Southeast Asia

4.3 History and Culture of the Region

Impact of Colonialism

Southeast Asia has not escaped the impact of globalization, both colonial and corporate. As Europeans expanded their colonial activities, they made their way into Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by European colonialism. The only area of the region that was not colonized by the Europeans was Thailand, which was called Siam during the colonial era. It remained an independent kingdom throughout the colonial period and was a buffer state between French and British colonizers. The Japanese colonial empire controlled much of Southeast Asia before World War II.

Some of the countries and regions of Southeast Asia became known by their colonial connection. Indonesia was once referred to as the Dutch East Indies, which was influential in the labeling of the Caribbean as the West Indies. French Indochina is a term legitimized for historical references to the former French claims in Southeast Asia. Malaya and British Bor-neo each had its currency based on a dollar unit that was legal tender for the regions of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo, and Brunei. Independence from the European powers and freedom from Japanese imperialism by the end of World War II provided a new identification for the various countries of the realm. Cultural and economic ties remain between many former colonies and their European counterparts.

Colonialism in South Asia” is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony south of Indonesia, has been the most recent colony to gain independence. Timor is an island just north of Australia, with the western portion is claimed by Indonesia. The whole island was annexed to Indonesia in 1975. Separatist movements that entailed conflict and violence caused the eastern portion to be granted independence in 2002 finally. Since then, East Timor has been working to establish itself as a country and is negotiating its offshore boundary to include substantial oil and gas reserves.

Cultural Geography

Southeast Asia has a population of more than six hundred million people; more than half the population lives on the many islands of Indonesia and the Philippines. The small island of Java in Indonesia is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. More than half of the two hundred forty-five million people who live in Indonesia live on the island of Java. The island of Luzon in the Philippines is also one of the densely populated areas of the insular region. The Philippines has over one hundred million people, Vietnam has more than ninety million, and Thailand has about sixty-seven million. Local areas with high food-producing capacity are also high population centers, including deltas, river valleys, and fertile plains.

The ethnic mosaic of Southeast Asia is a result of the emergence of local differences be-tween people that have evolved into identifiable cultural or ethnic groups. Though there is a multitude of specific ethnic groups, many of the larger ones stand out with recognizable populations. On the mainland, the Burmese, Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese are the largest groups, coinciding with the physical countries from Burma to Vietnam. A similar situation can be found in the insular region. Many distinct groups can exist on the many islands of the region. The island of New Guinea, for example, has hundreds of local groups with their languages and traditions. Many ethnic groups are dominated by Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos, coinciding with the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philip-pines. Each of these main groups has many subgroups that hold to their cultural heritage in the areas where they exist. The many islands of Indonesia and the Philippines create the opportunity for diversity to continue to thrive, despite the globalization process that in-creased the interaction and communication opportunities between groups.

Indonesia is also home to the largest Muslim population in the world. All major religions can be found here. The Philippine population is predominantly Christian, but there is a minority Muslim community, including rebel insurgents. Most of the people in Malaysia follow Islam. About 95 percent of the people in Thailand and more than 60 percent of Laos are Buddhists. Hinduism is present in the Indonesian island of Bali and various other locations in the region. Animism and local religions can be found in rural and remote areas. Southeast Asia is a mix of many ethnic groups, each with its history, culture, and religious preference.

Political Conflicts

Communist ideas spread to Southeast Asia, where Marxism influenced the governments of newly independent countries. In Vietnam, for example, a communist movement was begun by Ho Chi Minh to try to gain independence from France following the end of Japanese occupation in World War II. The communist forces overcame the French in a crucial battle in 1954 and established a government in the northern territory. The country was then divided into a communist north and anti-communist and majority Catholic south. This was a time of high tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the US feared that the entire region would eventually come under communist control, essentially creating a Western capitalist hemisphere and an Eastern communist hemisphere. The fear that the fall of one country to communism would lead to the fall of other surrounding countries to communism was known as domino theory, and was initially meant as an anecdote but became the basis for US foreign policy in the region. (Finlayson, 2019)

The United States aimed to support South Vietnam’s resistance to the communist north’s unification goal and began sending military advisors to the region. Military combat units followed, and bombing campaigns began in 1965. The terrain of Vietnam was quite different from the geography of other areas where the US had previously fought. Much of Southeast Asia was tropical rainforest and was ill-suited for the types of tanks and heavy artillery that had been so successful in World War II. The Viet Cong, referring to the Vietnamese communists, engaged in guerrilla warfare, using the terrain to support small, mobile military units. To try to combat these tactics, the US military sprayed chemical defoliants and herbicides, like Agent Orange, over Vietnam’s forests. In the end, waning support for the Vietnam War led the US to withdraw, and in 1975, Vietnam was unified under communist rule. Over 1 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died in the fighting. Millions of others were exposed to Agent Orange, causing health problems and disabilities, and the chemical had devastating effects on Vietnam’s ecosystem where it has lingered in the soil. (Finlayson, 2019)

During the same period, a communist organization known as the, which is French for “Red Khmers,” came to power in Cambodia. Khmer refers to the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge opposed Westernization and US involvement in the newly independent country and believed in returning to an agrarian society. Pol Pot (1925-1998 CE), the Khmer Rouge leader, led a campaign to eliminate the country’s schools, hospitals, and other institutions and make the entire society work on collective farms. Urban cities would no longer be the economic and political focus, but rather wealth would be spread around the countryside. Most of the country’s intellectuals, including teachers and even people with glasses who were perceived as academic, were killed. Large prison camps were set up to house those who were believed to be a threat to communism. Cambodians of other ethnicities or who practiced religion were also executed. More than one million people were killed in total, often buried in mass graves known as The Killing Fields. Cambodia’s attempt to transform into an agrarian society ultimately led to widespread famine and starvation. In 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge, but human rights continued to be severely restricted. (Finlayson, 2019)

Much of East and Southeast Asia exhibit characteristics of a shatter belt, an area of political instability that is caught between competing states’ interests. Beginning in the colonial era and continuing today, Western involvement in this region has led to industrialization and economic growth and, at other times, economic depression and a drive to return to traditional values. Today, political instability continues to plague several countries in the region. (Finlayson, 2019)

Overseas Chinese

Southeast Asia is also home to over thirty million overseas Chinese – ethnic Chinese who live outside of China. The Chinese exodus to the realm was the greatest during the last Chinese dynasties and the colonial era. European colonial powers enhanced this migration pattern by leveraging the use of people with Chinese heritage in their governing over the local populations in the realm. Life has often been difficult for overseas Chinese. The Japanese occupation of the realm during World War II was a time of harsh discrimination against Chinese. Japanese occupation and colonialism diminished with the end of World War II. The overseas Chinese minority retained an economic advantage because of their former colonial status and their economic connections. Chinatowns emerged in many of the major cities of Southeast Asia. The discrimination against the Chinese, fueled by religious or socioeconomic differences, often continued after World War II by the local ethnic majorities. Nevertheless, overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia have been instrumental in promoting the global business arrangements that have established the Pacific Rim as a significant player in the international economy.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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