New History of Southeast Asia

A New History of Southeast Asia is a 2010 book written by five professors in the History Department of the National University of Singapore. The book provides a recent perspective of Southeast Asia from the viewpoint of Southeast Asians instead of Westerners.

The authors specialize in different regions of Southeast Asia, so the book provides depth for each country. The book is organized by historical period and then by country, making it easier to compare how people reacted to external influences for a given period, but harder to follow a country through time. The narrative for each country contains so many political groups and individuals, that I had trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Nonetheless, here’s my non-expert summary of the book.

The ancient civilizations of Southeast Asia did not leave written records. Thus we are left with prehistory, the domain of the archeologist, and proto-history, the period when a particular region has yet to produce its own written record but does at least appear in foreign sources. Chinese started writing about Southeast Asia in the third and fourth centuries; Indians starting writing shortly after that.

The early influence was primarily Indian, with Buddhism the main religion for most of Southeast Asia. Chinese spread into Vietnam, and Arabs into Indonesia.

The peak of Southeast Asian civilization occurred between 800 and 1300. Kingdoms were larger, more advanced, and lasted centuries — longer than before. For example, Angkor, the largest Southeast Asian kingdom of its time, lasted from 800 until the fifteenth century.

Arab trading ships reached China in the ninth century. The Chinese sent massive fleets to Malaysia and the Indian Ocean but stopped this in 1433 due to Mongol attacks. The Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch later moved into the region to pursue spices and trade with China. Chinese emigrants settled throughout Southeast Asia.

The Europeans established colonies to exploit local resources and enrich the mother country, subduing locals with war and politics. Eventually, the Dutch colonized the East Indies, the Spanish the Philippines, the French Indochina, and the British Burma and Malaysia.

The politics of the colonial and post-colonial period is characterized by religious, ethnic, military/civilian, and political factions competing and collaborating with each other and the colonial powers. The individuals, groups, and alliances keep changing, but the struggle for power and money doesn’t change.

This passage from page 447 describes the mood after the 9/11 attack and the ensuing world sympathy.

But the Bush administration dispelled this sympathy when its ‘global war on terror’ led to the much-criticized invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, many thought that, whatever was said to the contrary, the neo-conservatives of America were launching a Christian crusade against Islam.

The American media reports radical charges of Americans as crusaders, but I’ve never heard an American say or imply this. I viewed this crusader talk as extremist propaganda. But the passage must reflect the authors’ collective view — many Muslims in Southeast Asia believe that the US is launching a Christian crusade against Islam.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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