Southeast Asia

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Location of Southeast Asia
Location of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a subregion of Asia.


Name and definition

Southeast Asia
  1. Brunei
  2. Cambodia
  3. East Timor
  4. Indonesia
  5. Laos
  6. Malaysia
  7. Myanmar
  8. Philippines
  9. Singapore
  10. Thailand
  11. Vietnam

The name for the region was first coined in the 20th century. It was previously known as Further India (as opposed to the Indian subcontinent). The subregion includes 11 countries, some on the mainland, which is also known as Peninsular Southeast Asia or Indochina and some wholly in the archipelago.

Topography of the subregion

Southeast Asia lies on the intersection of geological plates, with heavy seismic and volcanic activity. Island arcs and archipelagoes lie southeast and also east of the Asian mainland. Southeast Asia is geographically divided into two regions, namely Indochina and the Malay Archipelago.

Indochina or sometimes mainland Southeast Asia includes all of :

Topography of Southeast Asia
Topography of Southeast Asia
Relief Map of SE Asia on the globe at the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois
Relief Map of SE Asia on the globe at the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois
Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu

The Malay archipelago (Malay: Nusantara), variously Malay World, an ethno-cultural notion, or maritime Southeast Asia consists of:

Malaysia is divided by the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia is on the mainland while East Malaysia is on Borneo, the largest islands in the region. However, Malaysia is often considered an archipelagic nation.

Geologically the Malay archipelago is very interesting, being one of the most active vulcanological regions in the world. Geological uplifts in the region have also produced some impressive mountains, culminating in Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo with a height of 4 101 m and also Puncak Jaya in Irian Jaya, Indonesia at 4 884 m, on the island of New Guinea.

There are various conflicting territorial and/or maritime claims, both among these countries and even involving other parties (notably both Chinas in the case of the Spratly Islands).

Contrary to common misconception, most of the inhabitants of archipelagic Southeast Asia are not Pacific Islanders. However, it is worth noted that the eastern parts of Indonesia (east of Wallace line) are geographically parts of Oceania.


Southeast Asia has an area of approx. 4,000,000 km² (1.6 million sq miles). As of 2004, more than 593 million people lived in the region, far over a sixth of them (+114 million) on the Indonesian island of Java, the most densely populated island in the world. The distribution of the religions and people is diverse in Southeast Asia and varies by country. And about 28 million Overseas Chinese are living here. see Chinatowns

Ethnic groups in the subregion

  • Brunei: Malay (69%), Chinese (18%), Indigenous Bruneians (6%), Others (7%)
  • Cambodia: Khmer (94%), Chinese (4%), Vietnamese (1%), Others (mostly Chams) (1%)
  • East Timor: Tetun (10%), Mambae (8%), Makasae (8%), Tukudede (6%), Bunak (5%), Galoli (5%), Kemak (5%), Fataluku (3%), Baikeno (2%), Others (48%)
  • Indonesia: Javanese (45%), Sundanese (14%), Madurese (8%), Others (33%)
  • Laos: Lowland Lao (56%), Lao Theung (34%), Lao Soung (10%)
  • Malaysia: Malay and Orang Asli (60%), Chinese (30%), Tamil (6.4%), Others (2%)
  • Myanmar: Burman (68%), Shan (9%), Karen (6%), Rakhine (4%), Others (includes Chinese and Indo-Aryan) (13%)
  • Philippines: Filipino (80%), Chinese (10%), Indo-Aryan (5%), Europeans and Americans (2%), Arab (1%), Others (2%)
  • Singapore: Chinese (76%), Malay (15%), Indo-Aryan (7%), Others (2%)
  • Thailand: Thai (75%), Chinese (14%), Malay (4%), Khmer (3%), Others (4%)
  • Vietnam: Vietnamese (88%), Chinese (4%), Thai (2%), Others (6%)

Religions in the subregion

Countries in mainland Southeast Asia practise mainly Buddhism. These countries are Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Singapore's population also largely practises Buddhism. In the Malay Archipelago, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are mainly Muslim. Christianity is predominant in the Philippines and East Timor.

The religious composition for each country is as follows:

  • Brunei: Islam (67%), Buddhism (13%), Christianity (10%), indigenous beliefs, and others(10%)
  • Cambodia: Theravada Buddhism (93%), Animism, and others
  • East Timor: Christianity (95%)
  • Indonesia: Islam (81%), Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others
  • Laos: Theravada Buddhism (60%), Animism, and others (40%)
  • Malaysia: Islam (61%), Mahayana Buddhism (20%), Christianity, Hinduism, and Animism
  • Myanmar: Theravada Buddhism (89%), Islam (4%), Christianity (4%), Hinduism (1%), and Animism
  • Philippines: Christianity (92%), Islam (5%), Buddhism and others (3%)
  • Singapore: Chinese Religions (Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) (51%), Islam (15%), Christianity (14%), Hinduism (4%), others(16%)
  • Thailand: Theravada Buddhism (95%), Islam (3%), Hinduism, Christianity, and Taoism
  • Vietnam: Mahayana Buddhism (50%), Confucianism, and Christianity

Religions and peoples are diverse in Southeast Asia and not one country is homogenous. In the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, Hinduism is dominant on islands such as Bali. Christianity also predominates in Papua and Timor. Pockets of Hindu population can also be found around Southeast Asia in Singapore, Malaysia etc. Garuda (Sanskrit: Garuḍa), the phoenix who is the mount (vahanam) of Vishnu, is a national symbol in both Thailand and Indonesia; in the Philippines, gold images of Garuda have been found on Palawan; gold images of other Hindu gods and goddesses have also been found on Mindanao. It should be noted that Balinese Hinduism is somewhat different from Hinduism practised elsewhere as Animism and local culture is incorporated into it. Christian can also be found throughout Southeast Asia; they are in the majority in East Timor and the Philippines, Asia's largest Christian nation. In addition, there are also older tribal religious practices in remote areas of Sarawak in East Malaysia and Irian Jaya in eastern Indonesia. In Vietnam, the form of Mahayana Buddhism practiced is heavily influenced by the Animism and tribal religions, of the native peoples of the region. With a heavier importance placed upon Ancestor Worship that is different from many of Vietnam's cutural neighbors.

Languages in the subregion

It should be noted that each of the languages have been influenced by cultural pressures due to trade and historical colonization as well. Thus, for example, a Filipino, educated in English and Tagalog, as well as in his native tongue (ex., Visayan), might well speak another language, such as Japanese for economic reasons; a Malaysian might well speak Chinese as well as English, again for economic reasons.

The official languages have been italicized

  • Brunei: Malay, Chinese dialects, indigenous Borneian dialects
  • Cambodia: Khmer, Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Chamic dialects
  • East Timor: Tetun, Portuguese, Mambae, Makasae, Tukudede, Bunak, Galoli, Kemak, Fataluku, Baikeno, other Timorese dialects
  • Indonesia: Bahasa Indonesian, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Balinese,
  • Laos: Lao, Miao, Mien, Dao, Shan, and other Tibeto-Burman derived languages
  • Malaysia: Bahasa Malaysian, Chinese dialects, Tamil, other Indian languages.
  • Myanmar: Burmese, Shan dialects, Karen dialects, Arakan, Kachin, Chin, Chinese, Mon, other Indian hilltribes dialects, other Chinese dialects, English
  • Philippines: Filipino, English, Tagalog, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Ilocano, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Bicolano, Maranao, Maguindanao, other Chinese dialects, other Spanish dialects, other Indian languages, Arabic dialects, other Philippine languages and dialects
  • Singapore: Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, English, other Chinese dialects, other Indian languages, Arabic dialects.
  • Thailand: Thai, Chinese dialects, Isan, Shan, Lue, Phutai, Khmer, Mon, Mein, Hmong, Karen, Vietnamese
  • Vietnam: Vietnamese, Tay, Muong, Khmer, Chinese dialects, Nung, Hmong, Tai Dam, and other languages and dialects.


Water Buffalo, Indonesia
Water Buffalo, Indonesia
Wallace's hypothetical line between Australasian and Southeast Asian fauna.
Wallace's hypothetical line between Australasian and Southeast Asian fauna.

The animals of Southeast Asia are diverse; on the island of Borneo, the Orangutan (man of the forest), the Asian Elephant, the Sumatran Rhinoceros and the Clouded Leopard can be also found. The bearcat can be found on the island of Palawan.

The Water Buffalo, both domesticated and wild, can be found all over Southeast Asia, where once it was found in much greater extent in South Asia, for example. The mouse deer, a small tusked deer as large as a dog or cat, can be found on Sumatra and Borneo; the animal figures in many Indonesian folktales and is thus known to children.

Beautiful birds such as the peafowl and drongo live in this Asia subregion as far east as Indonesia. The babirusa, a four-tusked pig, can be found in Indonesia as well. The hornbill was prized for its beak and used in trade with China. The horn of the rhinoceros, not part of its skull, was prized in China as well.

The Indonesian Archipelago is split by the Wallace Line. This line runs along what is now known to be a tectonic plate boundary, and separates Asian (Western) species from Australasian (Eastern) species. The islands between Java/Borneo and Papua form a mixed zone, where both types occur, known as Wallacea.

The shallow waters of the Southeast Asian coral reefs have the highest levels of biodiversity for the world's marine ecosystems, where coral, fish and molluscs abound. The whale shark can be found in the South China Sea.

The trees and other plants of the region are tropical; in some countries where the mountains are tall enough, temperate-climate vegetation can be found. These rainforest areas are currently being logged-over, especially in Borneo.

While Southeast Asia is rich in flora and fauna, Southeast Asia is facing severe deforestation which causes habitat loss for various endangered species such as orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. At the same time, haze has been a regular occurrence. The worst regional haze occurred in 1998 in which multiple countries were covered with thick haze. In reaction, several countries in Southeast Asia signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in order to combat haze pollution.


The Petronas Towers express the region's recent growth, but also stand for the grand economic ambition of "Asian values".
The Petronas Towers express the region's recent growth, but also stand for the grand economic ambition of "Asian values".

The Southeast Asian islands are a major source of world petroleum supplies; the region is also a center for logging.

Southeast Asia has experienced great economic growth since the 1980s; Singapore was one of the four original "East Asian Tigers" and in recent years Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have often been considered a new brood of "tigers." Tiger refers to the rapid growth of these economies. Much of this growth has been driven by foreign direct investment in local industries; the money came from the U.S. and Japanese TNCs; later from international investment portfolios. Because of this international investment, Southeast Asia was often considered an example of globalized capitalism by international economic experts. On a local level however, the growth was interpreted somewhat differently: "Asian values", a model of authoritarian governments firmly guiding economies toward rapid development, have been promoted by some regional leaders; confidence in this model was shaken by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which occasioned a period of more cautious, slower growth. All of the southeast-asian states except East Timor are members of ASEAN. The ASEAN Free Trade Area has reduced tariff barriers between regional economies; the signatories have agreed to extend a free trade agreement with the People's Republic of China and Japan in coming years.

While Singapore is the 2nd busiest Port in the world and a major Financial and Banking hub, Malaysia is the world largest exporter of Oil Palm.

In sharp contrast to the hub of economic development, Singapore, there is persistent poverty in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Two Southeast Asian countries, Laos and Vietnam, are ruled by Communist parties; these have since 1986 both been gradually transitioning from planned to market economies. The poverty is a consequence of the war this region was embroiled in from 1941 to 1975, in Cambodia fighting continued until the late 1990s. Vietnam combines free market capitalism and communism, attracting multinationals, and encouraging small entrepreneurs. It has developed into the most prosperous of the three countries, even though it ranks among the world's poorest countries. Laos and Cambodia experience difficulties because of their rough or isolated terrain and their lacking infrastructure.


The Banaue Rice Terraces
The Banaue Rice Terraces

Rice paddy agriculture has existed in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, ranging across the subregion. Some dramatic examples of these rice paddies populate the Banaue Rice Terraces in the mountains of Northern Luzon in the Philippines, and in Indonesia. Maintenance of these paddies is very labor-intensive. The rice paddies are well-suited to the monsoon climate of the region.

Stilt houses can be found all over Southeast Asia, from Thailand and Laos, to Borneo, to Luzon in the Philippines, to Papua New Guinea.


Thai (lunar)
Thai (solar)

The chief cultural influences over the Southeast Asian peoples in past few millennia have been from India as evidenced by the forms of writing, such as the Balinese writing shown on split palm leaf called lontar, below:

Balinese writing on palm leaf. Artifact can be seen in the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois
Balinese writing on palm leaf. Artifact can be seen in the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois

The antiquity of this form of writing extends before the invention of paper 100 CE, in China. Note each palm leaf section was only several lines, written longitudinally across the leaf, and bound by twine to the other sections. The outer portion was decorated. The alphabets of Southeast Asia tended to be abugidas, until the arrival of the Europeans, who used words that also ended in consonants, not just vowels. Other forms of official documents, which did not use paper, included Javanese copperplate scrolls. This would have been more durable in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia.

Besides writing and weaponry, such as the distinctive Kris, other metalworking was used for musical instruments; the gamelan instruments consisted of gongs and other tonal, but percussive music. Most of the traditional music is based on a pentatonic scale as per Chinese influences.

Dance in Southeast Asia also includes movement of the hands, as well as the feet. Puppetry and shadow plays were also a favored form of entertainment in past centuries. The Arts and Literature in South East Asia is deeply influenced by Hinduism brought to them centuries ago. In Indonesia and Malaysia, though they converted to Islam, they retained many forms of Hindu influenced practices, Cultures, Arts and Literature. An example will be the Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppet) and literatures like the Ramayana. This is also true for mainland South East Asia (excluding Vietnam). Dance movements, Hindu gods, Arts were also fused into Thai, Khmer, Laotian and Burmese cultures. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese share many cultural similarity with the Chinese. Examples would be the national costume of Vietnam, Ao Dai influenced by the Qi pao (Cheong Sam) of China and the Mahayana form of Buddhism which the Chinese and Vietnamese alike adhere to.

The peoples of Southeast Asia were trained to carry burdens on their heads; it was a common sight to see a child balancing a small object like a bowl on her head, in distinction to her mother or aunt balancing a much larger load.

As a rule, the peoples who ate with their fingers were more likely influenced by the culture of India, for example, than the culture of China, where the peoples first ate with chopsticks; tea, as a beverage, can be found across the region.



The religion of Southeast Asia was originally animist, then Theravada Buddhist (525 CE) and Hindu. Later influences in Indonesia and Malaysia were from Islam (1400s) and Christianity (1500s). The last Hindu court in Indonesia was to retreat to Bali by the later 1400s. In Mainland South East Asia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand retained the Theravada form of Buddhism that was brought to them from Sri Lanka and fused Buddhism with Hindu influenced Khmer culture. Countries in South East Asia, like Thailand, also eschewed from Christianity even though Christian missionaries were widespread. However, the Thais absorbed the science and technology from these Christian missionaries from the west so as to resist colonialism. King Mongkut (Rama IV) once remarked to a Christian missionary friend: "What you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to believe is foolish".

The peoples of the South East have been seafarers for thousands of years, some reaching the island of Madagascar where their descendants live to this day. Their vessels were ocean-worthy well before the explorers from Europe were to reach them. Magellan's voyage records how much more maneuverable their vessels were, as compared to the European ships.Bergreen

Chinese merchants have followed the winds and currents of the monsoon season across Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Magellan's voyage records that Brunei possessed more cannon than the European ships; it was Chinese engineers who fortified Brunei, before 1521. Bergreen


The Peranakan are an unique Straits Chinese community that are found mostly in Malaysia and Singapore, though many can also be found in Indonesia. Large communities of the Peranakans can be found in Penang and Malacca (Malaysia) and Singapore. They have roots tracing to that of Hokkien from Fujian province, Southern China who intermarried with non Muslims Malay people like the Bataks and Balinese. Others say they were descendents of servants of Hang Li Poh who intermarried with locals. They retained the names, religions and cultures of their Chinese fathers while absorbing the language, food and culture of their Malay mothers.


Main articles: History of Southeast Asia, Southeast Asian Buddhism, Hinduism in Southeast Asia, History of Asia, History of present-day nations and states, History of Brunei, History of Cambodia, History of Indonesia, History of Laos, History of Malaysia, History of Myanmar, History of the Philippines, History of Singapore, History of Thailand, History of Vietnam
Architecture in the Srivijayan style
Architecture in the Srivijayan style

Solheim and others have shown evidence for a Nusantao (Nusantara) maritime trading network ranging from Vietnam to the rest of the archipelago as early as 5000 BCE to 1 CE) Solheim2000

Oppenheimer and others have shown evidence for Indonesia as the original location for the Pacific Islanders.Oppenheimer2001

Historical ties with the rest of the world

The Indian Ocean is comparatively more tranquil than the Southern Ocean, which aided the colonization of Madagascar by the Malay people, and the commerce between West Asia and Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean is far calmer and thus open to trade earlier than the Atlantic or Pacific. The powerful monsoons also meant ships could easily sail them west early in the season, then wait a few months and return eastwards.

The gold from Sumatra reached as far west as Rome, two thousand years ago. Gold coins were in use on the coasts, but not inland of Sumatra. By the 1500s, European explorers were reaching Southeast Asia from the west Portugal and from the east Spain. A regular trade between the sailing ships east, from the Indian Ocean and south from mainland Asia provided goods in return for natural products such as honey and hornbill beaks from the islands of the archipelago.

Strait of Malacca, narrows, marked in red
Strait of Malacca, narrows, marked in red

A Chinese emperor who wished to maintain ties with Southeast Asia sent a princess, Hang Li Po, with a retinue of 500 to Malacca, to marry its Sultan after he was impressed by the wisdom of King Mansur. Hang Li Po's well (constructed 1459) is now a tourist attraction there, as is Bukit Cina, where her retinue settled. The strategic value of the Strait of Malacca, which was controlled by Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th and early 16th century, did not go unnoticed by Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa, who in 1500 wrote "He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice".

But today strategic value also lies in manufacture of the world's microprocessors, for example, much of which lies in Southeast Asia, and in the shipments of oil in the region.

Relationship to Australasia

The Australasian continental plate defines a region adjacent to Southeast Asia, which is also politically separated from the countries of Southeast Asia. But a cultural touchpoint lies between Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua, which shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea. A considerable colonization effort of Papua is underway.

Literature of Southeast Asia

Main article Literature of Southeast Asia

The history of Southeast Asia has led to a wealth of different authors from both within and without writing about the region.

See also


  • ^  Solheim, Journal of East Asian Archaeology, 2000, 2:1-2, pp. 273-284(12)
  • ^  Oppenheimer and Richards, Science Progress 2001, 84 (3), pp.157–181
  • ^  Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, hardcover 480 pages, ISBN 0066211735

External links

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