Southeast Asian History

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia, region of Asia (1990 est. pop. 442,500,000), c.1,740,000 sq mi (4,506,600 sq km), bounded roughly by the Indian subcontinent on the west, China on the north, and the Pacific Ocean on the east. The name "Southeast Asia" came into popular use after World War II and has replaced such phrases as "Further India," "the East Indies," "Indo-China," and "the Malay Peninsula," which formerly designated all or part of the region. Southeast Asia includes the Indochina Peninsula, which juts into the South China Sea, the Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian and Philippine Archipelagos. The region has 10 independent countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Peninsular Southeast Asia is a rugged region traversed by many mountains and drained by great rivers such as the Thanlwin, Ayeyarwady, Chao Phraya, and Mekong. Insular Southeast Asia is made up of numerous volcanic and coral islands. Southeast Asia has a generally tropical rainy climate, with the exception of the northwestern part, which has a humid subtropical climate. The wet monsoon winds are vital for the economic well-being of the region. Tropical forests cover most of the area. Rice is the chief crop of the region; rubber, tea, spices, and coconuts are also important. The region has a great variety of minerals and produces most of the world's tin.


Population is unevenly distributed, with the highest density in lowland areas. Most of the people live in small agrarian villages; the largest cities are Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangkok, Thailand; Singapore; Manila, Philippines; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There is a great diversity in culture, history, religion, and ethnic composition. Many different languages are spoken, such as those of the Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, and Malayo-Polynesian families. Religions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Confucianism. Animism is still practiced among many more isolated peoples of the region.


Most of the influences that molded the societies of Southeast Asia predate European colonization, coming from early Chinese and Indian sources. Several great civilizations, including those of the Khmers and Malays, have flourished there. In the late 15th cent., Islamic influences grew strong but were overshadowed by the arrival of Europeans, who established their power throughout Southeast Asia; only Thailand remained free of colonial occupation. Because of Southeast Asia's strategic location between Japan and India, and the importance of shipping routes that traverse it, the region became the scene of battles between Allied and Japanese forces during World War II.

After the war the countries of Southeast Asia have reemerged as independent nations. They have been plagued by political turmoil, weak economies, ethnic strife, and social inequities, although the situation for most Southeast Asian nations improved in the 1980s and 90s. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, however, there were open conflicts between Communist and non-Communist factions throughout most of the region, especially in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (see Vietnam War). In 1967 Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand created the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the objectives of which are to promote regional economic growth, political stability, social progress, and cultural developments. Since then, Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos (1997), and Myanmar and Cambodia (1999) have joined ASEAN. In 1997 a monetary collapse in Thailand sparked a general economic crisis in several nations in the region; the results were most severe in Indonesia, which underwent economic, political, and social turmoil in the late 1990s.


See C. A. Fisher, Southeast Asia (2d ed. 1966); E. H. G. Dobby, Southeast Asia (10th ed. 1967); J. S. Bastin and H. J. Benda, History of Modern Southeast Asia (1968); G. Myrdal, Asian Drama (3 vol., 1968); L. Williams, Southeast Asia: A History (1976); D. G. E. Hall, A History of South East Asia (4th ed. 1981); M. Osborne, Southeast Asia (3d ed. 1985); D. J. Steinberg, ed., In Search of Southeast Asia (rev. ed. 1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Southeast Asian History: Selected full-text books and articles

Southeast Asia: An Introductory History By Milton Osborne Allen & Unwin, 2013 (11th edition)
Southeast Asia in World History By Craig A. Lockard Oxford University Press, 2009
Southeast Asia: Past & Present By D. R. SarDesai Westview Press, 1997 (4th edition)
South-East Asia: A Short History By Brian Harrison MacMillan, 1955
A History of South-East Asia By D. G. E. Hall MacMillan, 1955
In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History By David P. Chandler; William R. Roff; John R. W. Smail; David Joel Steinberg; Robert H. Taylor; Alexander Woodside; David K. Wyatt; David Joel Steinberg Allen & Unwin, 1971 (Revised edition)
Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500 By Lynda Norene Shaffer M. E. Sharpe, 1996
Southeast Asian History and the Mediterranean Analogy By Sutherland, Heather Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, February 2003
Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Period; Twenty-Five Years On By Andaya, Leonard Y.; Andaya, Barbara Watson Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, March 1995
The "Classical" in Southeast Asia: The Present in the Past By Aung-Thwin, Michael Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, March 1995
Autonomous History and 'The Invention of Politics.' By Lockhart, Greg Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, March 1998
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