it to the
ground, and rebuilt it as Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East
Indies. Eventually the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt,
and the Dutch government took over in 1816. This was one of the
wealthiest parts of the Dutch trading empire.
*During WWII the Netherlands were conquered by Nazi Germany and the
Dutch East Indies were taken by the Japanese, partly with the
assistance of local nationalist groups. In 1945, Indonesian
nationalist groups declared an independent state of Indonesia.
Although the Dutch fought to take it back, they eventually had to
recognise most of Indonesia as a separate state in 1949. Western
New Guinea would be ceded in 1963.
*Under Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, the country had a
fairly weak democratic system, which was replaced by an authoritarian
regime Sukarno characterised as ‘Guided Democracy.’ In 1965
Indonesia fell into civil war, and in 1968 Major General Mohamed
Suharto would be chosen as president. He would also prove very
authoritarian, and would insure his own re-election until 1998, when he
finally declined to run again under intense public pressure.
Since then Indonesia has experimented with more democracy, with mixed
*Under Suharto, Indonesia conquered Portugal’s last colony in the
region, East Timor, in 1975. Portugal was distracted by its wars
in Angola and Mozambique, and by the recent overthrow of the fascist
regime in the 1974 Carnation Revolution. The new government had
allowed local elections in East Timor, and when they did not go
smoothly, Indonesia claimed it was a civil war, and invaded to restore
*Indonesia quickly conquered the colony, and treated its people very
badly, raping thousands and killing hundreds of thousands, and drawing
increasing criticism upon Suharto and the western governments that
befriended him. After the fall of the USSR meant the West no
longer had to support friendly dictators, Suharto’s cruelty in East
Timor led to a decline in foreign support for his country, and after he
left office in 1998, East Timor was permitted to go its own way,
becoming independent in 1999, although it required UN troops to protect
*The British came to Southeast Asia in the 1600s as well, and for a
time they fought with the Dutch for control of the East Indies
(eventually trading a few islands there for the island of Manhattan
when the Duke of York seized it in 1664; this gave the Dutch a
worldwide monopoly on nutmeg).
*Starting in 1786, the British East India Company began to acquire land
and concessions in the Malay Peninsula (previously dominated by the
Portuguese, and then the Dutch). In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles
acquired Singapore and made it a British colony.
*In 1824 the British and the Dutch signed a treaty describing their
possessions in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia, and the boundaries
have not changed significantly since then, even through there are Malay
people in both Malaysia and parts of Indonesia, and some would like to
have a truly united nation-state.
*Between 1824 and 1886 the British took possession of Burma, which
became very important as a source of food after the Suez Canal made
travel to the region faster and easier.
*Brunei was an independent sultanate since at least 1405, but between
1888 and 1986 it was a British protectorate, with the Sultan having
local control but Britain managing the country’s foreign affairs.
*The French also began to expand in Southeast Asia in the 1800s,
although they had sent merchants and missionaries there since the
1600s. In 1858 French troops landed in what is now Vietnam, and
by 1885 they had conquered the whole country, although they retained
the imperial family as figureheads. In 1863, the King of Cambodia
agreed to let his country be a French protectorate. In 1887 the
entire region was named French Indochina, and what is now Laos was
added to it in 1893 after being taken from Thailand (who had taken it
from its last native kings not long before). Its kings also
remained as figureheads.
*During WWII, the Vichy French government allowed the Japanese to move
through parts of Indo-China to attack Chiang Kai-shek in China, and in
1945 the Japanese took over the whole colony.
*During this time, the USA’s OSI trained a number of native guerrillas
to fight the Japanese. Among these was a young nationalist named
Ho Chi Minh. He had long hoped for independence for Viet-Nam,
even seeking a meeting with Woodrow Wilson at Versailles to discuss
self-determination. Ho admired the Declaration of Independence
and George Washington (and saw himself as his own country’s
Washington). Wilson ignored him, and Ho soon turned to Moscow for
*The Japanese in Indo-China surrendered when the Emperor ended WWII in
August 1945, and the French tried to regain control. Ho and many
of his supporters, called Viet Minh, the League for the Independence of
Viet-Nam, opposed this, as they had declared Viet-Nam independent from
France in 1941.
*In 1946, Ho declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of
Viet-Nam, but he was not recognised by anyone but his own followers, in
part because most of Europe supported the French out of principle, and
especially because Ho was a communist.
*To combat Ho, the French created a Republic of Viet-Nam, to be led by
the Emperor of Viet-Nam, Bao Dai. The French and the RVN fought
against the Viet Minh for almost a decade.
*Initial French preparations went well, but it soon turned out there
were far more Viet Minh than the French thought. They were also
armed with the latest Soviet weapons. The Viet Minh laid siege to
Dien Bien Phu, and in April 1954 the French gave up control of Viet Nam
in the Geneva Accords, which divided Viet-Nam just south of the 17th
Parallel and made Hanoi Ho’s capital of the North and Saigon Ngo Dinh
Diem’s capital in the South.
*Elections were to be held in 1956 for a unified country and
government. Ho Chi Minh was very popular for his work in getting
the French out, and it was feared that he would win a popular election,
so the South did not hold elections and the US supported them in
that. When an election between Ngo and Bao Dai was held, it was
*The USA pledged to support the RVN, and sent money to Ngo as well as military advisors to help train the ARVN.
*The US followed the policy of containment. They wanted to keep
communism from spreading and would fight it when it tried. The
great fear of the US was called the Domino Theory: if one country
in South-east Asia fell to communism, so would the rest, one after
*Ngo was not popular with many South Viet-Namese. He was Catholic
and most Viet-Namese were Buddhist. He had supported the French
and he imprisoned those who disagreed with him.
*Many people wanted him to initiate land reform—that is, take land from
the rich and give it to the poor—but he would not. Instead, he
created ‘strategic hamlets,’ essentially large, government-run farms,
where they could work, but where they would also be under close guard
so they could not help the communists.
*In June 1963 a Buddhist monk protested Ngo’s regime by pouring
gasoline on himself and immolating himself on a street in Saigon.
Soon other monks followed his example, and newspapers the world over
reported it. In Viet-Nam, news reporters and cameramen would have
almost total access to major events and unprecedented means of
transmitting news, pictures, and video back home.
*Opposition to Ngo in Viet-Nam and now America led Kennedy to permit a
coup d’etat by several ARVN officers. Ngo, his wife, and a
younger brother were all murdered on 1 November 1963.
*Things got worse early in 1964. The ARVN generals who took over
from Nho Dinh Diem governed the country poorly, did not run the ARVN
well, and 1964 saw a rise in Viet Cong activity in RVN. These
guerrillas sabotaged the RVN at night and looked like peaceful peasants
during the day.
*On 3 August 1964, some US Navy destroyers patrolling the Gulf of
Tonkin were attacked by NVN torpedo boats. The damage was minimal
(only one bullet struck, hitting the USS Maddox), but the next day
radar reports showed many more boats approaching and launching
torpedoes, and the Navy fired upon them. It has since been
discovered that the second wave of attacks detected by radar were
actually thunder clouds.
*This attack allowed Johnson to ask Congress for the power to send
troops to Viet-Nam. On 7 August 1964, Congress responded with the
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the President to do whatever
he felt was necessary as long as he said there was an emergency.
The US could now send all the troops they wanted to Viet-Nam without a
declaration of war, and sent lots.
*The war in Viet-Nam was not like any war Americans had fought.
Used to living in the jungle, the VC were undetectable in most cases,
but they killed and wounded many soldiers and terrified more, and it
was almost impossible to hit them back. Civilians might throw a
bomb or try to poison soldiers. Soldiers faced booby traps such
as pits with punji sticks, land mines on paths, grenades hooked to
tripwires, and an enemy working out of vast underground tunnel systems
that were dangerous to clear out.
*The NVA and the VC had other advantages besides their invisibility and
relative popularity. The US Army had a number of rules of
engagement it followed to keep from offending the Vietnamese people or
neighbouring countries. The US would not bomb cemeteries, so the
VC hid in them. The US would not invade or bomb Laos or Cambodia,
so the NVA and VC built roads and carried supplies through those
countries. These were called the Ho Chi Minh trail. The US
conducted bombing raids on North Viet-Nam and on suspected VC outposts,
but not nearly as many as they could have, because Johnson was afraid
of accidentally hitting a Soviet advisor and sparking WWIII.
*The army could call in the Air Force to help them fight enemy
positions. In these attacks the USAF used fragmentation bombs,
which exploded into many little pieces, sending shrapnel everywhere to
kill the enemy. They also used napalm, jellied gasoline that set
the jungle on fire and stuck to anyone it hit.
*The US also used Agent Orange, a defoliant that killed the jungle
vegetation so soldiers could find hiding VC, but it also caused health
problems in many Vietnamese people and livestock and, it was later
discovered, in many US soldiers as well.
*Despite US escalation, the war was largely a stalemate. In
ambushes, the V-C had the advantage, although special US
search-and-destroy missions killed some V-C. In open battles the
US killed the V-C and NVA, but more just moved in.
*All this changed in 1968. The US expected some kind of attack,
because they knew there was a major build-up of NVA and V-C.
However, the Vietnamese New Year was coming up, and there was supposed
to be a cease-fire in honour of this occasion, called Tet, and
beginning on the night of 30/31 January in 1968.
*On the night of 30/31 January, almost every major town in RVN was
attacked by V-C forces. In most places the V-C were beaten
immediately. Only in Hue and Saigon itself did they have any
success, where fighting continued for several weeks.
*During Tet, the V-C killed anyone they considered an enemy, especially
the educated classes. Doctors, teachers, minor government
officials, military personnel, and many others were rounded up and
executed—thousands in total.
*Tet destroyed the V-C. Over 100,000 were killed, wounded, or
captured, compared to 1,100 dead US and 2,800 dead ARVN soldiers.
However, when images of Tet got home, people were horrified. On
the news it looked like the US was losing.
*The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the war
psychologically. Although a tactical victory for the US and ARVN,
it convinced Americans watching at home that the V-C could attack
anywhere at any time they wanted in massive numbers, and do well even
against the US Army (even though after Tet that was largely
untrue). More and more people began to ask just what the Unites
States were doing in Viet-Nam.
*Although the US would continue to send troops to Vietnam and fight the
war for four more years, it would do so with decreasing popular
support, until Richard Nixon proposed a plan of Vietnamization:
turning the war over to the Vietnamese.
*In 1973 the US withdrew from Viet-Nam but the NVA and ARVN fought
until 1975 when the NVA took over South Viet-Nam and American
helicopters lifted the last remaining Americans out of the
embassy. Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City after the
dead leader, gone since 1969.
*In the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of
Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps where they were taught to
follow the party line, or else. Property was seized, opponents of
the Communists were murdered, and over 1.5 million Vietnamese boat
people fled to the US.
*Remember the Domino Theory? After Viet-Nam, two more dominoes
fell: Laos, and Cambodia, where Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge killed
1.7 million Cambodians who he thought were too Western—that is over 20%
of the entire Cambodian population. Cambodians and Laotians also
fled to the US. However, no more countries in the region fell,
perhaps because they never would have, and perhaps because the long
struggle in Viet-Nam had limited the power of Communism.
*Today Laos is still a communist country, but Cambodia, after five
years of rule by Pol Pot and a decade under rule by Vietnam (after the
Khmer Rouge crossed the border too often), held free elections in 1993
and created a constitutional monarchy.
*Today the region contains some of the world’s poorest countries (such
as Laos), some of its richest (such as Brunei), some of its most
crowded (such as Indonesia, at least on the island of Java), and some
of its most promising (Malaysia the home of the Petronas Towers,
arguably the world’s tallest building from 1998 to 2003; now the Taipei
101 is). Although not all of its countries are stable or wealthy,
all are independent, and most have growing economies.