It occurs to us that when we tell people that we are going to Southeast Asia, many people might not know exactly what we mean. So, here’s our best attempt at an introduction to this region.
When people refer to Southeast Asia, they usually mean the following eleven countries: Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines. On a map, Southeast Asia is the area between China, India, Australia, and the South Pacific. Of course, regions like this are not natural, and we think of them as unitary regions because that’s the way that academics have classified them. For example, the name “Indochina” originally came from Western explorers who needed a name for the unexplored areas between India and China. This generalization is particularly unfortunate, since Southeast Asia is home to hundreds of diverse cultures. Burmese culture is more closely related to the cultures of eastern India than to the cultures of the Philippines, but nevertheless academic conventions have persisted, so we have to deal with them.
Rather than trying to describe Southeast Asia as a whole, it’s more interesting to think of the number of ways in which Southeast Asian nations and cultures differ.
Geography. Broadly speaking, Southeast Asia has two major geographic regions: the Indochinese Peninsula and the islands. The geography of Indochina includes low coastal plains along the Gulf of Thailand, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the Andaman Sea; rugged mountains along the Annamite Chain and at the end of the Himalayas in Myanmar; and low hills and plateaus in Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. The Mekong River, the Red River, and Irrawaddy River are the three largest rivers in the area.
The islands of Southeast Asia form the other general geographical feature, and their conditions vary as much as the conditions in Indochina. Some of the largest islands in the world are wholly or partially Indonesian, including Borneo, New Guinea, and Sumatra. While most islands experience frequent rains, the eastern parts of Indonesia are quite dry from June to October.
Ethnic Groups. No Southeast Asian country has a remotely uniform ethnic makeup. However, in some countries (Singapore, Vietnam) there is a noticeable dominant cultural group, while in other countries (Indonesia, Myanmar) governments have expended considerable effort attempting to create a national culture. Moreover, the imposition of colonial borders has divided most ethnic groups across national boundaries (i.e. Malays in Thailand and Indonesia, Lao in Thailand, Vietnamese in Cambodia), simultaneously robbing the vast majority of ethnic groups throughout the region of any independent political power.
Adding to the complexity of indigenous ethnic groups is the influence of foreign ethnic groups. Overseas Chinese are a large minority in every Southeast Asian country, as much as 33% of the population in Malaysia, and are the majority in Singapore. Arab settlers from the Hadramawt (Yemen) have more thoroughly assimilated into local ethnic groups, although distinct Arab populations still reside across the region. Settlers from the Indian subcontinent have assimilated much as Arabs have, but still remain distinct in Malaysia and Singapore. Expatriate Westerners can be found in significant numbers in almost every city.
Languages. The language groupings in Southeast Asia are no less complicated than the ethnic divisions. The national languages of Vietnam and Cambodia are closely related as members of the Mon-Khmer language group. Burmese is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family, distantly related to modern Tibetan and Chinese. Thai and Lao are members of the Tai language group. Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia descended from trade Malay, a lingua franca that facilitated trade throughout insular Southeast Asia. Along with Tagalog, they are members of the Austronesian language group, which includes languages from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east. Most Singaporeans learn English in school, although Mandarin, Cantonese, Bahasa Malaysia, and Tamil are important languages among the different ethnic groups that reside there.
In addition to these national languages, there are literally thousands of regional and local dialects from dozens of different language families spoken across the region. In many cases, dialects related to national languages in one country are minority languages in a neighboring country. Other distinct languages range in size from Javanese (spoken by about sixty million Indonesians) to the indigenous languages of mountainous areas (many of which can boast only several thousand speakers). An estimated 1500 languages are found in the Indonesian province of West Papua alone.
Religion. All major religions can be found in Southeast Asia, but the way that Southeast Asians practice these religions often varies substantially from their practices elsewhere. Much of these differences originate from the indigenous religions found in Southeast Asians, the influences of which persist to this day. In Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, the predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism, a form of Buddhism practiced in few other countries aside from Sri Lanka. In Vietnam, years of Chinese influence led to the widespread practice of Mahayana Buddhism, the type practiced in much of China, Korea, and Japan. Most Malaysians and Indonesians practice Islam, as do the residents of Brunei Darussalam. Catholicism is the majority religion in the Philippines and in East Timor.
These general characteristics notwithstanding, there are important minority groups in all of these countries. Large Muslim minority populations can be found in southern Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, while substantial Buddhist minorities reside in Malaysia and Indonesia. Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia are home to sizeable Christian minorities. The Indonesian island of Bali is almost entirely Hindu, and a small Jewish community has remained in Myanmar for centuries.
Colonial History. Every major European colonial empire occupied some region of Southeast Asia during the past four hundred years. The Portuguese were early explorers, and established control over strategic ports early in the colonial period. The British colonized Malaysia and Myanmar, the latter as a portion of India. The French established five provinces in Southeast Asia: Assam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (these three were united into Vietnam), Laos, and Cambodia. The Dutch superseded the Portuguese in Indonesia, leaving only East Timor under Portuguese rule. The Spanish Empire colonized the Philippines, and the United States established its only true colony in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. By contrast, only Thailand managed to remain independent throughout the colonial period.
As you can see, Southeast Asia is a complex place, and it’s hard to find a simple introduction to the region or natural way to classify the peoples and cultures within the region. For a good introduction to the history and culture of the region, the best source is D.R. SarDesai’s Southeast Asia: Past and Present.
You can probably find it at any good bookstore or college library.