History of Southeast Asia

History of Southeast Asia

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The history of Southeast Asia focuses on two distinct sub-regions. There is Mainland Southeast Asia (Indochina), which includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. And there is Maritime Southeast Asia, which includes Brunei, the Cocos Islands, Christmas Island, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

Homo sapiens appeared in mainland Southeast Asia around 70,000 years ago. Then, they appeared some 50,000 years ago in maritime Southeast Asia. Some 25,000 years ago, East Asian-related groups migrated southwards into maritime Southeast Asia from the mainland. And by 10,000 BCE, they had developed a rich tradition and culture of artifact and tool production.

During the Neolithic era, Austro-asiatic peoples populated Indochina. Sea-going Austronesian immigrants settled in maritime Southeast Asia. The earliest agricultural societies began in the 17th century BCE by cultivating millet and wet rice in the lowlands and river floodplains of Indochina.

The Phung Nguyen culture (of modern northern Vietnam) and the Ban Chiang site (in modern Thailand) developed the use of copper by around 2,000 BCE. Then, the Dong Son culture developed a highly sophisticated bronze industry by 500 BCE. Around the same time, the first agricultural polities emerged in the abundant and fertile lands of the lower Mekong and Red River deltas. These included smaller groups that joined in the rapidly expanding sea trade.

Topography played a large role in the history of Southeast Asia. The early Khmer and Mon civilizations thrived in the challenging terrain where the Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong and Red Rivers steered trade and cultural exchange with the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. But with the exceptions of the massive islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java, maritime Southeast Asia is a patchwork of islands in far-flung archipelagos where growth and prosperity depend upon sea trade.

The Southeast Asian archipelago has long been central to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea trading routes. From this trade, there arose great wealth and an influx of new thinking that embraced Hindu elements of statecraft, religion, and culture. While Chinese culture greatly influenced Southeast Asia, long periods of Chinese isolationism and China’s tribute demands prevented extensive interaction.

Buddhism began to affect the political structure of Southeast Asia in the 8th to 9th centuries, especially in Indochina. This is where Islamic ideas arrived in the 8th century, and the first Muslim societies emerged by the 13th century. Following this, the era of European colonialism, early modernity, Cold War, and hot war on Indochina unfolded, and revealed the reality of Southeast Asian nationalism. As post-colonialism demands a modern state and a strong sense of national identity, most modern Southeast Asian countries have attained an unprecedented degree of political freedom and self-determination.

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Southeast Asia Index | Early Southeast Asia: BurmaKhmer EmpireLaosMajapahit EmpireMaritime StatesSiam: PowerVietnam: Power | Colonial Southeast Asia: SocietyPowerEconomyDutch East IndiesMalaccaPhilippinesVietnam | Modern Southeast Asia: PowerPost-War PoliticsCambodiaIndonesia: PowerLaosMalaysia: SocietyPowerMyanmarPhilippines: PowerEconomySingaporeThailandVietnam: Power

Southeast Asia: Index

Early Southeast Asia

Early Southeast Asia: Index


Khmer Empire


Majapahit Empire

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Maritime States


Siam: Power


Vietnam: Power

Colonial Southeast Asia

Colonial Southeast Asia: Index

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Dutch East Indies



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Modern Southeast Asia

Modern Southeast Asia: Index


Power: Postwar Politics



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Indonesia: Power



Malaysia: Society

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Philippines: Power

Philippines: Economy




Vietnam: Power

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