Central Themes for a Unit on Southeast Asia

by Amy Freedman, Associate Research Scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University & Professor of Political Science, Pace University

Originally designed in the 1980s to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement, the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — and of South and Southeast Asia also.


Southeast Asia is best characterized by the theme of diversity.

Since Southeast Asia is here treated as a region, of many possible themes, one is suggested as illustrative the history of Southeast Asia and its relation to the world: Southeast Asia is best characterized by the theme of diversity. The region is home to

  • Large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.
  • Dozens, if not hundreds, of languages, dialects, and writing systems are used.
  • Political systems vary too. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, Vietnam and Laos are ruled by Communist Parties, East Timor and Indonesia have governments with a high degree of democratic rights and liberties, the Philippines and Malaysia are less free versions of democracies, Singapore and Cambodia are one party dominant states; lastly, there are governments where the military plays a significant role (Thailand and Myanmar).
  • Levels of wealth and human well-being also vary: Singapore has one of the highest standards of living globally, and Laos and East Timor are two of the poorest countries in the world.
  • The topography ranges from lush and tropical to mountainous.

Southeast Asia is a region at the crossroads. Over the last two hundred years it has been the site of great power competition, a source of natural resources, and a place of rapid change and economic development. These dynamics continue to define and shape the region today.

Political Map of Southeast Asia

Noteworthy Aspects of Each Country in SE Asia: (in alphabetical order)


An absolute monarchy with very high standards of living due to large deposits of oil and gas. Islam is the dominant religion and cultural characteristic. Controversial laws have been passed outlawing same sex relations and making it punishable by death, drawing global condemnation.


After the murderous regime of Pol Pot in the 1970s, Cambodia is far more stable and integrated with the regional and global economy. Hun Sen has served as Prime Minister since 1985 and his Cambodian People’s Party dominates the political process.

East Timor (Timor Leste)

The newest country in Southeast Asia, it celebrated 20 years of Independence (from Indonesia and from Portugal). The country is predominantly Catholic. Levels of poverty continue to be quite high, but the country demonstrates that economic growth need not be a prerequisite for democracy.


The largest country in the region, and the largest Muslim country in the world. There are large communities of Hindus and Christians, and other minority communities like the Ahmadiyah. Indonesia made a transition to democracy in 1998 and while they continue to have regular and very competitive elections, there have been troubling trends that undercut democratic rights and liberties, particularly for minority communities.


Laos is a socialist state, governed by the Communist Party. It is the only land-locked state in Southeast Asia. While ethnically diverse, ethnicity and religion are not sources of conflict. The country is one of the poorest in the region, but it has developed close ties to China and other neighboring countries and has embarked on large dam building projects to generate electricity to sell to neighboring countries to meet energy needs.


Malaysia’s political life and society in general is organized along ethnic and religious lines. The largest group are ethnic Malays and they are a little over 50% of the population. Ethnic Chinese comprise about 20-25%, ethnic Indians around 10%, and other indigenous groups make up the rest. English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil are all widely spoken, and Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity are all practiced. Ethnic Malays dominate the political process and Islam is the national religion, minority rights have been weakened over time.

Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar is the most diverse country in the region: with myriad of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups in the country. Several of the tribal groups have fought long running separatist campaigns against the state. Myanmar has undergone periods of socialism, followed by military rule. More recently, elections have taken place where opposition groups were able to compete and win large numbers of seats, yet, the military still dominates politics and the economy. The military, in conjunction with local militias and vigilantes, has carried out horrific ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohighya community.

The Philippines

The Philippines made a transition to democracy when Marcos was pushed out of power in 1986. While the country was cheered for it’s ‘people’s power’, economic development lagged and the country trailed its neighbors during high periods of economic growth. Current president Duterte has undermined democracy by going after those who oppose him; shutting down newspapers and broadcast stations, arresting opposition politicians and journalists and allowing and encouraging extra judicial killings of those accused of drug dealing.


A constitutional monarchy, the military and the palace have outsized power in the country. Thailand’s international reputation as a tolerant destination for tourism (including luxury resorts on beautiful beaches, budget and laid-back resorts for backpackers, and sex tourism), belies a society in turmoil. Buddhism is the dominant religion, but Muslims in the South have long-standing grievances against Bangkok. After years of partisan gridlock in politics, the military seized power in a 2014 coup. Despite finally holding elections in 2019, the military still holds a preponderance of power in government.


Unified under Communist control in 1975, Vietnam has finally reaped the benefits of stability. Economic reforms begun in the 1990s have produced high levels of economic growth and the country is rapidly catching up to its middle income neighbors. While Vietnamese enjoy more economic and personal freedom, there is no political freedom or protection of rights and recently the government has increased control over the internet and social media.

I. Physical and Cultural Environment


Southeast Asia is the region that lies east of India and south of China. The Chinese knew it for at least a thousand years as the Southern Islands. The region became known as Southeast Asia only during World War II. Southeast Asia is bordered by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean and includes thousands of islands. Ocean trade and navigation have been important since earliest times. Indeed it was the Malays who invented the Lateen sail, which revolutionized sailing in the 8th century. Originating in Southeast Asia where monsoon winds blow in one direction for several months, this invention permitted navigators to catch the wind even while their ships headed almost directly into it.

Following the map which appears at the end of this guide, from west to east, one sees that Southeast Asia includes the countries that are now known as MYANMAR (BURMA), THAILAND, LAOS, CAMBODIA and VIETNAM, all part of the Southeast Asian mainland. And then, following the map South and to the East, the region includes MALAYSIA, which is made up of the Malayan peninsula and two states on the north coast of the island of Borneo; the small city-state of SINGAPORE at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula; the small state of BRUNEI on the north coast of Borneo; the archipelago of large and small islands that comprise INDONESIA, extending to and including the western half of the island of New Guinea; in the midst of the Indonesian archipelago, the half-island state of EAST TIMOR, independent since 1999; and the further archipelago of large and small islands to the North that comprise the PHILIPPINES.

The clash of the tectonic plates has created a major line of earthquakes and volcanic activity. Indeed, a large percentage of all the active volcanoes in the world lies in island Southeast Asia, and they have been a major factor in human settlement. The volcanoes bring large quantities of minerals from the depths of the earth up to the surface, and from here they are spewed across the landscape and into the air, fertilizing the soils and making them ideal for intensive farming. In areas where volcanoes remain active, such as the islands of Luzon in the Philippines and Java in Indonesia, the density of human populations is among the highest in the world. Elsewhere, tropical rainfall feeds the growth of tropical jungles, but the soils are thin, and the population scanty.

Cultural Influences

Southeast Asia has been influenced by neighbors like China and India, as well as by colonization by European powers and later relationships with the United States. The earliest influences came from different migrations from China into mainland and archipelagic Southeast Asia. Chinese control over Vietnam ended in 1427 but Confucian values had a lasting influence.

Buddhist influences spread via trade routes across the straights and influenced communities throughout Java and Bali. Theravada Buddhism spread from southern India and Ceylon, while Mahayana Buddhism, practiced in northeast Asia in China, Japan, and Korea, spread with Chinese trade and migration. Rulers and courts adopted Hinduism, a reflection of the role and influence of traders from India. In the 13th Century,

Islam began to spread in Southeast Asia through multiple routes, reflecting the extensiveness of trade and interaction. Often a local ruler would adopt Islam and the rituals and customs were adapted and localized making it more likely to catch on and spread. Most Muslims in Southeast Asia today follow Sunni practices, but there are small communities of Shiites, and those following Islamic sects like the Ahmadiyah. Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia are Muslim dominated countries, while Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar are predominantly Buddhist. The Philippines and East Timor are mostly Christian. No country in Southeast Asia is completely homogeneous and religious (and ethnic) diversity is a continuing source of tension in many countries. Countries with the highest levels of religious discord include Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines.

There are diverse and rich cultural traditions of music, dance, and puppetry throughout the region. Indonesia is known for gamelan playing, Balinese dance, and shadow puppets (wayang kulit) performing stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharta. In Cambodia, Khmer court dances have returned to a place of pride and are performed by the National Dance Company of Cambodia and companies outside of Cambodia.

Strategic Position

As the name of the region states, south of China, east of India, the region has played a significant role in international great power competition. During the 19th Century, European powers competed against each other for access to abundant natural resources: spices, rubber, tin, and cooper. The region has long been significant for trade routes that connect Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. This became especially important during WWII as the Japanese overran the Europeans and created The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In the post-WWII period, Southeast Asia’s waterways were strategically important for the US both to protect trade routes throughout the Pacific, and to protect US military allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand). US power in the Pacific was unmatched until recently. China’s economic and military growth has posed new challenges both for the US and for countries in Southeast Asia. China’s navy and coast guard have become more assertive in the South China Seas and China is actively backing up their sovereignty claims over a number of disputed islands and outcroppings. This is in direct conflict with competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, and it challenges the US desire to maintain freedom of navigation throughout the region, and it challenges US naval supremacy in Asia Pacific.

II. Historical Context

Southeast Asia has been both the source and recipient of cultural, economic, and political production and knowledge. Sophisticated metalworking and rice agriculture can be traced back to the end of the third millennium BCE in Thailand and Vietnam. Advanced sailing and navigational skills spread over a wide area contributing to significant flows of trade, migrations and sharing of knowledge. Local kingdoms or sultanates developed in major river valleys and plains where rulers levied taxes from subjects in labor. One example: the Khmer (Cambodian) state thrived between the 9th and 13th Century and was one of the most impressive of the Southeast Asia states. Their singular architectural achievement included Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat temple complexes.


Between 1403 and 1433, Ming-dynasty China had sent several enormous flotillas of large vessels to ports like Malacca. The purpose of these journeys, led by the Muslim court eunuch Zheng He, was to secure diplomatic and trade advantages for the Chinese and to extend the influence of the ambitious Yongle emperor. However, Chinese interest in maritime exploration waned and soon European powers would come to dominate. The Portuguese first arrived in Malacca (Malaysia) in the early 1500s. They were followed by other European powers seeking spices. The Europeans, unlike other traders, were not content to compete with others for commerce, they wanted to monopolize access and drive down the cost. From the 1600’s to the 1800’s European powers intensified their commercial interests in Southeast Asia and used military force and treaties with local rulers to secure those interests. By the 1800s, European states were establishing formal colonial governments. The Dutch consolidated control in Indonesia, the French controlled Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; and the British controlled Burma (now Myanmar), Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore; Portugal controlled East Timor. Thailand was the only country in the region not to have come under formal colonial rule. Instead, the Thai court was able to use their location as a buffer between French and British controlled colonies to maintain a modicum of sovereignty. Colonial regimes often used ethnic divisions to divide and conquer and favored some groups in society for access to education, the colonial administration, and economic niches.

Independence Movements and Nation Building

After Japan’s defeat in WWII and their withdrawal from Southeast Asia, European states came back to reassert control. Independence movements, which had gained access to weapons and training fighting against Japan during WWII, gained strength across the region. The French and Dutch were forced out after violent clashes, the British left through a more negotiated process. Throughout the region in 1950s-60s, newly independent regimes needed to create governing systems and create national identities out of diverse ethnic and religious communities. This was a very problematic process. Some of the most significant sources of conflict were between Communist groups and pro-Western forces, and there was a great deal of conflict over which ethnic and religious groups would dominate the new political processes. The worst episodes of violence were the war in Vietnam (and neighboring Cambodia and Laos), first between the French and the nationalist/Communist Vietnamese forces, and then against the Americans until 1975. Horrific violence also occurred in Indonesia after a failed coup attempt in 1965 was blamed on Indonesian Communists. 500,000 (estimates of those killed range between 100,000 and 2 million) people were killed between 1965-1967, in a supposed effort to root out Communists. In Cambodia, Pol Pot’s murderous regime wiped out 1.5-2 million Cambodians in an attempt to create a Maoist agrarian paradise. Even in countries without horrible violence, the Cold War period saw governments across the region use the threat of Communism to crack down on a variety of groups in society seeking greater freedoms and rights. This was the case in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

III. Contemporary Issues in Southeast Asia

Ethnic and Religious Tensions

While ideological conflict over capitalism vs. communism has ended, ethnic and religious divisions continue to be a source of tension. In Malaysia, the most powerful political parties are organized based on ethnic identity: the United Malay Nasional Organization for ethnic Malays (indigenous to Malaysia), the Malaysian Chinese Association for the ethnic Chinese, and the Malaysian Indian Congress for ethnic Indians. Ethnic violence after the 1969 election led to an ethnic bargain: Malays would control politics and ethnic Chinese and Indians would have a junior position politically and would acquiesce to an economic affirmative action program to address poverty in the Malay community. In return, stability would keep the minorities from being targets of violence. In Myanmar, ethnic and religiously based violence has continued. The dominant Burmans (who are Buddhist) have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minorities in outlying states, most recently engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide against Muslim Rohingya. Military campaigns against Muslim communities (seeking greater autonomy) have also been waged in Thailand and in the Philippines.


One of the common needs in Southeast Asia is economic development. In 1945, all countries confronted desperate levels of poverty, and low levels of industrialization. Capitalism and socialism offered dramatically different models for how to overcome poverty. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar were ruled by Communist or Socialist parties, and they embarked on socialist economic development. The rest of the region followed more capitalist models of economic development, albeit, with high levels of state guidance and planning. Singapore has achieved the highest standard of living; comparable to Western Europe and East Asian states like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Brunei, due to large oil and gas reserves and a small population, also counts among the world’s wealthiest nations. Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are middle income countries. Vietnam, after economic reforms were initiated in the 1990s, has been growing rapidly. Cambodia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos, and East Timor, still contend with high levels of poverty. Corruption is endemic to the region, excepting Singapore. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia have industrialized and become part of global supply chains. Textiles, auto parts, petrochemicals, palm oil, and mining are all prevalent in the region and have linked Southeast Asia to economies in North American, Europe and elsewhere.


Southeast Asia, like Eastern Europe and Latin America, had a democratic period from the late 1980s through the early 2000s where authoritarian regimes gave way to internal and external pressure for greater electoral competition and greater rights and freedoms. From toppling Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in the mid- 1980s, to the fall of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998, autocrats were pushed aside. Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia and Singapore all saw greater electoral competition and greater activism in society. Even Myanmar’s military rulers opened up the political process, allowing the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) to compete for seats in the legislature in 2015 and to share power. Elections were held in 2019 in Thailand and Indonesia, the year before in Malaysia and Cambodia. Yet, democratic gains have been undermined and in some cases completely rolled back. Since 2014, the following troubling occurrences have been documented: extra judicial killings in the Philippines, state-assisted genocide in Myanmar, one-party rule in Cambodia, continued military rule in Thailand, the revival of Malay-dominant politics in Malaysia, and anti-tolerant and anti-liberal behavior and politicking in Indonesia (where minorities like ethnic Chinese, Christians, and sects like the Ahmadiyah, have been targets of disinformation, harassment, and discrimination). Overall, since 2014, there has been a weakening of political rights and freedoms across Southeast Asia and more countries have reverted to authoritarian rule.

IV. Global Relations

Southeast Asia’s geostrategic significance has persisted. The South China Seas, connecting east Asia and the Pacific with the Indian Ocean and then the Middle East, was of keen interest to Europeans in the 18th and 19th Century, to Japan during WWII; and under American naval power since 1945, it is now the site of competition between the US and China.

  • The US would like to protect freedom of navigation and trade in the South China Seas and to protect long standing US allies like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, countries in Southeast Asia are strengthening their ties with China through trade deals and Chinese infrastructure assistance (through their ‘belt and road initiative’). Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos already enjoy close ties with China. And, leaders in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines have also shown greater openness to ties with China.
  • Muslim countries in Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia have developed closer ties to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has been the source of a great deal of funding for mosque building, and money for religious education, health centers, and other Islamic cultural projects. They have also donated a great deal of money for Southeast Asians to make pilgrimages to the holy sites in the Kingdom. Saudi money has coincided with increasing religious conservatism and a greater desire in Indonesia and Malaysia to have policies reflect Islamic values. This conservatism clashes with groups in society who are advocating for greater individual rights and freedoms, for example, those pushing for greater rights for women and the LGBTQ community.

Conclusion: Diversity Today

Diversity has been one of Southeast Asia greatest sources of strength; producing vibrant cultural arts traditions and cuisines celebrated around the world. Economic growth and openness to the world has improved the lives of millions in the region, yet, diversity continues to be a source of competition and conflict.