HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
History of Southeast Asia
 
*Southeast 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 some degree).

*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 longer). 

*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 remained.

*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 Europeans.

*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 success.

*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 order. 

*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 it.

*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 help.

*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 heavily rigged.

*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 another.

*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.




This page last updated 20 November, 2005.